In The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, a narrative nonfiction account of Egypt after the Arab Spring, Peter Hessler puts his finger on the pulse of the nation by describing his visits to archeological digs and his interactions with ordinary people. In the book, which will be published in May by Penguin Press, Hessler does for Egypt what he did for China in Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for Nonfiction: he ties contemporary society to ancient times.
Hessler takes his time with a project. For The Buried, he moved to Cairo with his wife, journalist and writer Leslie Chang, and their young twin daughters in October 2011, nine months after the Arab Spring began and only a month after he received a MacArthur “genius grant” (“You get one phone call, and then you don’t hear from them again,” he says). Hessler and his family spent almost five years there, returning to the U.S. in summer 2016. He learned the language—colloquial Egyptian Arabic (he also speaks Chinese)—and connected on a deep level with the people, from Sayyid, his garbage man in Cairo, to Ahmed Regab, the manager of the Abydos dig profiled in the book, who saved the site from looters after the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
I first interviewed Hessler in Beijing for Oracle Bones, and we’ve met twice in Cairo. Conversation with him provides a fascinating window into where he’s living, and his understanding and feel for a place come through on the page. He headed to the Middle East with the goal to do a book, but he had no contract. “These things usually develop organically,” he says. “After the second year in Cairo, I began to see the threads that would become The Buried.”
Hessler heard about the site at Abydos, which the locals call al-Madfuna (the buried) and which is home to the earliest known royal graves in Egypt. Abydos is one of the oldest cities in the world, and Hessler began to travel there regularly from Cairo, which is 300 miles to the north. “Abydos is the cradle of Egyptian civilization,” he says. “The revolution was so focused on Cairo, which is such a large, dramatic city. I wanted to have a foothold somewhere else.” In 2012 and 2013, people were very open, he adds, and he was able to get close to local officials and follow the politics.
In Cairo, Hessler worked from home and spent a great deal of time with Sayyid, whom he found to be “so patient and curious, illiterate but intelligent.” He adds, “Sayyid was indicative of the country’s great undeveloped potential.” The garbage man was the subject of one of Hessler’s New Yorker articles reported from Cairo; he also published pieces in the New Yorker on Chinese merchants of lingerie in Cairo and the parliamentary elections in Abydos.
Interested in how archeology is relevant to the present, Hessler writes about the political sophistication of the pharaohs. “We think of Egypt as a craft culture—temples and pyramids—but the pharaohs also knew how to manipulate politically, to use nostalgia the way Trump’s ‘Make America great again’ uses nostalgia.”
William Clark of William Clark Associates has been Hessler’s agent since 1998. “I had just started my own agency, and Peter wrote a query letter that intrigued me, about this book he was working on,” Clark says. When Hessler delivered the manuscript, for what would eventually become his first book, River Town, the story of his Peace Corps years in China, Clark notes that he deliberately read it slowly because he enjoyed it so much.
Hessler’s next book was Oracle Bones, which combined Chinese history with profiles of people such as Polat, a Uighur dissident, and the archeologist Chen Mengjia, who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. “The Buried is structurally complex, similar to Oracle Bones,” Clark says. “This is the kind of book I live to represent. It’s where the magic comes in.”
Hessler’s four books on China were published by Harper. Clark saw The Buried as an opportunity to “put the book out there.” He sold it on a proposal and five chapters to Penguin Press v-p and publisher Scott Moyers in a September 2017 auction. Moyers tells me he bought The Buried for a “healthy sum” and calls himself “the lucky winner,” adding, “I certainly have no buyer’s remorse.”
Moyers says he admires Hessler’s work and the real connections he makes with the people he writes about. “Not many journalists would have forged this close a relationship,” he says, citing the last chapter of the book, where Hessler says goodbye to Sayyid. Moyers sees The Buried as not limited to the story of Egypt—“the way War and Peace is not about war.” The point is “lives caught in a whirlwind,” he adds, noting, “I want to make sure that we honor the universal literary qualities of the book and not look away from the subject but are aware of the profound and beautiful majestic literary power of the reportage.”
Penguin is printing many bound galleys for booksellers and the media and sending Hessler on a cross-country tour. Rights have been sold in Australia and New Zealand, China, Germany, Poland, and the U.K.
Hessler takes on serious subjects in The Buried, but as in all of his books, the humanity of his reporting and the ease of his prose is his power, such as when he describes Sayyid bringing him strange items he’d found in the garbage and asking for explanations. “He felt that, as a foreigner, I could understand,” Hessler says. “One day he brought me a package of Chinese sex pills with instructions in English that advised, ‘Before fucking, make love 20 minutes.’ ”