Most foreign correspondents are in a rush—hurtling along with the news, racing to meet deadlines. They rarely have the opportunity to step back from the moment. Peter Hessler had the uncommon luxury of being able to spend five years in Egypt, from 2011 to 2016, reporting for The New Yorker and National Geographic. In The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, he has brought together the idiosyncratic and ambitious articles he wrote there. As the title suggests, it aims to unearth something deeper about the uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak out of office—and its dismal aftermath.
But there’s taking the long view, and there’s placing the events of the Arab Spring in the span of the last five millennia. The Buried’s opening pages contain a time chart that features, on one side, Egypt’s history spanning the Pharaonic, Mamluk, Ottoman, and modern eras; and, on the other, the years 2011 to 2016. The chart has a playful quality. But like the quotations from ancient Egyptian texts and the hieroglyphics that appear elsewhere in the book, it suggests that recent events in Egypt are just the latest cycle in a recurring historical schema.
Hessler is by no means alone in invoking Egypt’s past to explain its present. When I lived there, I heard Mubarak denounced repeatedly as a modern-day pharaoh; after the Arab Spring, those looking to celebrate a history of subversion liked to note that in the twelfth century BC Egyptian craftsmen carried out the first recorded sit-in in human history. The grandiloquent preamble of the country’s new post-2011 constitution, as Hessler wittily notes, was inundated by references to the Nile and the country’s glorious past. Yet if these examples show anything, it is that ancient history can be used to make almost any point about the politics of the present.
The Buried promises to uncover an essential truth about Egypt, but this is a promise that it can’t keep. What it does deliver is original, richly layered, and often delightful reporting. Hessler has a sharp sense of humor, a gift for observation, a healthy skepticism, and a knack for using memorable characters and anecdotes to demonstrate larger truths. Not all of his observations and parallels persuade, but they add up to a vivid picture of a country in turmoil that grinds painfully against the difficulties of achieving real change, as seen by an attentive, opinionated, and at times bemused observer.
Hessler arrived in Cairo in the fall of 2011 with his wife, Leslie Chang, also a journalist, and his young twin daughters. His book covers the next five years, as he studied Arabic and traveled to archaeological sites, southern villages, Chinese-run factories, and Cairo’s slums. He met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and government officials, listening to complaints and conspiracy theories and noting the faded outline and single nail that marked the spot in rooms where portraits of Mubarak once hung. By the time he left Egypt, portraits of a new military man, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, adorned those walls.
Hessler interweaves the story of three Egyptian men throughout The Buried. His irritable, eccentric Arabic teacher, Rifaat, is a grumpy patriot who likes to use his lesson plans to vent his frustration. He is, Hessler writes, “the type of man who teaches Arabic by asking his students to translate the following: ‘It seems no one in this country knows how to celebrate without a microphone and five loudspeakers.’” Hessler’s translator, Manu, is an independent and reticent gay man who, after suffering assaults from lovers and persecution from the police, finally seeks asylum in Germany.
Finally and most importantly, there is Sayyid, the resourceful garbage collector in Hessler’s upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek. Most household refuse in the city is picked up door-to-door by garbage collectors who also hand-sort and recycle much of it. Hessler befriended Sayyid, got to know his family and his business, and made him one of the central characters of his book.
When Hessler published an article in The New Yorker in 2014 about Sayyid, it caused a small furor among expats and English-reading Egyptians. The article was illustrated by a photo of Sayyid and identified him by name. Hessler recounted Sayyid’s taking him on rounds and sharing highly personal information about his clients, who were also Hessler’s neighbors. They drank beer together, and the garbage collector appointed the Western reporter his consultant on foreign currency, alcohol, and pharmaceuticals he found in the trash. The article also delved into Sayyid’s troubled marriage. Hessler quoted text messages from the garbage collector’s incensed wife—dramatic threats that Sayyid, who is illiterate, needed the help of others to read.
One of the main objections to the piece was that its focus on garbage and gossip and sex was prurient, that it exposed not just Sayyid but the country as a whole to ridicule. But this is the same line of argument that is used to shut off discussions in Egypt about any supposedly embarrassing reality, in the name of protecting a fictional national image.
Hessler was accused of being a privileged white Western man (a charge he can hardly refute) and, inevitably, an Orientalist. In a Facebook post, he responded:
I have to admit that I’ve never been big on theory and I don’t have a great understanding of this concept…. Again, my focus is on this individual. How can I tell Sayyid’s story in an accurate and engaging way? His story is not simply part of some larger orientalist narrative, or a tired parade of zabaleen [garbage collectors] pieces. It’s Sayyid’s story. It begins with the first sentence and it ends with the last.
