In the fall of 2011, when protesters returned to Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the transitional rule of the military, Hessler told the story through a mosque — Omar Makram — on the perimeter of the square. It had slowly turned from just a place of prayer to something of a hub — a place for the injured (a medical station was set up inside); a tech point (people could come in to charge their phones); the only open place with public toilets at that time; and as well, something of a bastion of the revolutionary spirit (where leaders dispensed lessons on morality, ethics and more). And in the summer of 2013, following the violent clashes and military crackdown on Islamists after the ouster of the first freely elected post-2011 president, Mohamed Morsi, Hessler captured that moment of immense political and religious divide by analyzing the sermons of three preachers who had to individually negotiate it.
Not everything from his New Yorker pieces makes it into the book, but much seems to, including a recent profile of his translator, Manu, a gay Egyptian man who ends up seeking asylum in Cologne, Germany. The response to that piece from some here in Cairo was vehement — friends who have struggled with similar issues and threats around their sexual identities suggested that it felt facile, scratching the surface of something but not getting to the core of what it means to be gay in Egypt. The difficulty of dealing not just with the state, friends and family, but before all that, of simply coming to terms with oneself, to overcome internalized, culturally indoctrinated homophobia: Hessler didn’t reach that level. The debate about the piece brought back the much-contested profile of Sayyid, the garbage collector, which was denounced by some as exploitive, and sensational for its emphasis on sex.
In some ways, it’s understandable where such criticism and reaction comes from. It is impossible, even after five years, to be of any part of Egypt in the way that a local is. This seems to be what lifelong residents of any place demand when they approach chronicles and depictions of the country and city where they live. But even as one of those lifelong residents, I myself grappled with writing a nonfiction book about Egypt. After some eight or nine drafts, I pronounced it dead and turned to fiction. The challenge, in my case, was that everything felt too close — too personal or intimate either to me, or to people I know. Privacy was an issue — family networks in Egypt are sprawling, and it felt as if every story I wanted to tell might implicate someone related to someone who was a friend or relative of someone near to me. I felt responsible, to people I knew as well as those I didn’t. Across several hundred pages of a manuscript, I hadn’t included a single name.
In reading “The Buried,” which I admit is the kind of book I might have criticized in the past, I find myself changing my mind. What Hessler offers is something that no Egyptian could ever really write, and in that way, he adds alternate dimensions to a story, or the stories, of this place we call home, with all the good intentions of simply his own singular viewpoint and experience.