The Buried

An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution
Narrated by: Peter Hessler
Length: 16 hrs and 44 mins
Categories: History, World
4.5 out of 5 stars (94 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

"Extraordinary.... Sensitive and perceptive, Mr. Hessler is a superb literary archaeologist, one who handles what he sees with a bit of wonder that he gets to watch the history of this grand city unfold, one day at a time.” (Wall Street Journal)

From the acclaimed author of River Town and Oracle Bones, an intimate excavation of life in one of the world's oldest civilizations at a time of convulsive change

Drawn by a fascination with Egypt's rich history and culture, Peter Hessler moved with his wife and twin daughters to Cairo in 2011. He wanted to learn Arabic, explore Cairo's neighborhoods, and visit the legendary archaeological digs of Upper Egypt. After his years of covering China for The New Yorker, friends warned him Egypt would be a much quieter place. But not long before he arrived, the Egyptian Arab Spring had begun, and now the country was in chaos.

In the midst of the revolution, Hessler often traveled to digs at Amarna and Abydos, where locals live beside the tombs of kings and courtiers, a landscape that they call simply al-Madfuna: "the Buried". He and his wife set out to master Arabic, striking up a friendship with their instructor, a cynical political sophisticate. They also befriended Peter's translator, a gay man struggling to find happiness in Egypt's homophobic culture. A different kind of friendship was formed with the neighborhood garbage collector, an illiterate but highly perceptive man named Sayyid, whose access to the trash of Cairo would be its own kind of archaeological excavation. Hessler also met a family of Chinese small-business owners in the lingerie trade; their view of the country proved a bracing counterpoint to the West's conventional wisdom.

Through the lives of these and other ordinary people in a time of tragedy and heartache, and through connections between contemporary Egypt and its ancient past, Hessler creates an astonishing portrait of a country and its people. What emerges is a book of uncompromising intelligence and humanity - the story of a land in which a weak state has collapsed but its underlying society remains in many ways painfully the same. A worthy successor to works like Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, The Buried bids fair to be recognized as one of the great books of our time.

One of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2019 

©2019 Peter Hessler (P)2019 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Original, richly layered, and often delightful reporting. Hessler has a sharp sense of humor, a gift for observation, a healthy skepticism, and a knack for using memorable characters and anecdotes to demonstrate larger truths . . . . This is what reporting can be at its best: clear-eyed and empathetic, an addition to the historical record.” (New York Review of Books)

“Egypt’s tragedy has now found a non-fiction writer equal to the task in Peter Hessler . . . . What separates him from most other foreign correspondents is a strange alchemy in his writing and storytelling that gives him an ability to spin golden prose from everyday lived experience. . . . [The Buried] is filled with insight both about the cyclical nature of Egyptian politics and what is eternal and unchanging in this most ancient of countries, whose civilization goes back an astonishing, unbroken 7,000 years. The result is a small triumph, one of the best books yet written about the Arab spring.” (The Guardian)

The Buried is wonderfully impressive, not a conventional travel book at all, but the chronicle of a family's residence in Egypt, in a time of revolution - years of turmoil in this maddening place. And yet Peter Hessler remains unflustered as he learns the language, makes friends, puts up with annoyances (rats, water shortages, mendacity) and delves into the politics of the present and the ancient complexities. It is in all senses archeology - tenacious, revelatory, and humane.” (Paul Theroux)

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A Fascinating, Funny, and Moving Account of Egypt

Based on his roughly five years living in Cairo with his wife and little twin girls from early in the Arab Spring revolution to well after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi imposed his martial police state dictatorial rule on the country, Peter Hessler’s book The Buried (2019) fascinatingly depicts such changes in the context of the cultures of ancient and modern Egypt. We learn, for example, that the disproportionate number of young Egyptians (50% younger than 25) being dominated by male elders was not so different in the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten; that contemporary Egyptians as well as ancient ones favored strongman rulers; that ancient Egyptian rulers as well as contemporary ones embarked on “grandiose and misguided desert projects”; and so on.

