Peter Hessler, the author of several award-winning books on China, spent late 2011 to 2016 in Egypt, reporting for The New Yorker. His new book, which collects and expands on his magazine essays, is destined to become the title that all first-time visitors to Egypt are urged to pack, slipped neatly between their guide to the Egyptian Museum and the itinerary of their Nile cruise.
Hessler is an extraordinary writer, and his Egypt is full of scoundrels turned heroes and heroes turned scoundrels. The book’s reach is wide, from the puzzles of ancient tombs to the preoccupations of contemporary marriage, and it offers beguiling stories about ordinary and extraordinary Egyptians alike: a garbage collector, a police officer, a devout woman who wears a niqab, a man who frequents illegal gay nightclubs, a small-town politician. Hessler weaves together rounded portraits of these and other characters, leavening their stories with endearing anecdotes, a little (but not too much) modern history, a lot (but not too much) of Pharaonic history, and droll observations about what you really learn when you try to acquire a new language and what the study of life 4,000 years ago may reveal about life today. As someone who was living as a foreigner in Egypt while Hessler was there, I can attest that much of his portrait rings true, reflecting many recognizable elements of the country—not least the wry, self-deprecating, prideful humor for which Egyptians are justly reputed and the astonishingly powerful family solidarity that is both a source of stability in turmoil and, in Hessler’s view, a drag on social and political change.
Everywhere Hessler went, he found offbeat and sometimes revealing people, sights, and sounds.
Hessler lived with his family in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, within walking distance of the best Cairo hotels (not that anyone walks in Cairo). He made a habit of visiting archaeological sites along the route of the classic touristic Nile cruise. Everywhere he went, he found offbeat and sometimes revealing people,
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