Orientalism is more complex than just any unflattering representation of Arab or Muslim culture. But it seems disingenuous for a Western reporter working in the region today to maintain a lack of familiarity with the concept. And it is an ideological stance to claim a sort of purity for one’s reporting, as if it bore no relation to the surrounding discourse. The subheading for the profile of Sayyid was “A neighborhood garbageman explains modern Egypt.” That sounds like it was about more than an individual.
Yet as Hessler explained, he obtained Sayyid’s consent to write about him and to identify him, and they continued to spend time together after the piece was published. The garbage collector appears not to have suffered any serious repercussions, and the issue isn’t really whether they were friends (Hessler seems to have liked and respected Sayyid, but I doubt he would have pursued this relationship if he hadn’t intended to write about it). Some would say that the power difference between them—in their social status, nationalities, and levels of literacy—means there was inevitably something exploitative about the relationship, that it was wrong to expose so much of the private life of a humble man who would never be able to read the article in question. Others would say that journalists have to write often about people who are much more or much less powerful than themselves. The question is: Was the story worth it? I would have to say yes. It’s a story built on the risks of revelation, and a gripping piece of writing. It did not make me think any less of Sayyid or of Egypt, and it told me things I didn’t know and was happy to have learned.
To this day, my social media threads light up with indignation whenever Hessler publishes a piece on Egypt. What irks his detractors is his presumption to pass judgment on the country—to view it with a critical outsider’s eye and to share his views with confidence (or, they would say, overconfidence). He does not hesitate to turn his observations into generalizations, to make the leap from an anecdote to an insight.
Some of these leaps are more persuasive than others. In his description of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, he deftly captures the mixture of self-assurance and delusion, secretiveness and unsophistication that led to the Islamist group’s rise and downfall. The brotherhood promised structure but delivered another version of the family: it “replicated the flaws of traditional Egyptian patriarchy.” It is a group composed of “technically minded men” who “could…ignore science and evidence when it suited them.” They are master organizers, but the real content and purpose of their organization is never clear. “The true key to the Brotherhood’s success,” Hessler concludes after the group has captured parliament and the presidency, “was weak competition.”
Other generalizations are more likely to raise an eyebrow. Hessler becomes convinced that Egyptians are terrible at math and “easily overwhelmed by figures.” He notes that they have “a tendency towards escapism” and a love of strongmen. And he repeatedly describes Egypt as a land of contrasts: “Over time, I came to recognize this tendency for contradiction as part of the national character—it was just as Egyptian as those figures on the temple walls”:
The people I met in Cairo tended to be deeply patriotic, but they also enjoyed criticizing themselves, their government, and their society, especially if this could be done with sarcasm or some other form of humor. Somehow, Egyptians could be at once proud and ashamed, optimistic and cynical, serious and joking.
This is true, but could also be true of almost anywhere else.
Hessler’s view of Egypt has been strongly shaped, I suspect, by the many years he spent reporting from China, a country about which he has written several award-winning books. There are some wonderful sections of The Buried in which he writes about Chinese people who have established businesses in Egypt, selling racy lingerie to Egyptian women who are building their wedding trousseaus, or running the first plastic recycling center in the country’s south. It is refreshing to get a non-Western, up-close view of the Egyptian revolution. “The Chinese perspective,” Hessler writes, is that
their country and culture had experienced truly revolutionary change throughout the span of the twentieth century, for better and for worse, and they believed that the Egyptians had never committed themselves to such a wrenching transformation. And the Chinese saw Egypt for what it was, not for what they hoped it might become. Westerners usually believed that they were witnessing the rise of a powerful social movement, whereas the Chinese tended to see the collapse of a weak state.
It’s clear that this perspective is Hessler’s as well. His downbeat but not unwarranted conclusion is that many Egyptians didn’t want to change enough. As he memorably puts it, “For Egyptians, the family was the deep state.” Political transformations can’t take place, he argues, when individuals—especially women—are so deeply constrained by traditional patriarchal bonds. The Chinese entrepreneurs in Egypt note that the success of their businesses depends on the full participation of the women in their families, whereas Egyptian women aren’t usually allowed to leave their family home or encouraged to pursue careers after marriage (the Middle East and North Africa have the lowest level of women’s employment in the world). “How much of Egypt’s political dysfunction,” Hessler wonders, “the pride, the shame, the anger, the stubbornness, the violence—could be attributed to the unrelenting maleness of authority.”
