by Peter Hessler
I recently read The Buried by Peter Hessler, and I can definitely recommend it. I knew of Peter Hessler because when I started learning Mandarin, and scanned the bookshops for any English books with any link to China, his books popped up. He was sent to China as a young man, and worked in a remote town, teaching English (with an American accent) to Chinese students. His books described his adventures.
I loved his books. He wrote with humour, describing the many things that went wrong as he learnt Mandarin and described life in China. I felt that he wrote with tact, and had a real respect for the people he met. He seemed to genuinely like Chinese people (most foreign travellers seem rather condescending towards different cultures) and so I wasn’t surprised to learn that he is now married to a woman from China, and they have twin girls.
At the time of writing The Buried, Hessler had again left the US, with his wife and young girls, and had gone to live in Egypt. He applied the same amused patience as he tried to learn Arabic, and the culture in Cairo. He moved there at the beginning of the Arab Spring, and the book describes the events unfolding in the city.
Hessler writes in short sections, so this is a book to dip into during odd moments. I like the respect he shows towards the people he writes about. His says he always tries to learn a language using the books written in the country, because they reveal lots about the culture. I would agree with this. When I learnt Mandarin, the textbooks had lots about authority, and the vocab lists were about managers, and directors, and people in authority. Hessler compares this to the textbooks in Egypt, which were full of polite greetings and blessings, and the correct polite response in every situation. There is apparently even a correct way to thank your hairdresser!
Most people in Cairo spoke Arabic, though any quotes in newspapers were always translated into Fusha. Hessler describes one word, Yanni, which can be translated as: ‘yes,’ sort of,’ or ‘let’s pretend.’ That word alone tells you so much about the culture!
One of the charms of Hessler’s books, is that he befriends normal, working-class people. In Cairo, he befriends the man who collects the rubbish from the flats. There is lots to be gleaned from other people’s waste, much of which is recycled, any alcohol is sold (because good Muslim folk don’t drink alcohol). He also befriends a young gay man, who is struggling with the dangers facing a gay person in a strictly Muslim country (though I was interested to read that mostly, everyone knows that there is a certain place where gay people meet, and yet no one in authority is very bothered by it. It tends to be individuals who react strongly and cruelly, not the governing authorities per se.)
The political situation during the Arab Spring was obviously very interesting. Sometimes Hessler was in dangerous situations, though he writes: “What scared me most was the elevator shaft in our apartment.” He interviews people on the street and in the mosque, and attends news conferences. One feature of Egyptian politics seems to be the repeating of ‘facts’ over and over, until eventually people began to believe them. If something is asserted often enough, it becomes true…
While in Egypt, Hessler visits some of the archaeological sites. The book explores the links with ancient Egypt, and how the past continues to shape the future. The places he visited sound fascinating, and I now firmly want to visit.
If you want to read something light and interesting, I recommend The Buried.
Thanks for reading. I hope you have a lovely week.
Love, Anne x