I have just finished reading The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, by Peter Hessler. I found this book because I stumbled on some tweets of his that suggested he actually had a nuanced view of China, which is highly unusual for a western journalist. He is a journalist working at the New Yorker, who spent several years in Beijing, and this book is his account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which unfolded as he was living and working in Egypt. Hessler is also unusual for a journalist from an elite publication in that he actually learnt the language of the countries he reported on, and attempted to meet people outside the expat bubble, something which is incredibly rare in journalists in Asia and I’d guess (especially now) even rarer in journalists covering the middle east. So I was interested in finding out what he had to say about the Egyptian Revolution, and how he linked it to the archaeology of Egypt’s ancient sites.

The book is divided into three parts, which describe the events immediately leading up to and around the revolution; the fallout and subsequent collapse of that revolution and Morsi’s rule; and then the long-term consequences for Egypt. Through the three parts he weaves together accounts of his own life in Egypt, the lives and tribulations of the Egyptian people he knew, and the things he learnt about the ancient history of Egypt, in particular a specific lost city in the desert that appears to reflect many of the classic mistakes of modern Egypt. This style of storytelling is engaging and interesting but also infuriating, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere at times and you can’t feel that the guy is making a point; as a result I had to go away and come back to this book several times, when my interest in what he was trying to say overcame my frustrations at his failure to get anywhere closer to saying it. I think it’s safe to say that there is very little plot or structure to this book, just a series of anecdotes laid out in approximately temporal order, with some interesting asides.

The most enjoyable part of this storytelling conceit by far is the tales of the Egyptians Hessler meets. He studies Arabic with a man called Rifaat, who is a cynic out of place in modern Cairo, and practices his Arabic with the local waste disposal man, Sayyid. He also gets help in the early years of his stay in Cairo from a gay Egyptian man called Manu, until his Arabic is good enough to work by himself, and also meets people associated with these men. Later on in the story he begins to meet and talk to Chinese lingerie merchants, using his experience of China and Chinese people to learn about Egypt through their eyes. These people are all fascinating individuals, leading complex and compromised lives in the face of a social system that is extremely different to our western ideals, an increasingly authoritarian state, and in Manu’s case the constant threat of physical harm from the extreme prejudice he is constantly exposed to. Some of the people in this story have extremely disappointing, even distressing, endings, and Hessler describes them with sympathy, empathy and care, which makes their stories simultaneously powerful, entertaining, and frustrating, and sometimes ultimately disappointing in different ways. Through them we gain some insight into how Egyptian culture works and how Egyptians view their own problems, and we also get a very personal sense of how the overbearing patriarchy and the increasingly intrusive authoritarianism affect ordinary people’s lives and decisions.

Hessler tells these stories and the experience of the revolution with a genuine respect and empathy for the people involved, and without much of the usual patronizing interventionist snootiness of western journalists reporting on other cultures. He is very clear about his position on various moral issues but does not allow this to cloud his understanding of what these people who grew up in this system believe and think about the world around them. His tone is very much like the tone I am familiar with from foreigners living in Japan who actually love and respect the country but aren’t foolish enough to think that the only way they can fit in here is by being and thinking Japanese: a kind of detached and respectful love and simultaneous exasperation, and an appreciation of how differences can be simultaneously frustrating or crazy but also necessary and beneficial, and enough humility to understand that his own perspective is not universally right or effective. Through this perspective he tries to understand values he doesn’t share, actions he would never take, and decisions that on first blush look completely crazy.

Hessler also approaches the revolution from a relatively open-minded standpoint (for a westerner, and especially an American). He talks to people from all sides of the political battles, and he attempts to identify facts and understand patterns and systems where most journalists would just look for confirmation of their pre-existing biases. Through his careful work we learn that the Muslim Brotherhood was massively overstating its membership and its charitable works; that many Egyptians came to think the Brotherhood was an American plot; that many people in leadership positions on all sides had no plan or system for the revolution; and that much of politics in Egypt did not change with the revolution. We get a street-level view of how mistakes happened and how some decisions and responses were inevitable or uncontrolled, and we see how events or processes that from the outside looked carefully planned and executed were actually happenstance. This is interesting and insightful stuff, and the first time I’ve tried to understand the Arab spring in any detail.

For this insight into the revolution and the stories of the people he knew, this book is definitely worth reading. However, it suffers from a couple of flaws that I think are all too common in journalistic work. First and foremost, just like the other book by a journalist that I recently finished, there is no real conclusion and a poor logical structure. I don’t know what journalists learn at school but a common flaw of opinion and discussion pieces by journalists is that they don’t know how to build up from evidence, using logic, to a conclusion, and this seems to happen in their books too. In this case I don’t necessarily need to see logic or some kind of scientific method of Egyptian revolutionary studies, but I’d at least like a conclusion, and the book just kind of fizzles out without saying anything. Like much of journalistic work, it ends up being a discussion of a big national event through how it affects 3 or 4 random people the journalist knows. That’s a nice story but to my mind it’ s not saying anything. Choose a different 3 or 4 random people and I’d get a completely different set of consequences of the revolution, a different sense of its importance and its effects, and a different understanding of the world. That’s well and good as a story but it’s also very limited as a form of essay about a revolution. I want more! And somehow I don’t get it. The stories get wrapped up but nothing else is finished or even said, in the end. It’s a strange feeling to read 100s of pages of non-fiction and come out having learnt a lot and seen a lot but simultaneously having learned nothing. Kind of like reading a modern newspaper, I guess.

But besides this, and the slightly loose way in which the narratives of the different people and ancient cities intertwine, this book is excellent. It is sensitive to the people, it gives a feeling of being in Cairo without losing the sense of being an outsider, it’s not patronizing or chauvinist, and it gives people outside Egypt an insight into the revolution that is aware of its own limitations, careful about its own subjectivity, but thorough within the limitations of its writers frame and abilities given the context in which he collected his stories. I strongly recommend this book as both a series of biographies, an account of the revolution, and a study of a country. Despite its flaws and its ultimate lack of conclusion, it’s a powerfully empathic discussion of a difficult time that has already been warped into propaganda by western governments and media, its truth lost to time. At least with this book we can dig up a little of the truth, even if only glimpses, and understand something of the archaeology of the revolution, just as its title suggests.