‘The Buried’ Review: Digging Into a Revolution
Journalist Peter Hessler moved to Cairo in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and was a witness to Egypt’s recent political convulsions.
Wall Street Journal
May 7, 2019 6:41 p.m. ET
Seen from afar, tectonic political shifts often look as if they consume a society. But have you ever been someplace in the middle of momentous political events and found everyone around you getting on with daily life? Few reporters seem better placed to fathom the complexities of this dynamic—ripples of disquiet permeating routine existence—than Peter Hessler (China 1996-98).
For nearly a decade Mr. Hessler reported from China for the New Yorker, eventually writing four books about an ancient society undergoing great change. Having moved back to the U.S, he and his wife, Leslie Chang, a former China correspondent for this newspaper, decided that it was time for a change of their own. Both had always wanted to report from the Middle East, so in 2011 they gathered up their belongings and two infant children and began preparing to move from rural Colorado to a place everyone agreed would offer a slower pace of life for new parents: Cairo.
Then the revolution began. They arrived in the fall, after the Tahrir Square protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak from Egypt’s presidency but before Mohammed Morsi, the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected in his place. In the months and years that followed, nearly every member of Egypt’s parliament would be unseated, and Mr. Morsi himself would be thrown out in a coup, in mid-2013, led by Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the minister of defense. Thousands have been killed in the turmoil since 2011.
“The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution” is Mr. Hessler’s closely observed, touching and at times amusing chronicle of this tumultuous time. Drawing both from daily life and from interviews with highly placed political figures, the book is an extraordinary work of reportage, on a par with Anthony Shadid’s “Night Draws Near” (2005), which was itself built from tales of everyday Iraqis during the early days of the American occupation. Part of the power of these works surely comes from the simple but important fact that both reporters speak Arabic.
It didn’t begin that way for Mr. Hessler, though. He describes first visiting Tahrir Square with a few scraps of the language in his pocket from an intensive Middlebury College summer course. On the street and in the Omar Makram Mosque, which became a clearinghouse during protests, he interacts with Egyptians from all walks of life—but through a translator, so the interviews feel like snapshots from a moving car.
To get a broader feel for the country, Mr. Hessler moves across several realms. Traveling south, he spends time with archaeologists and curators in digs at Amarna and Abydos: the first the site of a buried city where the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen, was found; the second a necropolis dense with royal tombs. Both sites are of course part of the country’s ancient past—a legacy so immense and omnipresent, as Mr. Hessler makes clear, that it doesn’t seem entirely past. It is as if the present takes place only in its shadow.
Mr. Hessler continues his study of Arabic with a lifelong Cairo resident named Rifaat Amin, who, like many there, traces his political ideology back to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the pan-Arabist president of the late 1950s and ’60s. Mr. Amin is fond of using fictional dialogues to illustrate pet peeves—the sexism of Egyptian society, the greed of politicians, the hubris of religion. Mr. Hessler’s language learning can be seen to track the shifting political fate of the country—introducing the words for “agent” and “burn,” for instance, or for “virgin” and “promise.” It also tracks his increased intimacy with the people in his neighborhood, particularly Sayyid, the garbage collector of his building. Mr. Hessler’s friendship with this clever, illiterate man forms the heart of the book.
Every day Sayyid carries a canvas sack through the neighborhood, fishing out various items and reselling whatever he can. He pays out fees to a variety of men who have inherited this territory from their elders, one of numerous informal networks that Mr. Hessler uncovers. And every day Sayyid stops by for tea or a chat. When he and his wife quarrel—which is often—he shows Mr. Hessler her text messages. (“Yesterday you didn’t fight for me. I’ll do it myself and you will regret what I’ll do.”)
In the meantime, Mr. Hessler befriends his former translator, Manu, a gay man who is arrested at the beginning of the book and beaten after taking home a man who is probably a political plant. While Sayyid, whose wife is seeking a divorce, grinds through Cairo’s byzantine legal system, we watch as Manu learns how to move within the new political realities of Cairo, at times helped by his association with a foreign newspaper.
Over and over, we see Egyptians improvising solutions to their ordeals just as the country’s leaders are doing. In one illuminating section, Mr. Hessler describes how the members of a mosque in Sayyid’s neighborhood decide to wait for new protests to begin before constructing an illegal on-ramp to a road that has bypassed their building. By the time the protests die down, the ramp has become too much of a reality to be stopped. When Mr. Hessler buys a car and drives out into the desert, he encounters yet more evidence of a society evolving around its rules. He meets a Chinese couple who sell lingerie in a local market, their foreignness allowing them to sidestep the Islamic laws preventing women from talking to men. Mr. Hessler watches as an Egyptian man with two women in niqabs bargains for a thong-and-nightgown set. Later he meets a curator who uses cheap store-bought lights to mimic an armored personnel carrier and deter looters from a burial site.
In the portraiture of “The Buried,” such small dramas play out alongside Egypt’s bigger ones, both part of a reality far more complex than anything Western headlines can convey. Sensitive and perceptive, Mr. Hessler is a superb literary archaeologist, one who handles what he sees with a bit of wonder that he gets to watch the history of this grand city unfold, one day at a time.
Mr. Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s and the author of several books, including “Maps,” a collection of poems.
Appeared in the May 8, 2019, print edition as ‘Digging Into A Revolution.’