Cairo, 2011. Photo credit: Ayman Zaid / Shutterstock.com
For American expatriates living in China in the first decade of the 2000s, Peter Hessler was already something of a household name, not just as the New Yorker’s China correspondent, but as a public intellectual. His books became fixtures of laowai bookshelves almost as soon as they were published. His reputation was well earned. He wasn’t just a better stylist than most, or a more intrepid reporter, or a stronger researcher: he was all of these things. At a time when much media coverage of China contented itself with aggregate statistics about GDP growth and internal migration, Hessler’s work stood out for its frank, vivid, and humane portraits of how these unprecedented economic and social changes were playing out in the lives of individual people.
Fast-forward a decade and Hessler has taken this approach to the next level in his latest book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution. A departure from his previous China-focused work, The Buried got its start when Hessler, along with his wife and their twin daughters, moved to Egypt in the fall of 2011. He spent the next five years there, covering the political turmoil that began with the popular protests of the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
For a writer so closely identified with China, the move to Egypt was a noteworthy change, but in many ways, it also proved to be a superficial one. The fundamental character of Hessler’s work remains very much the same. In The Buried, he digs into the promise and disappointment of the Arab Spring, the lives of ordinary Egyptians he befriended, as well as Egypt’s rich archaeological history, weaving together these disparate strands into a portrait of a place and a people that, contrary to what the title may imply, is, in fact, brimming with life.
Michael Schmale [MS]: You spent the first decade of your career in China, and your first four books were almost entirely China-focused. How did you end up in Egypt covering the political tumult of the 2010s?
Peter Hessler [PH]: My wife, Leslie, and I had planned to go to Egypt long before the revolution started. China is a world unto itself, and it’s a place that can completely dominate your thoughts and your perspective, sort of like the United States. We felt like, before we were too old, it would be nice to have another place where we spent serious time and gained some level of knowledge and familiarity.
Still, I went with somewhat mixed feelings because, first of all, it was an intense time to move there with small children, but also I knew it was going to be overwhelming and difficult. But I saw it also as a challenge and something different from China and a very different experience as a journalist, and so I did cover events more directly than I had in China, but I continued to do the kind of work I’ve always done: focusing more on individuals and places that interest me. Really the goal with the book was to combine these things. I wanted the readers to understand some of the issues behind the Revolution. It was a very important moment and I felt like it would be wrong to be living there and not engage with that. But I also thought it was important for readers to meet people like Sayyid and also be introduced to places like Abydos, in Upper Egypt, which don’t get the same coverage as Cairo.
MS: Were there any particular surprises or challenges going from China to a place like Egypt?
PH: One thing that we realized is how unusual China is. I think sometimes when you start in China, it becomes one of your points of normalcy because you’re accustomed to it. The trajectory I witnessed from the nineties to now doesn’t happen in the developing world very often. Egypt, on the other hand, has sustained dysfunction in a lot of ways longer, and with deeper rooted issues than China has: that’s more common.
But a lot of the methods that you’re using are the same. Language is critical. I wasn’t able to get my Arabic to the level of my Chinese but I got to where I was comfortable in my Arabic and I could hang out with Sayyid and his family and communicate with them very well and travel by myself, do a lot of interviews on my own, and that adds so much to your understanding of a place. It’s really essential. I think, also, the strategy of trying to get out of the capital is important. You have to try not to get too focused on the big place that everybody always reads about, try not to get too lost in the big characters and the important people.
You also have to be willing to spend time and do projects in a longitudinal fashion, where you’re watching things develop over time, like seeing how Sayyid’s family is changing and how his ideas are developing, or what Manu’s path is over the long haul. Or even in a place like Abydos, looking at the different phases of political change or political development that they are going through in the wake of the Revolution in a village like that is telling, and it’s similar to what I did in China. In China, I would often follow people and places over a period of years and I tried to do the same thing in Egypt.
MS: More than your previous work, The Buried takes as its object a discrete geopolitical event — the political turmoil bookended by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the coup of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — and yet a substantial portion of the book focuses on the lives of Sayyid, Manu, and Rifaat, three ordinary Egyptians who you built relationships within your time there. Why do you focus on these individuals in a book that’s ostensibly about a revolution?
PH: Even if they’re not directly involved as leaders or major activists or something, they reflect a lot of the issues that made some people feel like it was necessary to have change. You look at Manu and you see this social conservatism and the pressure that puts on people. You look at Sayyid and you see the failure of the education system, as well as the deeply entrenched sexism in the culture. And with Rifaat, you get this sense of decline. It’s really tragic, when you’re in a developing country, to feel like the past is a better place.
These were all things that in their own ways created the environment that led to the revolution. Sadly, in my opinion, at least, the revolution didn’t address these things very directly. And that was the tragedy of those years — it didn’t happen. They didn’t get the revolution that they needed.