The other factor that Hessler identifies behind the squandering of Egyptians’ potential is the lack of nizam. This word means “system” or “order” and also connotes the ruling regime itself (the revolution’s motto was “The People Want the Fall of the Nizam”). Egyptians often complain that there’s no nizam—in the first sense—and Hessler wholeheartedly agrees.
In fact, he finds that there is little nizam to the Muslim Brotherhood (although it promises one), to garbage collection, to the way the southern town of Abydos conducts its elections, or to repression: “Egyptian authoritarianism wasn’t really a nizam. It was more an atmosphere than a system: it enveloped the country like a low-hanging cloud, and repression had the unpredictable quality of a weather event.” But as this list suggests, the definition of nizam remains maddeningly vague, as do the causes of its alleged absence. It ends up seeming like an intrinsic, inexplicable quality of Egyptian life.
What one can certainly say is that the Egyptian government has long failed to provide many essential services, leaving a majority of the population to rely on personal and family relationships to get by. Almost half of the economy is informal. People work undeclared and unregulated jobs in small businesses and workshops; they build their sprawling neighborhoods with no urban planning. The solutions they come up with are often impressive and economically sensible: Sayyid’s garbage collection is a working system that allows him to make a living; his clients pay a few dollars a month for garbage collection, and Cairo has a remarkably high recycling rate.
This apparent chaos is not a lack of governance so much as a mode of governance, one whose primary purpose is to defend the material interests of the army and the elite of a US client state. An inefficient, opaque, and arbitrary bureaucracy creates opportunities for widespread corruption. Those with power act with impunity, appropriating for themselves the country’s resources behind closed doors. Ordinary Egyptians are forced to skirt the law just to get things done, making them complicit and vulnerable; if they actually challenge the status quo, they face overwhelming state violence. The problem is that there are no functioning institutions that recognize merit, enforce accountability, or allow citizens to participate; moreover, the spaces where they could mobilize (the media, unions, universities, political parties) have been purposefully smothered or hollowed out. That’s why people took to the streets in the first place, and that’s why they faced such difficulties engaging in democratic processes for which they had not been prepared.
As wasteful and exhausting as Egypt’s chaos can be, it has often allowed for a margin of autonomy, solidarity, and spontaneity that make up some of the charm of life there. Hessler concludes a comparison of China and Egypt by writing that “this was one grim lesson I had learned in Egypt: unstructured authoritarianism is even worse than structured authoritarianism.” That is certainly the argument of the Egyptian army and other autocrats in the region; at one point it seemingly won over a large part of the population, fearful of the effects of prolonged disorder. Yet the weakening authoritarianism of the late Mubarak years and, much more so, the chaos of the post-2011 transition—when the Islamists and the army maneuvered for power—allowed people to carve out considerable freedom for themselves.
Today, President Sisi views reimposing discipline on Egyptian society as one of his great burdens; Hessler quotes a typical speech in which he describes the army as the father of “a son who is a bit of a failure, not paying attention.” The result is tens of thousands of political prisoners, zero freedom of assembly or expression, extralegal assassinations, a puppet parliament, and a further degradation in living conditions. By almost any measure, the country is worse off than it was under Mubarak. The endless repression shows that the Sisi regime is not confident that Egyptians are ready to accept the status quo.
Hessler is right that narratives and outright fictions have often taken the place in Egypt of working institutions and real processes. And one of the narratives that he is suspicious of is that of the revolution itself, again with reason—much of the coverage of the uprising was superficial and short-sighted, full of well-meaning enthusiasm, wishful thinking, or opportunistic lip service. As a reporter, he mistrusts conventional wisdom and people’s own shifting accounts; he wants to observe their actions, to figure out what they desire and what they believe by observing the choices they make and the turns their lives take.
Hessler’s decidedly unromantic view of the Arab Spring may be explained simply by the fact that he arrived in Egypt nearly a year after it broke out. The first visit to Tahrir Square that he recounts was during the clashes on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, when, just as the country’s first free elections were about to take place, protesters fought for days against police defending the Ministry of Interior. I remember that dark time well: the divide between Islamists and secularists was sharpening, protesters felt that the revolution had been betrayed, and it was clear that the police and army were continuing to act with violent impunity. The clashes were a doomed attempt to reenact the uprising, driven by a sense that it had not achieved its goals. Hessler spent most of his time in the Omar Makram mosque on the edge of Tahrir, minutely observing the way the protesters organized themselves (they provided transportation, safe haven, and medical treatment to the injured) and the shortcomings of that organization. The mosque became an impromptu court, where thieves and alleged infiltrators were held and punished, and trust started to crack.
