The Buried by Peter Hessler

40641080Nonfiction – print. Penguin Press, 2019. 480 pgs. Purchased.

After years of living and working in China as a journalist for The New Yorker,Hessler moved with his wife, Leslie, and infant twin daughters to Cairo in 2011. The same year the Egyptian Arab Spring began, resulting in the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak and the election of the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi.

As Hessler documents in his book, Morsi would serve as president for barely a year, eventually being disposed from office by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Against this backdrop, Hessler befriends his Arabic teacher, a cynic deeply interested in politics; his translator and fellow journalist, Manu, a gay man whose behavior isn’t always frowned upon due to the physical isolation of women; and the neighborhood garbage collection, Sayyid, an illiterate man who recycles and reuses better than any Western recycling program.

Hessler’s friendships and interactions with these three men allow for a kind of “archaeological excavation” — hinted at in the subtitle “An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution” – as these relationships afford Hessler the opportunity to see how locals create their own structures and rules amid a collapsing government. Some of their pragmatism seems inherited from the very start of the Egyptian nation, whose tombs and pyramids Hessler visits repeatedly in the book, and some runs completely counter culture to the West’s conventional wisdom of how democracy and political participation will led to prosperity.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly excited by the May options for Book of the Month club. The majority of the books sounded like breezy, romantic-comedy type novels, which I wasn’t in the mood for when selections were open for the month. The only option that sounded like it would offer anything substantial was Hessler’s book, but I worried it would be too academic for my tastes, especially with the work “archaeology” in the subtitle.

My worries were unfounded. Instead, what I ended up with was an engaging read that seamlessly tied the past and the present together. I never felt bogged down by the onslaught of information, even when Hessler switched his focus to the topic of Egyptology and archaeological digs.

I particularly appreciated the way Hessler kept connecting the bigger events to the lives of Manu, Sayyid, and his Arabic teacher. Their lives – and their varying levels of interest in politics – helps to explain why the Revolution failed in a way that the (few) news articles I’ve read have not been able to do so.

And, while I normally dislike when authors insert themselves into their examinations of a culture or an event, it worked particularly well in this case as Hessler’s reactions to the rumors and conspiracy theories told to him often mirrored my own. It shows how misconceptions exist between Americans and Egyptians, contributing to the false understandings that guide our political reactions to events in each country.

The Buried is fascinating, informative, and yet easy to read. One of those books that I’m glad Book of the Month brought to my attention. I’m eager to read more of Hessler’s books, particularly since his other books touch up my personal interest in China.

Yet, I’m even more eager to read the writings of his wife, Leslie T. Chang. At one point in the book, Hessler says he could only write about men in Egypt because women were cloistered and not allowed to speak to an unrelated man. His wife, though, could talk at length with unrelated women. Chang hasn’t published a book on Egypt yet, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for a publication announcement from her.

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