MS: One astonishing fact you mention in the book is that Egypt underwent a 2,000+ year period without a single Egyptian ruler, a period that only ended in 1952. Do you think this long history of colonialism played a role in what you witnessed there?
PH: The last person who called himself pharaoh was in the second century BC. From then until 1953 there wasn’t a single Egyptian in charge of the country. That’s like the Western Han dynasty to Mao Zedong, as if there hadn’t been a single Chinese administration running China. Imagine what the place would be like. The sense of ownership you have is very different. When I was in China in the nineties when it was still quite poor, people kind of realized that they’d screwed up. They felt like we made some mistakes, we made some bad decisions. Whereas in Egypt everything was always blamed on foreigners.
There’s a high level of truth to that, in the sense that it was a country run by foreigners for millennia, but when you don’t have ownership over the problems, it’s harder to solve them yourself. The direct history of colonialism is a real psychological issue for the country. It also probably contributed to the gender disparity. There’s a lot of evidence that the treatment of women became more conservative partly in reaction to colonialism.
In China, it was never quite like that. For all the ways in which the Chinese have been traumatized, for all the ways in which there are many levels of dysfunction, they did have some ownership over their problems. And they did feel like they could solve them. You could see them working on a lot of things. For example, I always felt like the status of women improved significantly even during the ten years that I was there. You could really see it in the way people talked about daughters and the status of women who were working.
MS: Getting to the craft aspects of your writing, one thing that sets your work apart is an almost novelistic approach to telling these stories. Not just in terms of the narrative structure and the characters, but down to the observed details and descriptions — the empty nails on the walls in the local rayis’s offices, for example, and you have a beautiful passage about how the sunlight changes in Cairo in the fall. How do you think about this aspect of your work? Is it an aesthetic decision or do you see it as something more fundamental than that?
PH: It’s really fundamental. Often with nonfiction, especially with journalism, there’s a sense that the writing is the icing on the cake. You’re just trying to punch it up or something. But to me, it’s just as important as the material, the research, and the thinking. It’s really the essence. I care a lot about the quality of the writing and I spend a lot of time on it. I go through a lot of drafts.
I sort of trained as a novelist — I majored in fiction as an undergraduate and planned to be a novelist at the time. I ended up feeling that non-fiction was the best path for me and I still think that’s true. I like combining the skills of a researcher with the skills of a writer. But the writing is not secondary. It’s sort of like if you’re a documentary filmmaker and your lens is foggy, your film’s not going to look very good. If you can write beautifully and sharply and capture people and places in their essence, you’re helping people see, you’re conveying it more accurately. I think a lot about this. It’s really a focus for me.
MS: You’ve said in the past that you like approaching your subjects as an outsider. What does that mean for your work and how you approach your writing?
PH: At this point, I’m sort of an outsider everywhere. There’s no place where I feel totally like a local. So everywhere I go I’m seeing things through the perspective of other experiences and other countries. I think that’s the role that I try to take as a journalist. I also find myself attracted to characters who are outsiders, to people like Sayyid and Manu, to people like the Chinese in Upper Egypt. My father’s a sociologist and I was influenced by those ideas as much as I was influenced by the ideas of fiction. There was a very early German social scientist, Georg Simmel, who wrote an essay called “The Stranger.” The stranger is the person who is in the community but not of the community. He’s not a total outsider, but he’s also not a traveler. He’s somebody who’s there on a regular basis, somebody like Sayyid who comes there every day and picks up the trash, but he’s of a different class, a different neighborhood. Those people often have really interesting insights, and people respond to them in different ways.
I’m also a stranger, so everywhere I go, people will tell me things that they wouldn’t tell other locals because I’m different. Like those Chinese who could sell lingerie in Upper Egypt — people said They don’t gossip, they don’t talk. That’s why we trust them.
In terms of understanding a country, a local perspective is fundamental. You need to have Egyptians writing about Egypt, just as you need Chinese writing about China. But it’s also very useful to have an outsider’s perspective. I feel like that’s one thing I can do in these places: get a framework of expertise and familiarity at some level, but also maintain some of the distance I have as an outsider and as an observer. In the end, you need every kind of perspective. You need to have local perspectives. You need to have outside perspectives. You need to have male perspectives, female, young, old, and so on. And I’m particularly aware of that because Leslie and I have different profiles here in China. She’s a Chinese-American woman, and I’m a white American man. People respond to us in different ways and we develop different kinds of projects. We did the same thing in Egypt. The things she was researching I couldn’t research. And so the goal is to find the thing that works for you, the thing that you can do that’s a little unique.
Peter Hessler has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2000 and is also a contributing writer at National Geographic.
Michael Schmale is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School.
This interview was first published on March 2, 2020, at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.