A TL;DR on the past and present of Egypt.
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BOTM Editorial Team
One dusty afternoon in Austin, Texas, in the back of a friend’s car, I had one of those reading experiences that was so vivid, I’ll remember it forever. In some tattered back issue of The New Yorker, a magazine I rarely peruse, I encountered a writer whose storytelling ability was so dazzling that I immediately tracked down one of his travel memoirs (a genre I rarely dip into) and devoured it in a few days. That writer was Peter Hessler, and from then on, I was a lifelong fan.
This month, Hessler is back with a new work of nonfiction about Egypt—from Ancient Egypt to the Arab Spring. Sounds weighty? Oh, and how. This is a biography of a nation, an introduction to archeology, a work of sociology, and a memoir all rolled into one. In pursuit of his keen interest in Egypt’s history and culture, Hessler and his family move to Egypt … just as the 2011 revolution is beginning. As a result, the book is a meandering tour of past and present, war, chaos, and peace, and a whole host of real-life characters you’ll root for and wonder about for weeks after reading.
This is not your typical beach read, but I think it’ll find an audience among those who love serious nonfiction. Illuminating, surprising, and even newsy, The Buried is a work of cultural reporting from a master at the height of his game.
Drawn by a fascination with Egypt's rich history and culture, Peter Hessler moved with his wife and twin daughters to Cairo in 2011. He wanted to learn Arabic, explore Cairo's neighborhoods, and visit the legendary archaeological digs of Upper Egypt. After his years of covering China for The New Yorker, friends warned him Egypt would be a much quieter place. But not long before he arrived, the Egyptian Arab Spring had begun, and now the country was in chaos.
In the midst of the revolution, Hessler often traveled to digs at Amarna and Abydos, where locals live beside the tombs of kings and courtiers, a landscape that they call simply al-Madfuna "the Buried." He and his wife set out to master Arabic, striking up a friendship with their instructor, a cynical political sophisticate. They also befriended Peter's translator, a gay man struggling to find happiness in Egypt's homophobic culture. A different kind of friendship was formed with the neighborhood garbage collector, an illiterate but highly perceptive man named Sayyid, whose access to the trash of Cairo would be its own kind of archaeological excavation. Hessler also met a family of Chinese small-business owners in the lingerie trade; their view of the country proved a bracing counterpoint to the West's conventional wisdom.
Through the lives of these and other ordinary people in a time of tragedy and heartache, and through connections between contemporary Egypt and its ancient past, Hessler creates an astonishing portrait of a country and its people. What emerges is a book of uncompromising intelligence and humanity—the story of a land in which a weak state has collapsed but its underlying society remains in many ways painfully the same.