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, sights, and sounds. With typical Egyptian hospitality, his garbage collector Sayyid let this nosy foreigner tag along on his rounds. Hessler reports that if he was “curious about anyone in the neighborhood, I always asked Sayyid”—one can glean a great deal about people’s drug use, health troubles, and tastes in food and sex from their unsorted garbage. Another important source for Hessler was his remarkably open interpreter, Manu, who revealed to Hessler the largely hidden world of gay men in a society in which identities and desires are rarely as straightforward as Hessler expected. As he observes, for all young Egyptians, “sexual repression was a constant weight on their psyches.” He adds that “young men in particular conveyed an unsettled, slightly volatile air” but marvels that his interpreter’s friends were not only the kinds of people he expected: “foreigners, liberals, political activists, gays”; they were also “typical cops—macho, athletic, patriotic—but who seemed to enjoy Manu’s company,” and there was even “a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Stereotypes of all kinds fall by the wayside as Hessler makes his way around the country. Indeed, the towns and villages of Upper Egypt turn out to house a dozen or more market stalls run by Chinese entrepreneurs selling imported Chinese lingerie—a serendipitous discovery facilitated by Hessler’s earlier residence in China and his proficiency in Chinese. These and many other encounters occasion funny, illuminating, and often provocative observations about Egypt and its people. When he visits Sayyid at home, for example, he is surprised to find that the garbage collector’s apartment is immaculate, equipped with brand-new appliances, two television sets, and a computer for the children. This material well-being illustrates why Cairo, for all its chaos, is still a magnet for migrants from the countryside and now home to some 20 million people. Hessler’s talks with the Chinese entrepreneurs he meets yields a similarly provocative insight. Although they profess little interest in Egyptian politics, they are keen analysts of what they saw as Egypt’s halfhearted revolution: China, after all, “had experienced truly revolutionary change throughout the span of the twentieth century, for better and for worse, and they believed that the Egyptians had never committed themselves to such a wrenching transformation.”
But there are puzzling omissions in Hessler’s book. Perhaps most surprising, given that the book purports to be “an archaeology of the Egyptian revolution,” there is relatively little about the 2011 uprising that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. Hessler starts with a sweetly funny and captivating story about the repercussions of the revolt at the Upper Egyptian archaeological site that provides the book with its name, “an ancient necropolis that villagers refer to as al-Madfuna: the Buried.” The site manager grew concerned that the sudden lack of police was emboldening grave robbers and looters. So he constructed a large wooden box, painted it black, added flashing lights and a siren, and mounted it on his truck every night: “In the dark the vehicle was a strikingly good imitation of the armored personnel carriers that are ubiquitous at any Egyptian tourist site.” Soon, there were “rumors in the village that the police were active again.”
This story permits Hessler to muse about disorientations of time and space: Upper Egypt is the south of the country, as visitors are always surprised to learn, for example, and ancient Egyptians had conceptions of time that may be “impossible . . . to be grasped by the modern mind.” But it also obscures the fact that Hessler himself did not arrive in Egypt until October 2011—eight months after Mubarak’s overthrow and after the intense protests against army rule that followed during the spring and summer of 2011. As a consequence, the book focuses not on the revolt and its aftermath but on the subsequent election campaign, which resulted in the presidency of Mohamed Morsi (a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood); Morsi’s one year in office; the coup that deposed him; and the early days of the tenure of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who led the coup and has ruled the country ever since—a tenure that seems likely to continue for a long time to come.
This was a fascinating and tumultuous time. But for many Egyptians, it was aftermath, a struggle to right a ship that had almost capsized. Hessler joins the story midway through and doesn’t always manage to distinguish enduring features of the country from the aftershocks of a revolution. He admits, as he contemplates leaving Egypt, that he has found his life there “difficult,” but it is never clear whether this was born of life in Egypt in general or reflected a postrevolutionary hangover. (Imagine someone who relocated to New York City in the months after the 9/11 attacks. To what degree would his or her impressions have captured the city’s essence, or would they instead have reflected the effects of a recent collective trauma?)
Hessler remarks that compared with China, Egypt seemed disorganized: “This was one grim lesson I had learned in Egypt: Unstructured authoritarianism is worse than structured authoritarianism. . . . Few Egyptians seemed concerned that after three years of revolution the authorities still lacked a basic protocol for dealing with unrest.” Comparative authoritarianism is always a dicey enterprise, but I don’t quite agree with Hessler’s conclusion. The Egyptian reluctance to insist on more efficient autocracy may have reflected the residual, if fading, hopes for the revolutionary uprising more than it demonstrated a lack of concern for competent government.
THE WORLD OF WOMEN
There are other missing pieces in Hessler’s picture. His focus on Cairo and Upper Egypt, for example, leaves out quite a bit of the country, including the Nile Delta and the north coast, which is home to the famed, faded city of Alexandria and around 40 million of Egypt’s 95 million or so inhabitants. Instead of unearthing the contemporary reality of those areas, Hessler delves into the Pharaonic past. As Hessler himself observes, his enthusiasm for ancient Egypt is not typical of Egyptians themselves. “Average Egyptians take pride in their pharaonic history, but there’s also a disconnect, because the tradition of the Islamic past is stronger and more immediate,” he writes. “The ancients belong to foreigners and Islam belongs to us” is how Hessler sums up the typical Egyptian view. And yet Islam plays a surprisingly modest role in this book and is usually portrayed as a source of constraint: the demands of the Ramadan fast and the inconvenience of the niqab feature more prominently than, say, the joy Egyptians take in celebrating religious holidays or the satisfaction they find in communal rituals.
