A decade ago, shortly before Peter Hessler moved to Cairo, an acquaintance told him that Egypt’s capital never seemed to change. This was meant as a criticism, but to Hessler, a New Yorker staff writer who’d spent 11 years covering rapidly expanding Chinese cities, it sounded like an endorsement. “I looked forward to studying Arabic at a relaxed pace, in a country where nothing happened,” he recalls.
Instead, Hessler and his family witnessed an upheaval that jolted the North African nation. In “The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution,” he explores the country’s political and social landscape after the momentous 2010-11 Arab Spring uprising, which led to the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Like his terrific 2013 book “Strange Stones: Dispatches From East and West,” this one seamlessly blends memoir, history and energetic reporting.
Hessler wisely focuses on working- and middle-class citizens. Their challenges often highlight the disappointments and inertia of the post-revolution years. In a 2013 military coup, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was installed as the country’s president. He’s retained power by winning a highly suspicious 95+% of the vote in consecutive elections.
One of Hessler’s subjects, a gay man employed as an interpreter, is tormented by thugs and police who know they can act with impunity, no matter who’s running the country. Another, a hardworking trash collector, contends with entrenched corruption — he’s forced to bribe several bureaucrats just to file ordinary tax documents. A third, Hessler’s liberal-minded Arabic teacher, uses vocabulary lessons to vent about theocratic leaders. When the extremely conservative Muslim Brotherhood scores an important ballot victory, Hessler “learned greedy, power hungry, confrontation, and frustration.”
Occasionally, Hessler lands in chaotic situations. In 2014, he watches a demonstration against the military regime. Within minutes, police begin shooting at the crowd. Hessler breaks his foot while fleeing, but he’s lucky — months before, Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of unarmed protesters.
Hessler subtly juxtaposes examples of ancient ingenuity with the intractable problems of the modern world. At a 4,000-year-old temple, he sees a hieroglyphic word — nefr — painted on an interior wall. This “means ‘good,’ ” an archaeologist explains. “Supervisors in ancient times,” Hessler continues, “used to check the construction quality and leave the hieroglyph.”
Meanwhile, when Hessler covers an election campaign, he encounters a group of resentful voters — all men — who insist that America created ISIS to destabilize Arab countries. “I often wondered how much of Egypt’s political dysfunction — the pride, the shame, the anger, the stubbornness, the violence — could be attributed to the unrelenting maleness of authority,” he writes.
Although Egypt and America may never fully understand each other, reporters such as Hessler help narrow the gap. In “The Buried,” he’s crafted an edifying portrait of a nation that experienced a dramatic uprising — and hasn’t changed as much as many of its citizens had hoped.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By: Peter Hessler.
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 463 pages, $28.
Event: Q & A and book signing, 7 p.m. June 24, Next Chapter Bookstore, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.