In his book Hessler makes many interesting insights into contemporary Egypt, about things like the following:

--the complex nature of Egyptian culture (sarcastic, fatalistic, practical, local, paternal, superstitious);
--the lack of governmentally organized systems for things like trash collection (the history of Cairo trash collection from the 20th century through Arab Spring is rich);
the laws relating to divorce (if the wife initiates the proceedings she forfeits her right to alimony);
--the inequality between genders (which Hessler sees as the biggest problem in Egyptian culture, as, for instance, married women rarely work outside the home);
--the evil eye (never directly compliment someone on, say, their beautiful children, but instead use opposites like “your twins are beastly” or preface or conclude compliments with “This is what God has willed [masha’allah]” to avoid inadvertently cursing someone);
--superstition (how Egyptians explain people with psychological problems as being possessed by afrits or djin);
--the differences between and uses of classical “al fusha” (the eloquent) Arabic which is mostly written vs. demotic “ammiyya” (common) Egyptian Arabic which is mostly spoken;
--education (why more than 25% of Egyptians are illiterate and how children’s textbooks are biased with, for instance Israel not appearing on maps and debacles like the last war against Israel described as victories);
--drug abuse (opioid pain killer abuse is rampant in Cairo, not unlike in the USA);
--the Cairene slum (such neighborhoods differ greatly from typical American slums, being vibrant, unplanned, improvised, centrally located, and strangely well-functioning places in which live 2/3 or 11 million of Greater Cairo’s denizens)
--the niche filled by Chinese lingerie businesses (scattered up and down the Nile river towns and cities selling g strings and nightgowns to Egyptian women while speaking what Hessler calls the Lingerie Dialect of Egyptian Arabic, which uses exclusively female forms and calls every woman “bride” and cheaters “Ali Baba”).


The two most interesting and sympathetic figures in the book are Hessler’s gay interpreter Manu and his garbage man Sayyid. Manu lives a dangerous life in a society that frowns on homosexuality (there is no neutral term for being gay in Arabic, the police are given to arresting gay men and subjecting them to anal exams, and Manu’s lovers often robbed or beat him after sex because of their guilt). Sayyid (the scene stealer of the book) is a down-to-earth, illiterate, street-smart, hard-working guy living in the Cairene equivalent of a slum with his formidable and beautiful wife Wahiba and their kids. Sayyid knows everything about everyone who lives in Hessler’s upper-middle class neighborhood on an island in the Nile in Cairo, learning about them through their trash and his own connections, and he gets to know Hessler and his family quite well, even taking the author along with him on his garbage rounds and eating meals with him and so on. Sayyid seems more concerned with his epic marital troubles than with what happens in the Arab Spring and subsequent coup.

Hessler is a vivid, observant, and witty writer when describing people, places, moods, and events, as with empty shipping containers looking in the distance “like stacks of Legos melting in the sun.” His accounts of crawling through a long narrow debris-filled tunnel in a Middle Kingdom pharaoh’s tomb, of participating in a scary demonstration in Cairo, of accompanying Sayyid on a visit to a sexist and cynical divorce lawyer, of seeing Nefertiti’s uncanny bust in Berlin, of driving through a desert of mirages, and so on, are all prime.

Perhaps he gets a bit too narratively clever at times when shifting between historical and modern times in mid-chapter, as when late in the book he moves back and forth between an account of his interpreter Manu trying to settle into life in Germany as an asylum seeking refugee and the story of the Jewish family who had his (Hessler’s) apartment building built in Cairo early in the 20th century, because I’d have liked to have had one or the other account completed without jumping back and forth so much. It seemed to be a kind of narrative trick unnecessary for an already absorbing non-fictional work.

Hessler is a capable reader of the audiobook, pausing and emphasizing just right. Perhaps a more dramatic professional reader might have made his book even more compelling that it already is with his own reading, but I like to hear the author reading his/her own book whenever possible.