This sense of constraint also seeps into Hessler’s assessment of the position of women in Egypt. “It wasn’t until I started visiting Chinese shopkeepers in Upper Egypt that I realized how much I had missed seeing men and women together,” he writes. “It was relaxing to spend time with the Chinese—I could sit and talk with Kiki without worrying about her husband’s reaction or whether my male presence might damage her reputation.” Hessler does not seem to have spent much time with women during the course of his reporting, but he developed a clear impression of what everyday life is like for most Egyptian women. “I imagined that being a woman in Egypt . . . required constant energy, thought and adjustment,” he writes, adding that a typical Egyptian woman would have to “accept the judgements of the men around her, shifting her dress and behavior according to whoever they might be: husband, close relative, distant relative, friend of husband, neighbor, man on the street.” He then adds: “Of course, the culture in America and Europe also placed unfair demands on women but there was no comparison to Egypt.” As a woman whose life has demanded constant energy, thought, and adjustment everywhere I have lived and worked, I missed a more nuanced account of the specific ways in which Egyptian women navigate their world.
A DIFFICULT COUNTRY
Hessler points appreciatively to the resilience of Egyptians and Egyptian society, something that surely struck every foreigner who lived in the country during the tumultuous years after Mubarak’s overthrow. In April 2013, when blackouts were common across the country, Hessler visited the Upper Egyptian town of Abydos, where “at night, with no electric lights, no police presence, and guns everywhere, I could walk safely in the village.” He marvels that “in a country where systems and laws had always been weak, there were other forces that kept the place from collapsing.” In searching for an explanation for this mysterious stability, he concludes that “the only real structure was the same one that had shaped local life since long before the first royal tombs were dug into the Buried. It has nothing to do with the Brotherhood, . . . or Sisi, or any other political figure or group. For Egyptians, the family was the deep state.” That the family provides safety and solace to Egyptians confronted with a vast but sclerotic and disorganized state is a typically astute observation on Hessler’s part. But even though the family looms large in Egyptian society, so, too, do religious impulses, neighborliness, patriotism, and a certain ineffable warmth and lightheartedness.
Hessler ends his book on a wistful note. “Nobody had asked us to go to Egypt, and nobody was asking us to leave,” he writes of his family’s departure, which was prompted by the realization that there were “limits to how long [they] could stay in a place where life was so difficult.” He was admirably reluctant to admit this to the Egyptians he was leaving behind, and for whom there is little escape from the difficulties. Like most visitors to Egypt, many of whom will value his book as a congenial guide, Hessler found his travels interesting and brought home a lot of good stories, which he tells exceptionally well—but he was glad to be going home.
Today, most of what Westerners write and read about Egypt is still, really, about Westerners.
That leaves readers to wonder about the lives of those for whom Egypt is home. Disappointment with the outcome of the Arab uprisings has soured many Western commentators on the Arab world. The toxic mix of tyranny and anarchy that dashed hopes for freedom, dignity, social justice, and prosperity surprised and disappointed Western scholars and political analysts; for many observers, curiosity and excitement have been replaced by resignation and even resentment. As activists and Western officials castigate Arab governments for human rights abuses, and Western scholars warn their students away from research that might be dangerous, much of the Arab world now appears to be off-limits even to U.S. students wishing to learn Arabic. Meanwhile, apart from arms dealers and oil companies, foreign investors have turned away from the region, worried about both bureaucratic paralysis and political instability. It is, to use Hessler’s term, just too difficult.
As a result, Westerners know less and less about the quotidian lives of people in Egypt—and more and more of what they know is harvested online, from tweets and blogs and Facebook posts. Few Western reporters are based in the country anymore, and Egypt’s media are hardly free, much less representative. Human rights groups estimate that Egypt currently jails around 40,000 political prisoners—an appalling figure, but one whose accuracy is difficult to assess. And although I would like to know about the status of these prisoners, I would also like to know about the prospects of the thousands of entrepreneurs in the country. What are they working on, and who is funding their projects? And speaking of business, how are the captains of industry who thrived during the Mubarak era faring today? And is it true, as the local press suggests, that fewer people are fasting during Ramadan these days? What might that reveal about religious observance, politics, and family? And lastly (although hardly finally), what is the legacy of the hopes raised and dashed, and the trust extended and betrayed, by the 2011 uprising? Egyptians were surprised by the depth of the differences among them exposed by the revolt and its aftermath: the cleavages between Muslims and Christians, revolutionaries and reactionaries, liberals and populists, patriots and nationalists, the generous and the stingy, and the fearless and the timid all mattered more than they had thought. The future of the country will depend to a great degree on how these identities will be expressed and reshaped, now that they have been revealed.
Today, most of what Westerners write and read about Egypt is still, really, about Westerners. Whether filtered through the fascination of tourists justifiably smitten with the pyramids or the indignation of Western analysts understandably disappointed by the autocrats, what we are writing involves what matters to us. Perhaps that is the best we can do. But it means that what actually matters to Egyptians is likely to remain buried, as it were, under our own hopes and fears.