This remarkable example of ‘slow journalism’ links the pharaohs with Egypt’s Arab spring
Of all the ill-fated revolutions of the Arab spring, none started more optimistically, or ended more disappointingly, than that of Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown with such rejoicing at the beginning of the revolution in 2011, was perhaps not the worst of the Arab dictators. His rise, on the classless elevator of the Egyptian armed forces, was entirely the result of his competence in the military. Cairo intellectuals disliked his backslapping air-force bonhomie and quickly dubbed him “La vache qui rit”, after the laughing cow on the French processed cheese to whom the president was said to bear a resemblance.
For two decades Mubarak provided Egypt with a plodding yet stable government, which many compared favourably with the attention-seeking antics of his predecessors Nasser and Sadat. It should not be forgotten that his ministers were corrupt, his police casually and strikingly brutal, and torture in Egyptian prisons was rife. Yet his regime was still better than its counterparts in Syria and Iraq.
Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who ultimately replaced Mubarak in 2013 after toppling the shortlived Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, celebrated his accession to power by presiding over the worst massacre in a major world capital since Tiananmen Square: outside the Rabaa mosque in Cairo, more than 800 protesters were gunned down by army snipers, while many more were “disappeared” or done to death in prison: in one case, 37 prisoners died of asphyxiation in a single incident while being transported in a police truck. The entire Muslim Brotherhood opposition was put on show trial, in cages, and locked away for life under martial law. The press was subverted and civil society either jailed or crushed. It was a huge backward step.
So bad has Sisi’s crackdown been on liberals, writers and journalists that relatively few insiders have dared to write factual accounts of the failed revolution, though there has been some brilliant fiction, notably Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins. But Egypt’s tragedy has now found a non-fiction writer equal to the task in Peter Hessler, the author of four brilliant books on China, and the New Yorker staff writer assigned to cover the revolution.
Hessler is a skilled practitioner of what might be called “slow journalism”. He focuses not on the splashy events of capital cities, but instead on the ordinary lives lived far from the centre of things, as if he were transposing to the Middle East Turgenev’s Sketches from a Huntsman’s Album. He makes friends with people whose ways of living are undergoing rapid and often uncomfortable change, and writes about them with intelligence and sympathy. What separates him from most other foreign correspondents is a strange alchemy in his writing and storytelling that gives him an ability to spin golden prose from everyday lived experience.Advertisement
In The Buried, we meet Manu, his gay translator who is set up and entrapped by a police provocateur, then arrested and threatened with anal examinations. In the growing upheaval of the fraying revolution he is repeatedly beaten up, suffers panic attacks and eventually flees Egypt, seeking political asylum in Germany.
We meet Sayyid the garbage collector, who makes a good living sorting and recycling the rubbish from middle-class flats. His is a unique insight into Cairene life derived from searching through bin bags: documents, cameras and photos all unlock the secrets of the people he works for, and through his eyes we meet everyone from Muslim Brothers disposing of their stashes of Auld Stag Whisky, Coptic priests with aphrodisiacs and Lebanese actresses with inexhaustible supplies of intimate lube. We also meet a cast of exiled Chinese businessmen starting Egypt’s first plastic recycling plant and creating a lingerie empire by bringing Guangzhou’s answer to Victoria’s Secret to the niqab-wearing women of Upper Egypt.
Hessler wrote about many of these characters first in his New Yorker columns, but this book amounts to far more than a collection of cuttings. For he has bound the book together by the clever conceit of weaving and intertwining it with the deeper and broader rhythms of Egyptian history and cosmology. There are, he explains at the start, two very different concepts of time in ancient Egyptian thought: “Neheh is the time of cycles. It is associated with the movement of the Sun, the passage of the seasons and the annual flood of the Nile. It repeats; it recurs; it renews. Djet on the other hand, is time without motion … The term is sometimes translated as ‘eternal’, but it also describes a state of completion. Something in djet time is finished but not past; it exists forever in the present … Neheh was inspired by the cycles of the river valleys, while djet reflected the desert’s timelessness.”
In this scheme, the fall of Mubarak, the chaos of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the restoration of authoritarian rule under Sisi also follow rhythms familiar to Egyptian history. Hessler sees a mirror in the story of the pharoah Akhenaten – a failed revolutionary whose attempt to introduce monotheism was crushed in “what was possibly the first military coup in human history” by his general Horemheb, and whose tyranny was consolidated by Horemheb’s successor Ramesses II. As the archaeologist Anna Stevens points out when she takes Hessler round Akhenaten’s citadel of Amarna the very same month that Sisi was massacring the opposition, “living through this time has made me think much more about Akhenaten, and the impact of revolutions and the downfall of dictators. I’m struck by this interest in a strong, male leader.”
Even the gross inequalities of modern Egypt are mirrored by the malnourished skeletons of the ancient workers of Amarna. Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamun may have been buried in solid gold inlaid with imported Afghan lapis, but the workers who built his dynastic cities had short, impoverished lives: “Seventy per cent of individuals were younger than 35. More than one third were dead by the age of 15. Only a few individuals lived beyond 50.”
The Buried is a slow burner: it takes time and patience to enter its world, fall in with its rhythms and to distinguish its cast of initially unremarkable Egyptian characters. But Hessler knows his craft and the book gathers pace and stature as it progresses, slowly revealing its intricate architecture. It is filled with insight both about the cyclical nature of Egyptian politics and what is eternal and unchanging in this most ancient of countries, whose civilisation goes back an astonishing, unbroken 7,000 years. The result is a small triumph, one of the best books yet written about the Arab spring.
• William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company is published by Bloomsbury. The Buried is published by Profile (RRP £25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.
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