February 2020 Open Book Group – The Buried by Peter Hessler

Thank you to Dianne for moderating The Buried by Peter Hessler.

Peter Hessler, a journalist, spent a decade in China. He documented his time there in Country Driving (OBG July 2011). On returning to Missouri he and his US-born Chinese wife, Leslie were not ready to settle down. Armed only with a three-month course in Classical Arabic, not a spoken language, they and their newly born twin daughters moved to Cairo in 2011. It was just months after the Arab Spring. The Buried records his and his family’s immersion into Egyptian culture.

The Buried is a multifaceted book with three main themes.

The archaeological digs in and around Agarose in the Upper Nile, also known as The Buried. These include the graves of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti.

The political history of Egypt before and after The Arab Spring deposed Mubarak. During Hessler’s stay, he witnessed the democratic election of President Morsi supported by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, Morsi’s downfall in 2013 following a bloody military coup led by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Sissi was then elected unopposed as President in 2014.

Finally, Hessler describes the everyday life of local Egyptians – Sayyid, his local garbage collection man who deduces Hessler’s neighbours’ lifestyles from their rubbish bins, Rifaat, his Arabic language teacher who despises The Muslim Brotherhood, the barely educated Chinese businessmen and women who have cornered the market in lingerie shops, and Manu, his gay translator, who accompanies Hessler on his travels interviewing archaeologists, politicians and the locals. Manu’s sexuality ultimately forces him to seek refugee status in Germany.

Each theme is supported by deep research as well as personal reflections on living in Cairo with his young family.

Hessler also uses his experiences in China to draws comparisons between the development of the two countries politically and culturally.

If you think this sounds a lot to cover in one book, you’d be right. With 480 pages of dense typeface, this is certainly one of the longest books we have read. Was it worth the effort?

Country Driving vies for a top spot in the list of nonfiction books in OBG’s back catalogue, so we were looking forward to reading The Buried.

We all agreed that Hessler’s journalist style makes what may appear to be a rather earnest topic very engaging.

We particularly enjoyed his interactions with the locals. We discussed how many of these highlighted the restricted position of women in Egyptian society, hidden behind their Niqabs. A Chinese businessman complained to him that he preferred women workers as they were better and more reliable than the men. However, turnover was high. Once a woman becomes engaged Egyptian culture dictates they return home. Hessler noted that the practice of feet binding had once placed similar restrictions on women in China. The Cultural revolution banned this custom and now women were fully engaged in the workforce with its flow-on effects on the country’s economic development.

We recalled descriptions in Country Driving of Chinese factories operating 24/7 with men and women moving from their villages to live in factory dormitories. This would be inconceivable Egyptians. Barely literate Chinese businessmen and women leave their villages to seek a better living selling lingerie in Egypt. No Egyptian would dream of doing the reverse. We found it illuminating to see, through Hessler’s travels, why Egypt’s economy pales in comparison to China’s.

However, we were gratified that a Chinese businessman did concede that ‘Egypt is good for life. It’s more relaxed and people enjoy life here.”

We noted how Hessler’s local interactions also demonstrated how chaotic day to day society is. Sayyid charged residents to collect their rubbish and then recycled or on-sold everything he found, from plastic bottles to Viagra tablets. Grand infrastructure projects such as motorways were built without access ramps off to major towns. Locals simply build illegal ones for themselves.

Furthermore, we found it fascinating how these conversations gave Hessler insights into the failure of the Arab Spring.

Many people told him they sought “strong leaders” to provide a system over administrative chaos of daily life. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was initially thought to fill this need until it became obvious that Islam is a religious ideology, not a political one. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, despite a bloody coup, appeared to be accepted as providing such the leadership.

We recalled the horror of seeing democratically elected President Morsi sitting in a cage during his sham trial, not to mention Peter Greste and his fellow journalists.

The sections on the archaeological digs were heavy going for some. Overwhelmed by the length of the book they admitted to giving up at this stage. Others disagreed.

One member particularly enjoyed his discussion of ancient Egyptians concept of time; neheh, a period of time for which something exists, renews and repeats and djet time, the end of everything. Hessler compared these concepts to the Western, and Chinese, view of time as moving in a finite or linear direction. He argued neheh is still at play in modern Egypt. All the political changes have only resulted in Egypt staying the same. President Sissy’s authoritarian regime maintains the status quo rather than offering any impetus for reform. Until the neheh political cycles are broken and there are some real cultural and economic changes for women and the young, Egypt isn’t going to develop.

The discussion was drawing to a close with the general feeling of smugness afforded after an enjoyable read when one member cut through with a contrary view.

She felt was The Buried was a series of vignettes. These worked well for the New Yorker articles Hessler had submitted during his stay in Cairo. However, she argued Egyptian society was too complex to be satisfactorily explained by a Western journalist living in a wealthy part of Cairo for 5 years, no matter how in-depth his research. Yes, noted another member, but accounts are always are coloured by the teller’s cultural background. Does that make them less valid? Maybe, one member suggested it was more a memoir of his time with his family in Egypt. If only we had another hour!

A highly readable book packed full of ideas, insights and background research of a country many of us know little about. Wherever Hessler and his family are off to next OBGers will be sure to follow.

Our next meeting is Tuesday, 10th March when Small Island by Andrea Levy will be discussed, moderated by Pat O’Brien.

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