The Egyptian Cat
The reception for Dr. Hayret Ahmed was at the home of an Egyptian importer named Mohammed Bartouki. Barby, the boys, and Winston rang the bell of a brownstone house on New York’s Upper East Side promptly at noon.
Winston had checked with his host by phone, and his request that he be allowed to bring his young associates to meet Bartouki had been met with enthusiastic pleasure. Mohammed Bartouki had assured the scientist that he would look forward to meeting the young people of Dr. Hartson Brant’s household.
The door was opened by a figure right out of The Arabian Nights, or so it seemed to the young people. The doorman was a huge Negro dressed in flowing red trousers that tucked in at the ankles. His sandals turned up in points at the front, Persian
style. An embroidered vest set off a loose white silk shirt, and on his head was a red fez, shaped like a section of a cone, slightly less in diameter at the top than at the bottom.
“Please come in,” he requested. His voice was accented. Rick saw that he had two horizontal hairline scars on each cheek.
The man took their coats, giving Barby a courtly bow. “Dr. Bartouki asks if you will please join him in the salon. It is straight ahead.”
As they walked down the carpeted hall Barby gave Winston a smile of sheer delight. “He’s right out of a movie,” she whispered. “Even to the fez and the scars on his cheeks.”
Winston smiled back. “In Egypt a fez is called a tarboosh. The scars mean he is a Sudanese, from the country south of Egypt. I agree he’s a very picturesque type. I suspect Bartouki dressed him up for effect. It’s a common practice.”
“What’s Bartouki a doctor of?” Rick asked.
“I don’t know. Law or something similar, I imagine. He’s not a scientist or medical doctor.”
Mohammed Bartouki himself came to meet them. He was a round little man, scarcely taller than Barby, with twinkling eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses. He was dressed in an ordinary business suit.
“My dear Dr. Winston, how nice of you to come. And these are your young friends?”
Winston introduced the young people. Rick found his hand captured in a warm, firm grip.
“Welcome, welcome,” Bartouki said, beaming. “We will have an opportunity to talk about your trip to my country as soon as these scientists turn the conversation to some matter of science we do not understand.” He smiled at Winston. “You see, I know you professional people. The nationality does not matter. Put two of you together and the conversation at once turns to
some development a poor merchant cannot possibly comprehend. That is why I am glad you brought Miss Barbara, and Rick and Scotty, as you called them, if I may be so familiar. At least I can talk with them.”
Rick could see that Barby was charmed by the little merchant, and he could understand why. Bartouki radiated warmth and enthusiasm.
In a moment the four Spindrifters were being introduced to Dr. Hayret Ahmed and a bewildering assortment of people. Evidently they were all scientists of different nationalities, except for two officers of the United Arab Republic consulate. Rick recognized a few of the names, and found he knew one or two of the Americans.
True to Bartouki’s prediction, the talk turned to scientific subjects within minutes. Rick followed the conversation, which was about a new development in the capture and study of free radicals, but only for a few minutes. The scientists were over his head in short order.
Scotty chuckled. “I always thought a free radical was a political bomb thrower out of jail.”
“It’s a highly energetic chemical particle,” Rick said.
“That’s nice,” Barby said. “Only I’d rather talk with Dr. Bartouki than discuss energetic chemicals.”
The merchant arranged things very smoothly. He announced that he would not dream of allowing protocol to interfere with such a fascinating conversation, and put the scientists together at one end of the table. The officers from the consulate, evidently in deference to the distinguished Egyptian scientist, continued to listen closely to the talk, even though Rick was sure they didn’t understand a word.
The three young people found themselves free to talk with their host, and the boys at once began firing questions
Bartouki described Cairo and promised that he would present them with guidebooks to be read on the way over. He told them about things to do in the ancient city, and listed places that were “musts” for tourists. They included the step pyramid at Sakkarah, the Egyptian Museum, the mosque of Sultan Hassan, and the mosque and college of El Azhar, founded in the ninth century.
“Of course you will see a great deal of the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza, since our new radio telescope is nearby. But most of all, you must see El Mouski.”
“What is that?” Rick asked.
“It is the Cairo bazaar. There are several sections, known as sooks. They have names like Khan El Khalili, Ghooriyeh, Sagha, Sook El Nahassin, and so on, but the principal one is Mouski.”
“Spell it for me,” Barby pleaded.
Bartouki smiled. “What you ask is difficult. We use a different alphabet, so there is no exact equivalent, only what is called transliteration, which uses phonetics. So the bazaar can be Mouski, Muski, Mosky, Mouskey, or anything else that sounds the same. Even for Giza, where the pyramids are, there are many spellings.”
“I wish you’d tell my English teacher that.” Barby sighed. “I think my way of spelling is just as good as hers.”
Bartouki and the boys laughed sympathetically. The little merchant said, “Whatever the spelling, El Mouski will fascinate you. Many things are made there especially for tourists. Some of the workmanship is excellent, and the prices are very low.”
“We haven’t had much luck with bazaars that cater to tourists,” Scotty replied. “We prefer markets where local people buy, because the things are more authentic.”
Bartouki chuckled. “That is wise, in most countries. But consider. The attraction for tourists are things that are clearly Egyptian in origin, no? Such things vanished from all but our museums some years ago. You could not buy a genuine Egyptian tapestry, or a stone carving from a tomb. Such things are beyond price. They are national treasures. But you can buy very attractive and authentic reproductions.”
