The Buried by Peter Hessler

While we were living in Cairo in the first half of 2018, we used Peter Hessler’s longform pieces in the New Yorker as keys to decipher the country we were living in and finding so hard to understand. In engaging essays, Hessler wrote about garbage collectors, Chinese lingerie dealers, Arabic teachers, local politicians. The portraits he painted were keys that helped us comprehend social and economic factors what we could sometimes guess but not always see beneath’s the city’s dusty surface.

I’ve written about Hessler here before, about how we located the building where his family used to live in Zamalek, just a few blocks down from our own apartment block. Hessler lived in Cairo for five years, arriving in 2011 in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. As I’ve just finished reading Hessler’s book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, I wanted to share a few thoughts about it.

It was a bit of a strange reading experience since the book is largely made up of the writing Hessler already published in the New Yorker, here reorganized and sometimes cut up so he could it embed it more logically within a larger narrative. I was curious to see how this would work, and it does work; although the book feels slightly disjointed in places, Hessler manages to weave together the different strands of his research, reporting, and memoir into something whole. It’s not entirely a coherent whole, but then the country whose present and past he is digging into isn’t very coherent, either.

In addition to brief glimpses into his own family life — Hessler is married and has two twin daughters — the strands that make up the book are, for the most part, characters Hessler befriends. The two standouts are Sayyid, Hessler’s local garbage collector embroiled in an intense and long-lasting divorce with his wife, and Hessler’s translator Manu, who is gay and whose well-being and safety is increasingly imperilled. Hessler’s displays his amazing skill as a writer and reporter when he’s able to use these stories to tease out larger topics and issues that touch upon Egyptian history and society more broadly. Saiid’s story, for example, involves gender norms and relations, education, literacy, class, and religion. Hessler is an expert storyteller with an eye for the characters who can carry bigger themes.

Readers looking for a blow by blow account of the Egyptian revolution will be disappointed, but what Hessler offers is in many ways richer, and just as layered and interconnected as the history of the country he’s digging through. The Buried is without a doubt the most accurate description of contemporary Egypt — its challenges and opportunities — I’ve come across, and the best way to understand what it’s actually like to spend a lot of time in Cairo.

G. and I only lived in Egypt for five months. We loved our experience and can’t wait to visit again, but when the time came to leave I felt like I’d had enough. I admire Hessler’s tenacity and taste for adventure; he stayed in Egypt for five years, many of which must not have been easy as the country didn’t know where it was headed from month to month during the revolution. Learning the language, acquiring a car, befriending locals in an authentic way… The pay off is a rewarding book, intelligently and compassionately written.

In a moving testament to the Egyptians that give the book its energy, Hessler gives the last scene of his book to Wahiba, the wife of Sayyid the garbage collector. Her simple, hopeful coin toss is a resonant metaphor for a country brimming with potential, sometimes overburdened by its own history, and always teeming with contradictions.

Cairo: The City Victorious

But sometimes – in April especially – the wind changes ominously. Brewing up from east or west, it sweeps the desert blustering into the city. Stifling hot and teased with whirlwinds, the sandstorms counterpoint the river, serving to remind Cairo that even as the water of life flowers through its centre, death lurks at the edges of the valley. Cairenes need reminding. The city’s ceaseless urban racket casts an amnesiac spell. It is easy to forget how close the utter empty silence of the desert lies.

Eager to learn more about Cairo’s history and to keep my Mamlouks straight from my Fatimids, I’ve been reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious, which was published by the American University in Cairo Press back in 1998.

It’s an interesting book, and I’m glad I picked it up, although I found it a bit dense and couldn’t read much more than 10-20 pages at a time. There’s a lot of stories and information here, with some chapters following a more thematic approach, and others running through the chronology of Cairo, from its origins in the pre-historic city of Om (today located in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis) to the metropolis of 20+ million people it has now become. Rodenbeck is also lyrical at times, crafting the right phrase or finding the right metaphor to capture a smell, a sound, or a sight.

While I learned a lot reading Cairo: The City Victorious—it’s obvious that Rodenbeck adores the city and knows it very well—I think the book suffered a bit from a problem of personality. At times it read like a straight up “biography” of Cairo, encompassing large swathes of Egyptian history condensed into a few pages, while at others Rodenbeck couldn’t help but describe a few of his personal experiences in the city: meeting a workshop owner from a baladi neighbourhood, having dinner with a gossipy gin-sucking upper-class lady, encountering a Sufi mystic in a tent during a night festival. Yet Rodenbeck deals with scenes like these ones hastily. He offers the minimum of context before zooming back out into a broader social history of the city.

Max Rodenbeck is a correspondent for The Economist, and perhaps that’s why he appears to be so uncomfortable in the first-person mode. Yet the parts of the book where Rodenbeck swoops in on tangible moments gave me the strongest impressions. I would’ve loved for the author to make this book more personal, to offer more details about his own life and experiences in Cairo, while offering some of the historical material as background. Instead he seemed too intent on erasing himself from the story, unless when absolutely necessary.

This book was a bit of a missed opportunity for me, but it was still a very interesting read. And, yes, I can now tell apart the Fatimids apart from the Mamlouks.