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Report from the Mideast: A human drama

He has been followed and, once, robbed in Cairo. He has been censored in Tel Aviv. He has been placed under surveillance in Damascus. He has been encouraged not to return to Kuwait.

He has been followed and, once, robbed in Cairo.  He has been censored in Tel Aviv.  He has been placed under surveillance in Damascus.  He has been encouraged not to return to Kuwait.

Wherever he has gone in the Mideast, Richard Ben Cramer of The Philadelphia Inquirer has met and overcome official obstacles and has found what he sought: people.

People who suffer at the whim or bias of other people.  People who menace or are menaced by neighbors.  People whose lives are shaped – and sometimes shortened – by the search for real peace or the resort to armed hostility.

He is scarcely the first, nor will he be the last, reporter to walk a Holy Land and detail its unholy animosities.  But he has walked it in a compelling way, seeking out little people whose lives, fears and dreams illuminate large issues; finding them, he invariably has evoked their character with rare deftness.

His sensitivity, curiosity and soft intensity were put to no more severe test than that of the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon.  Setting out for the scene by taxi, Cramer was turned back by the Israeli military.  He ordered the cab to speed to the Tel Aviv airport, where he caught the first available flight to Athens, changed planes for Beirut, and hit the ground running for a Lebanese taxi.  After more than a day of dogged effort, his taxi deposited him near the front.  He walked across two miles of no-man's land, between Fatah commando outpost and Israeli army front line, to the astonishment of both sides.  In the process of writing about the distinctions between ill-equipped Arabs and mechanized Jews he demonstrated what united the two sides – fear.

Cramer, 27, a Rochester, N.Y. native, was sent to the Mideast last December, at the height of the Egyptian-Israeli detente, for two weeks.  His reports contained such dazzling insights that his assignment to roam the region has been extended indefinitely.

He marches not to the clamorous tramp-tramp of some journalistic pack but to the muted beat of a solitary hum.  A colleague who happened to be headed toward Cairo on a leave offered to carry along any urgently needed item.  Cramer cabled back thanks and a request for "two Hohner harmonicas, keys D and F, Blues Harp model (not Marine Band)."  Bemused editors asked and, over several days, insisted on an explanation.  Cramer's ultimate reply:

"Well, I guess the truth must out.  When I'm lonely, sad and blue, missing the hamburgers and drive-ins, missing the Miracle Miles and the girls in bluejeans, missing, I should add, all the warmth of The Inquirer cityroom with the soft cluck-cluck of the staff, nothing seems to satisfy like boarding a felucca for a leisurely sail down the Nile, blowing mournful tunes through my little harp and watching the Arabs' Mercedes being smashed up on the coastal drive."

Even his memos make for fascinating reading.