“The people of Cairo wouldn’t want reproductions, would they?” Barby asked. “So they have to be made just for tourists.”
“And for export,” Bartouki added. “I import them myself for a few American shops. After lunch I will show you samples and you will see.”
It seemed reasonable to Rick when he thought about it. Genuine Egyptian things simply were not obtainable. “What else is made for tourists?” he queried.
“Many things, of gold, silver, and ivory. There are bags of camel leather that Miss Barbara would enjoy having. There are brass goods of all kinds, and copperware with a partial tin coating called washed tin.”
The conversation paused long enough for a few bites of lunch, then Bartouki resumed. “We try to take good care of tourists in the United Arab Republic, both in Egypt and in Syria. For example, we license our guide-interpreters, who are called dragomen. There is also a special police force with no job but aid to tourists. And we are always looking for ways to improve our reproductions to make them more attractive and authentic. I will show you a new design.”
By the time luncheon had ended, the talk among the scientists had progressed to the basic theory of what physicists call “the solid state.” Even Rick, with his rapidly growing background of scientific knowledge, could understand only fragments of conversation.
“Let them talk over their coffee,” Bartouki said. “They are enjoying it. We will retire to my den and I will show you examples from El Mouski.”
The samples were everything Bartouki had promised. There were wall hangings, beautifully made of tiny pieces of colored cloth appliqued on a natural-color fabric, bags and pouches of leather, leather hassocks, ivory carvings of ancient Egyptian gods, inlaid boxes and chests, and dozens of both useful and ornamental utensils of brass, copper, washed tin, and ceramics. Barby went into raptures. At every new item she urged Rick to bring her one just like it.
“I’ll rent a jet just to carry my luggage,” he said, grinning. “You’ve already ordered a ton, and I get only sixty-six pounds.”
Bartouki came to his rescue. “Let me show you a new tourist attraction. It just arrived by messenger this morning.”
He went to a cabinet, opened it, and produced a stone cat. It was about ten inches high, in a sitting position with its tail curled around to meet its feet. It was of sandy texture, reddish in color.
“Sandstone?” Rick guessed.
Bartouki smiled. “I hoped you would say that. Here. Examine it.”
Rick took the cat. He liked it very much. The design was clean and elegant, stylized after the Egyptian manner. But it wasn’t sandstone. It was heavy, but not heavy enough to be sandstone, and the sheen was not that of a mineral. Whatever the material, it had been fashioned in one piece, probably cast in a mold.
“I give up,” he said. “What is it?”
“Plastic,” Bartouki replied, obviously pleased. “It did not come from Egypt. It was made right here in America. In Chicago, to be exact. It is what you call a prototype.”
“But it’s Egyptian in design,” Barby protested. She took the cat from Rick and examined it.
Yes, it is clearly an Egyptian cat. The design came from Egypt, but the cat from America. I have been working on this for months with a plastics company. Now I have the model, and the method. We will reproduce these in quantity in Cairo.”
“It’s pretty heavy for plastic,” Rick commented.
“True. We put a piece of lead in the middle of the casting. You see, it looks like stone, and the buyer will expect it to be heavy. So, for psychological reasons, we give it weight—only not so much that it becomes a problem to carry.”
“You certainly have it worked out,” Scotty said admiringly. “But why a cat? Why not a … a camel?”
“We have camels of camel leather, brass, and wood. But we do not have a good cat. You see, the cat is important in Egyptian history. There was even a cat goddess of the Upper Nile Kingdom, called Bubaste. In the ancient tombs there are sometimes mummies of cats. Some cat lovers think our land first developed the domestic strain of cat. So we believe tourist cat lovers should have an authentic reproduction of one. This particular cat is a faithful copy of an antique, which I am fortunate to own.”
“What will you do with it now?” Barby asked.
“Send it to my associate in Cairo, as soon as possible. I would like to airmail it right away, but you Americans overload the mails at Christmas, so it would be safer to wait. Next week I hope to send it with full instructions, hoping to get production started in time for the big tourist season. I wish it could go sooner. It is needed.”
Barby said impulsively, “Rick leaves the day after tomorrow. He could take it for you. Couldn’t you, Rick?”
There was no reason to refuse. It was certainly a worthy project, and Bartouki had been generous in answering their questions.
“Be glad to,” Rick said.
The merchant’s eyes lighted. “It would not be an imposition?”
“Of course not. I can put it right in with my clothes. I have plenty of room.”
“Believe me, I will be in your debt. And so will my associate, Ali Moustafa. You will like him. He is a great, jolly man, three times my size. If he had a beard, he would resemble your Santa Claus. And he will insist that you accept some token of his appreciation. I will send the instructions separately, so you need not bother with the technical reports.”
“I couldn’t accept a gift for such a little thing,” Rick protested. He looked at the cat, now in Scotty’s hands. It was a handsome little statue.
“Ali Moustafa is a hard man to refuse,” Bartouki said. “You should not deprive him of the pleasure of making a gift. But I will not press you. It will be between you and him. You are quite sure it will be no trouble?”
Rick’s words would return to haunt him during the days ahead. He said blithely, “No trouble at all.”