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.

Peter Hessler’s Cat

Journalist Peter Hessler spent five years living in Cairo with his wife and twin daughters, from 2011 to 2016. He’s been writing excellent pieces in the New Yorker about his experiences in Cairo, for example one about his neighbourhood garbage collector (the piece ends up being about the broader social, political, and cultural implications of the garbage business in Egypt, as well as men-women relations in the country), and another about Chinese expats who sell kinky underwear in Egypt. I highly recommend his writing, which, as the best non-fiction often does, starts by describing something small and then expands to encompass larger questions.

Last week, the New Yorker published a new piece by Hessler, which is, among other things, about the cat he got while he lived in Zamalek in order to keep rodents at bay (he lived on the ground floor and, rather frighteningly, his baby daughters were getting bitten by mysterious rodents). The cat in question is a traditional Egyptian breed called Mau, and he called his Morsi, after the Egyptian president who’d just been elected at the time. Before the year was out, the president had been deposed, but the cat remained. Hilarious adventures ensue when the cat runs away and the expat has to run around the neighbourhood calling after him.

Hessler mentions that the apartment building he lived in had distinctive railings of wrought iron made to look like spider webs. G. and I both took a short walk in Zamalek after our Arabic lessons the other day, looking to see if we could spot it. G.’s hunch led us down a street we’d never walked on before, and we came face to face with the building we were looking for at the end of it. There’s now some construction on the street right in front of the building, which probably wasn’t there when Hessler lived here.

It’s always nice to see a place in real life after you’ve read about it, and we had a good time imagining some of the scenes from the piece and trying to figure out which unit Hessler and his family probably lived in. Although that elevator shaft will probably give us nightmares for weeks to come (I won’t give it away, so you’ll just have to read Hessler’s article yourself if you want to know).

Hessler has a book on the way titled The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, and I look forward to reading it when it comes out next year!