Until the age of forty-one, Peter Hessler had spent much of his adult life in China, where he worked as a correspondent for the New Yorker. He had mastered the language, written four acclaimed books and won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ for his portrayals of ordinary people dealing with China’s sweeping transformation. Then something compelled him to start all over again. He decided to take up Arabic amid the ruins of Egypt. ‘Nothing changes in Cairo,’ an editor told him. ‘I liked the sound of that,’ Hessler writes.
If he was expecting a quiet time, he may have been disappointed. While he was preparing to move to Egypt, an uprising broke out. He arrived nine months later, in October 2011 – ‘the first fall of the Arab Spring’, as Hessler calls it. The Buried is the product of his adventure, and it is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
Readers of his books on China will know that Hessler has a genius for structuring a narrative. Here he has crafted a miraculously coherent arc out of several disparate themes: the political upheaval that accompanied the Arab Spring, the lives of a handful of ordinary Egyptians, and his own education in the language of contemporary Egypt and its ancient archaeology, to name just a few. One remarkable chapter weaves together the stories of a Jewish family fleeing Cairo in the 1950s and a gay Muslim fleeing the city today. It all comes together, but you have to read it to believe it. Every page is vivid and engaging, and each chapter packs in surprises.
Yet the tragedy, as Hessler laments, is that Egypt’s collective story goes from nowhere to nowhere. Although the characters that populate his narrative grow and change, the country never does. The police state is just as brutal, corrupt and capricious now as it was before the uprising began in 2011. Mafeesh nizam, ‘there’s no system’, Hessler’s Arabic teacher tells him, and that is the refrain of his book.
The greatest contribution of The Buried to the shelf of English-language books on the Arab Spring is the intimately detailed depictions it provides of a handful of ordinary, politically disengaged Cairenes trying to steer their way through the chaos. It might raise eyebrows that the three main figures in Hessler’s book – his Arabic teacher, his interpreter and the refuse collector who picks up his rubbish – all work for him. But Hessler renders each of them with empathy, respect and affection. The refuse collector, Sayyid, is the hero of the story.
Sayyid, who is illiterate, first turns to Hessler for help with reading the label on a pack of Chinese sex pills scavenged from the trash. Soon, Hessler is inviting Sayyid in to practise Arabic over a few beers, then reading him the vituperative text messages sent to Sayyid by his wife. Hessler seems to accompany Sayyid everywhere: to his home in a city slum, to his native village a few hours away, through the bribe-strewn maze of Egypt’s bureaucracy and even to the office of a divorce lawyer. We watch as both Sayyid and his wife seek to use the arbitrary Egyptian justice system as a weapon of marital combat, with the result that Sayyid lands up in jail for a crime he did not commit. This saga goes a long way towards explaining why so many Egyptians rose up in the first place. In the end, the unlikely recovery of their marriage provides at least one note of redemption.
Hessler’s digressions into Egyptology, however, feel much less natural. He appears to have modelled this book on his earlier Oracle Bones, which examines both present-day China and its ancient past – The Buried takes its title from the colloquial name for an ancient necropolis that is the site of an archaeological dig. But Egypt, as Hessler notes, is different from China. The Egyptians feel little connection to the early civilisation on the banks of the Nile. The language and culture of ancient Egypt were supplanted in the seventh century AD, when the Arabs arrived. After that, the country endured a millennium of Arab, Ottoman and European colonial rule. Where Chinese history was first debated by the Chinese, the study of ancient Egypt started as a Western endeavour. ‘The ancients belong to foreigners, and Islam belongs to us,’ is the Egyptian view, Hessler explains, and he quotes only Westerners when explaining the culture and mindset of those first Egyptians.
Despite acknowledging this disconnect, Hessler seems to argue that some essential quality of ancient Egyptian culture can still help explain the failure of the Arab Spring in Egypt. ‘People come and go, like the dynasties and the regimes,’ he writes at the outset. ‘Sand is removed, replaced, and then removed again.’ He suggests repeatedly that the amorphous authoritarianism of Egypt today resembles the authoritarianism of the pharaohs, and he strongly implies that the stagnation of contemporary Egypt is connected to the static or cyclical conceptions of time depicted on the walls of ancient tombs. Cairo slums are laid out like pharaonic villages. A premonition of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recalls a dream of Pharaoh Akhenaten. A propagandistic pop song about Sisi echoes a hymn to Senwosret III. And so on. It is all an endless cycle. To my mind, studying the pharaohs for insights about the uprising makes about as much sense as looking to Stonehenge for clues about Brexit. The Western Egyptologists Hessler quotes often sound patronising when discussing contemporary Egypt.
I lived in Cairo at the same time as Hessler. I arrived as a newspaper correspondent in the summer of 2010 and watched as Egyptians filled Tahrir Square in defiance of President Hosni Mubarak. I took away very different impressions and I question many of his generalisations. Among other things, he suggests a few times that the uprising failed in large part because of Egyptians’ hang-ups about sex and gender. ‘The fundamental issue had nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, or the army, or the president – it was family,’ he writes. ‘Husbands and wives, parents and children, elders and youths: in Egypt, those relationships hadn’t been changed at all by the Arab Spring, and until that happened there was no point in talking about a revolution … For Egyptians, the family was the deep state.’
Some Egyptians argue that those relationships had been changing gradually for years. Attitudes towards sex and gender seemed to me to play little role in the military takeover that finally ended the revolution in 2013. But who am I to argue? It will be up to Egyptians to decide what went wrong and how they can fix it.