After that, the book stays away from the famous square and its demonstrations and clashes. The choice to move beyond the Cairo-centric bounds of most reporting and to avoid the usual talking heads is admirable. Hessler seems to have felt that the story of the revolution had been told too many times already, and that there was little to add. Yet the omission of any idealistic, pro-revolution voices—of the many people who threw themselves into creating change by challenging the military, fighting sexual harassment, or launching new media projects—becomes a blind spot. In a book that is focused on investigating the revolution’s limits, it would be relevant to convey, even briefly, the cathartic rage and ecstasy that so many felt in the uprising’s initial days. The first and only activists Hessler quotes, nearly two hundred pages in, are members of Tamarod, the movement that spearheaded the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood and President Muhammad Morsi, and that was eventually revealed to have been infiltrated by the army and funded by the United Arab Emirates.
One of the greatest failures of the revolution, Hessler writes, is that “despite all the turmoil, the vast majority of Egyptians had never been forced to reconsider the roles of women and young people in their society.” But the forceful assertion of these old ways is all the more poignant when one knows that during those first eighteen days of protest, boys and girls defied their parents to go sleep in tents in the street together, and elderly people tearfully apologized to young people for not daring to do this sooner.
Hessler’s book is neither an overview of the many factors that led to the Arab Spring, nor an account of how it was thwarted. And even when one disagrees with his conclusions, that disagreement can be thought-provoking. What carries one along, above all, is the quality of the writing. On almost every page there is a gleaming detail.
Flagstones are so soaked with teargas “that they sweated it out in the heat.” Hessler accompanies Sayyid through the halls of government buildings, where the garbage collector proceeds by paying bribes, surrounded by less fortunate “crowds of people who could afford to spend nothing but time.” A group of lawyers heading to a courthouse “were heavyset men in black robes, and they trudged slowly with their heads down, like a line of crows too fat to fly.”
Hessler attends the trial of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and of former president Morsi (who recently died, apparently of a heart attack, during yet another of his appearances in court). He captures the brutal, makeshift nature of a staged political trial in which the defendants are held in soundproof boxes, dismissed by the judge, and taunted by the anti-Islamist Egyptian press. In his account of the parliamentary elections in the town of Abydos, he observes village elders who direct their clans on how to vote and who relish the election as an occasion to display their authority over the young and over women. This is what reporting can be at its best: clear-eyed and empathetic, an addition to the historical record.
In his visits to archaeological sites, Hessler’s descriptions of the built and imagined world of ancient Egyptians are also deeply evocative:
When the ancients looked up at that vast blue sky, they saw water. They believed that the earth existed in a kind of bubble surrounded by a liquid universe. Every heavenly body—the sun, the stars, the planets—skimmed across the surface of the sky on boats. Somewhere in the distant south, there was a hole in the bubble, and water poured out into the desert. One hole, one river: the Nile. How else to explain a world with no rain but plenty of water?
But the connection between the ancient world and the contemporary one is fuzzy. Early on, Hessler invokes the ancient Egyptian concept of neheh (time related to natural cycles) and djet (time without motion, the time of the gods). But it is never clear how those concepts apply in modern Egypt, or how it makes sense to relate civilizations separated by millennia with different religions, languages, customs, and lived realities. It’s a bit like explaining South American politics by discussing the Incas.
Hessler highlights the long historical continuity and strong identity of Egypt, the oldest nation-state in the world, and the stark landscape, divided between the densely inhabited Nile valley and the empty desert, which may have shaped a sense that the world was divided between order and chaos. He compares the way ancient Egyptian life went on even during upheavals at the royal courts to the way life in the Egyptian provinces wasn’t altered significantly during the Arab Spring. He notes that ancient Egyptian rulers, just like modern ones, built grandiose cities in the desert that quickly turned to dust. He also tells us that ancient Egyptians “weren’t intent on what we would consider progress” and that “their instinct was rarely to innovate.” This is just one of many passages that seem to imply that there is something essential, cyclical, and unchanging about the Egyptian character. The suggestion that modern Egypt is as much of a mystery as ancient Egypt is overt: the country’s contemporary politics, Hessler writes, “had become almost as enigmatic as any strand of Egyptology.”
There is something intriguing about the comparison of a journalist to an archaeologist, about the idea of reporting as a process of constant reinterpretation and accretion of knowledge. After they have studied sites and artifacts, modern archaeologists rebury them, Hessler tells us: “The archaeologists know that someday in the future another scholar will arrive with better technique or technology, in order to study the things that we failed to understand.” But unlike an archaeologist, a journalist today is not painstakingly guessing at the meaning of a distant, mute world—he is surrounded by living people who can speak for themselves and whose history isn’t set in stone.