Learning where to start

Cairo, where I was stationed in the 1940s as a government intelligence analyst and later as a radio correspondent, lingers in my mind as a kaleidoscope of memories: the Giza pyramids, dim and majestic from my balcony; mosques and minarets lighting up the Old Quarter after dark in a dazzling Arabian Nights display; goats wandering placidly along the banks of biblical canals. Scents and sounds float back: the mingled spices of a canvas-roofed bazaar blended into the heavy sweetness of night jasmine along the Nile; the lonely piercing wail of a muezzin and the murmur of Mayfair accents on the terrace of Shepheard's Hotel, where British colonels gathered to sip their imperial lemonade.

Over the years, some images of Cairo have remained indelible. Others have changed, like the shifting patterns of a shuffled kaleidoscope, in response to random stimulation. Awakened by the squawk of auto horns in New York, I have heard again the din of traffic along Suleiman Pasha Street, the braying of donkeys, the early morning slap of dusty carpets against balcony railings. When political storms broke over Egypt in the early 1950s, I was carried back to the stinging contrasts of the colonial era: posh Western country clubs amid the hovels of rural fellaheen; the well-groomed Egyptian senator who, gazing down from his Medici-style mansion at ragged Cairenes swarming over an ancient trolley, likened his countrymen to ''so many flies.''

Two decades after Egypt I was back again under blue subtropical skies, this time writing films in Hollywood. Restless in what I found an oppressively competitive milieu, I had begun an inward search for more enduring values. This gained impetus with the arrival of the space age, bearing its unmistakable message of human interdependence. Groping toward a future in a more sharing, caring universe, I discovered that I was looking back on a newly illumined past. From the great anonymous mass of Egypt, as crowded with figures as an Orozco mural, faces all but forgotten leaped into sudden consciousness. I remembered Ibrahim, a ''houseboy'' of 40, struggling stubbornly through lessons in reading from his 12-year-old son. And Said Yassin, who to promote the dignity of workers in his small glass factory created unheard-of facilities for study and recreation. And I remembered Mustafa.

I first encountered him, a fellow boarder in Mme. Dufond's pension, at breakfast: a quiet, wiry little man half-hidden behind a luxuriant gray mustache. Despite the heat of the Cairo summer--it would be well over 100 degrees by noon--he wore a brown tie with his immaculate white shirt.

''Good morning, sir.'' Sharp humorous black eyes looked up from the hard-boiled egg on his plate. ''I trust you have slept well?'' His manner was polite but not deferential. We introduced ourselves. He took a last swallow of thick Turkish coffee, picked up a small leather briefcase, plopped a red fez on his head, and was gone.

A few days later we met again at teatime, when Cairo yawns its way back to life after the long midday siesta. Mustafa was in Madame's parlor, sipping hot mint tea and sifting through a pile of newspapers: two Arabic dailies, the English-language Egyptian Gazette and La Bourse Egyptienne. From his laborious scanning of the Bourse headlines, it was obvious that his French was limited; I sensed a hunger for a wider world.

That evening, Mme. Dufond provided a little fill-in. Mustafa was a civil servant, some sort of irrigation engineer, who every morning made his rounds through the nearby villages of the Nile countryside. He was a widower with a son apprenticed to an archaeologist at Luxor. And he was ''pour un Egyptien, tres cultive.''

The following week, I was alone in the parlor preparing for a late-night broadcast when Mustafa came in. On impulse, I asked if he knew anything about the early history of Cairo's Coptic community. He nodded, disappeared into his room, and returned with a year-old clipping from the Egyptian Gazette. It had exactly the material I wanted.

Thereafter, when I needed quick, accurate information I knew where to go. Mustafa in turn was happy to dip into my small English-language library, devouring poetry and politics alike but rarely venturing any comment.

Came September and a rising, suffocating Nile. To my mild astonishment, Mustafa did not curtail his schedule. On the contrary, his workday seemed longer. And the bureaucratic briefcase was now supplemented by a bulging knapsack. I suppressed my curiosity--for a while. Finally I asked about the knapsack.

Mustafa smiled, a little sadly, and lifted its flap. A can of New Zealand beef came into view, and a bar of chocolate. ''Most of the fellaheen in my district are barely at subsistence level,'' he said. ''They broil in the summer sun, shiver at night in winter. What good does it do for me simply to give them clever advice, then leave them to shift for themselves? A man who is hungry is not going to put his mind on anything else. So I bring a bit of beef, powdered milk for the children, a blanket. With the necessities taken care of he may be encouraged to learn, to become all he is capable of becoming. Who knows what treasures may lie like seeds in his brain, waiting only for the proper nourishment? After all, we irrigate the fields. . . .''

I stared at the knapsack, aware of Cairo's minuscule salaries and of the city's war-inflated prices. ''Isn't that very costly for you?''

Again the sad smile. ''It's an investment in humanity. Do you know anything more worth supporting?''

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