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Review of The Buried by Peter Hessler and Only the Dead by Ted Gorton
Reviews published in Country Life

Peter Hessler has already made a great name for himself in his native United States, with a series of books about the emergence of China. So the silence with which The Buried: Life, Death and Revolution in Egypt has been received this year is curious. Perhaps we are worn down with too many self-serving memoirs about who did what on Tahrir Square and also oppressed by the tragic end of all that optimism engendered across the Middle East by the Arab Spring. Peter Hessler’s The Buried is, however, a masterpiece of contemporary travel writing: created from four years of intense observation of his immediate neighbourhood balanced by his work as a political observer, while he learns Arabic and explores ancient Egypt as a traveller. By sympathetically chronicling the fate of his two central characters (one an intellectual, the other a street cleaner) we get to experience the reality of what is to be an Egyptian, to be a member of one of the world’s oldest civilizations which has always been characterised by tight-knit communities, strong family bonds and distant autocrats. In one quirky chapter, he stumbles across a community of expatriate Chinese traders, working a chain of stores selling erotic lingerie in the Egyptian provinces, and reveals more about the reality of the Middle East than whole shelf loads of political analysis.

Only the Dead: a Levantine Tragedy is also, by chance, the creation of an American with long experience of the language, life and literature of the Middle East. Ted Gorton has created a fictional memoir of a Lebanese entrepreneur (sheltering amongst a library of poetry is his villa overlooking bombed-out Beirut) looking back over the stirring events that both made him a man and made the Modern Middle East. But what makes this book exceptional, is that Ted Gorton has fused a real portrait of an old neighbour (based on remembered conversations as a student in Beirut) with a lifetime of impeccably researched historical detail. So the reader is immersed into a fast-paced narrative, packed full of adventures on the battlefield and in the bedroom, spliced with espionage, revenge, betrayal and war, that are all based on real events and historical personalities. I could not put it down.

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