Egypt’s intangibles: Morsi to Sisi to the pyramids to an LGBTQ refugee

There were once direct El Al flights to Cairo, but they were canceled in 2012 after the Arab Spring protests.

Egypt’s intangibles (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt’s intangibles
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For many Israelis, visit-able Egypt ends at Sharm e-Sheikh, at the bottom tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Though the Pyramids are a feasible, if long, day trip from Eilat, smoking sheesha and drinking tea in hushas at Taba or Nuweiba is as far as many are willing to go. There were once direct El Al flights to Cairo, but they were canceled in 2012 after the Arab Spring protests. And of course, some Israelis heed their government’s travel warnings and avoid the country altogether.
Author and New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler’s book The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution provides a visit to the archaeological sites, the inner workings (and non-workings) of the Egyptian political system, and the charming chaos of Cairo, which most Israelis won’t ever experience.
Hessler, who moved to Egypt with his family in October 2011, immerses the reader in Cairo by introducing both the cast of characters and the scenery in his little corner of Umm al-Dunya (a long-standing Arabic nickname meaning “mother of the world,” which is applied to the Egyptian capital). He dissects the archaeology of his apartment in the wealthy Zamalek district of Cairo, its iron-wrought spiderweb patterns and its killer elevator (seriously). There’s Manu, his translator who eventually can no longer take the homophobic atmosphere in the country and seeks status as an LGBTQ refugee. There’s his nostalgic-for-Nasser Arabic teacher Rifaat, and then there’s Sayyid.
Hessler writes about the myriad of service providers who shuffle in and out of his apartment: “Once a month, a man knocked at the door, asked politely to enter, studied the gas meter in the kitchen, and produced a bill to be paid on the spot. Another man appeared periodically to collect a fee for electricity. Neither of these men wore a uniform or showed any form of identification, and they could materialize at any time from early morning to late at night.”
This is how he meets Sayyid, the neighborhood garbage collector with whom he becomes fast friends. Illiterate like much of Egypt, yet insightful, Sayyid quickly becomes the book’s most riveting character.
Hessler documents Sayyid’s legal trials and tribulations, his occasional conspiracy-theory indulgence, and his jubilation upon finding valuable contraband items in the rubbish of wealthy Zamalek inhabitants (think knockoff erectile dysfunction pills and half-drunk bottles of whiskey) in a way that makes the reader crave paragraphs about him and his family.
After a night of beer drinking, Hessler captures the garbageman’s pragmatism, writing, “He was the only guest I ever entertained who carried off his empties because he knew he’d end up collecting them anyway.”
“I know what happens to Morsi,” I found myself thinking during pages about the trial of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, charged with a 2011 prison break and conspiring with foreign countries to incite violence, “but what happens to Sayyid?”
Hessler’s descriptions of some of his friends are worth of novel characters, but he is also masterfully at weaving together the glorious ancient Egyptian past with the country’s tenuous present. Hessler’s book is part travelogue, part Egyptian current events primer, part ancient history textbook. He finds the similarities during a few millennia of history in the Nile Delta, employing comparisons when they’re apt, never forcing a pharoah-to-president juxtaposition just comparison’s sake.
Writing before Egypt’s 2014 presidential elections: “When I talked to Egyptians in Amarna and Minya, they sometimes made direct comparisons: Morsi was Akhenaten [the heretic pharaoh who worshiped only the sun god and was stricken from the Egyptian history books after], and Sisi was Horemheb [the general-pharaoh who deposed Akhenaten in a coup].”
But Egypt’s political sands shift as quickly as the sands of the Sahara. Though some Egyptians may have viewed Sisi as the Horemheb figure, after the 2014 elections, Hessler likens him instead to Akhenaten, the heretic king who moved the seat of government from Thebes to a new city known as Amarna. “During Sisi’s first year in power he announced that Egypt would build a brand-new capital city in the desert.”
Hessler can be devilishly funny and delightfully tongue in cheek. Toward the end of the book, he describes emails swapped with a previous inhabitant of his Cairo apartment. The man, a Jewish Cairene, lived in Egypt under Mohammed Naguib, the first president after the 1952 revolution. After 400 pages describing the revolutions which overthrew Mubarak and Sisi, Hessler slyly writes, “But post-revolution presidencies have a way of ending abruptly, and Naguib was removed from office after a little more than a year.”
Hessler’s writing mirrors the humor for which Egyptians are known. Yusuf, running for Parliament from a small town describes his campaigning this way: “I don’t do rallies. I do personal visits... I average more than 50 funerals per month. It can be three of them in a day. The grim reaper is keeping on, and we keep up with him.”
Before moving to Cairo, Hessler lived in China for more than a decade. His interest in the country brings him to isolated industrial zones and lingerie stalls in Egypt owned by Chinese entrepreneurs. These interactions may well have been a fascinating and telling confluence of interests for Heller, but the dozens of pages devoted to Chinese economic migrants in a book ostensibly about Egypt may seem out of place to some readers.
Most of all, Hessler’s writing captures the intangibles of Egypt. Of course, Hessler writes marvelously about his visits to the Egyptian Museum and the pyramids, but he also writes about the ubiquitous prayer bruise, “the mark that devout Muslim men sometimes develop from touching their foreheads to the ground during prayer,” and the mysteries of the Egyptian bargaining system. We never forget the pyramids, but there are little characteristics about Egypt that can slip our minds unless someone reminds us.