Hessler also interweaves into his book his descriptions and perceptions of Ancient Egyptian archeological sites like the Buried of the title (an ancient necropolis in Abydos) and of modern and contemporary Egyptologists so as to illuminate them as well as to suggest parallels between ancient and modern Egypt and its people. Thus, his funny, thought-provoking, moving, and illuminating book should be rewarding for anyone interested in Egypt, whether ancient or modern.

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Excellent!

I lOVED everything about it. It was my first Peter Hesslee book and I was pleasntly surprised by his gripping style of writing! He is also very funny! I found myself chuckling out loud so many times throughout the book! I loved the connections between contemporary Egypt and its ancient past. I think what makes this book so great is that Hessler did a great job teaching us about Egypt's past and present through the lives of ordinary people. I was really invested in these characters, their lives and families.

Don't let the title of the book scare you!! Yes, it is a non-fiction, yes it is about a country's rich history and culture but it is even more about people and their stories. Rest assured this book is a page-turner! I knew it had to be one of the Book of The Month selections for a reason!

1 person found this helpful

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Unearthed

That is what Peter Hessler accomplished
Outstanding audio production
Peter’s reading is perfect. So much historical And political insight.so much humanity an humor
. It is Peter Hessler at his best.
Zeljko Zic

1 person found this helpful

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Eye opening

This is the first book by Peter Hessler I have read and I now plan to read them all. The writing was exactly what I was looking for in the journalistic nonfiction genre. It gave me valuable insight into the Arab spring, Egyptian life and Arabic culture.

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EGYPTS REVOLUTION

Peter Hessler looks at Egypt through the eyes of an American who lived in both China and Egypt as a reporter. His perspective melds Chinese and American acculturation with interesting incite to Egypt’s history, language, and politics.

Egyptian women are raised to believe their role in life is to have and raise children, and take care of their husbands and families. Girls are not afforded the same educational opportunities as men. Women are expected to sacrifice their entrepreneurial right to a job when they are married. Hessler notes female children are routinely genitally mutilated. This is a tradition based on a belief that sexual pleasure and desire are a threat to society. Hessler compares the torture of genital mutilation to the Chinese tradition of binding women’s feet.

Hessler compares Chinese with Egyptian culture to expose the consequence of sex discrimination. The potential of women’s contribution to the economy in Egypt is eviscerated by cultural discrimination.

Hessler offers a glimpse of the hardship Egypt faces in the 21st century. His observations are at a local level of Egyptian society; not at the obscure level of a thirty-day tourist. Time will tell if el-Sisi is the answer to Egypt’s failing economy.

Sisi is acknowledged by Hessler as a good communicator. Sisi is truly an Egyptian focusing on his perception of what Egypt needs now; not the religious salvation of the eternal preached by the Brotherhood. The biggest criticism of Egypt’s leadership in Hessler’s book is the unequal treatment of women. There seems no action taken by el-Sisi to address that reality. One wonders if the economy is likely to grow quickly enough to avoid another revolution without gender discrimination reform.

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Informative

Nice stories. Good comparisons with China. Help me , as a Chinese, to know more about Egypt.

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Fascinating book

This book gave a nuanced perspective on Egypt’s history and current culture. I appreciated that Hessler explored the life of a garbage collector, migrant Chinese workers, and other individuals who are not commonly featured in writing about the Middle East. Highly recommend this book!

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read by the writer

Peter has been one of the best writer on China, and now he bridges the china and the Arab.

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Buy this book!

As an expat living in China I loved each of Hessler’s China books and heard from more than one person that these books convinced them to move to China. His insight on Egypt would have been exceptional on its own but it is even better when paired with the context of his years of experience in China. Normally I listen to books at 2-2.5 times the original narration speed but for Peter, and because he was reading it to me, I dropped it down to 1.5 times. It is always nice to hear Chinese words pronounced correctly in any audiobook and I hope that Peter might consider narrating other books on China, even those from other authors...

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Wonderful Read

He wrote about Egypt with the same tenderness and curiosity he wrote about China, which is how I fell in love with his writings the first place.