October 2011 was a fascinating, if precarious time, for Peter Hessler and his family to set up home in Cairo. Since January of that year, the chaotic events of the Arab Spring had been transforming Egyptian politics and society. Hessler arrived during a lull in proceedings but, before too long, the protests reignited and the rivalries spiralled out of control. The corpses piled up, the shells of burned out BMWs returned, and coups were on the horizon.
Many have written on these dramatic events, but Hessler introduces unexpected prisms of enquiry and the intimate perspective of an endlessly curious observer of Egypt past and present. The tone is set from page one. We are introduced to American archaeologists continuing their work as revolution engulfed the nation: unearthing small bronze statues of Egyptian gods while the crowds grew, not so far away, in Tahrir Square. Before too long, with the archaeologists fled, looters ransacked the dig sights. When the scholars returned, they found cigarette butts and cellophane wrapping strewn around the place.
It is a strange juxtaposition but it helps Hessler make links between Egypt long ago and Egypt today. The ancient Egyptians had a complex understanding of time: with the linear and the cyclical in tension. Revolution stakes a claim for making things new, but it is as old as the hills.
The book achieves a great deal. It provides outstanding reportage of the Arab Spring but, better yet, are Hessler’s accounts of the people he encountered. We are introduced to Arabic teachers, shoe shine men, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and – the pick of the bunch – Sayyid, the local garbage collector. He and Hessler were fast friends and on his rounds he would discover precious manuscripts, rare coins, discarded diplomatic passports and even, on one occasion, a stash of fancy French wine.
It is a rare book that takes such a bold approach to Egyptian history and contemporary politics. One moment we are reading about 13th-century BCE temples; the next we are hearing about the bare nails on office walls that, until recently, had held up portraits of Mubarak. The potential to confuse the reader was enormous. Hessler entirely avoids it in this spirited, deeply insightful book.
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