A couple of weeks ago Peter Hessler wrote a long piece in The New Yorker about a Cairo dustman. It caused a bit of a stir in Cairo, and I wrote a letter to The New Yorker with some of my observations about why that might be. I knew it was far too long to be published, but I had things I needed to tell them. To my astonishment the editor of the letters page wrote back saying that they were considering publishing a shorter version and would I mind approving it. I was excited and deeply disappointed. What they had come up with missed the darkness running through my letter and all of its humour, leaving only a rather anodyne personal appreciation of Hessler’s work. But my small delight at being published in this illustrious magazine was stronger than my sense of authenticity, and after a few emails to and fro – as I tried to edit my voice back into the letter and they insisted on theirs – I approved their version. Now that it’s been published, I cannot read it without breaking out into a sweat and going pink in the face. I still want the letter I wrote to be read.
I’ve been flirting with starting a blog for some time. Now that The New Yorker ‘owns’ my original letter, the only place I can air it is on a personal blog. So it seems that this piece was destined to be the opening post.
Here is my original response to Hessler’s article:
The journalist, human-rights defending and socially minded social-media elite of Cairo has been in a bit of a flutter over the last few days, about the publication in the of Peter Hessler’s article What the Garbageman Knows. I was delighted to recognize my own dustman, or zabbal, in the photograph, only to become not a little disconcerted to read that Mr Hessler had sometimes accompanied his friend Sayyid around the back staircases of Zamalek apartment blocks going through his neighbours’ rubbish. The author soothed my discomfort with his record of the early riser who will sometimes supply Sayyid with a cup of tea – ‘That’s me!’ I thought happily, acknowledging the mornings when I’ve heard Sayyid scuffling about on the outside landing beyond our kitchen door in the pre-dawn quiet, while I, bleary-eyed, make sandwiches for my children’s lunchboxes and sometimes two cups of tea instead of one. Goodness I’d have been confused, horrified and delighted to discover Peter Hessler there with him on such a morning – I’ve admired his work from a distance ever since I came across River Town about six years ago, and have been curious to see what he makes of his time in Cairo.
So what has the fuss been about? Well, with some it looks to me like professional jealousy plain and simple. Sayyid, or someone like him, comes to the back door of every journalist in Cairo, pretty much, every day, and it took a writer with the freshness, the eye and the breathing space that Hessler has, to recognise his zabbal as a great way of getting under Cairo’s many layers of skin.
Breathing space is the key here, though. Longterm residents of this troubled city of twenty million are worn-out and have never been more so than over these past three and a half years. For journalists, the scrabble to meet daily or weekly deadlines, feed voracious blogs and keep their work appearing in social media has become increasingly fraught and more competitive, their working conditions tougher and more frightening since the January 2011 uprising. For some old-hands, however much they like or respect his work it could be galling to have someone of Hessler’s caliber drop in fresh as a daisy, cushioned by the comfort, no doubt, of a book deal and a regular slot in the New Yorker, to enjoy long, and professionally super-productive beers with his garbage man, while they are struggling to keep up with the litany of horrors, macro and micro, that appear in relentless succession across Egypt and the rest of the region. Moreover, Hessler can invite his garbage man in for a shower, immerse himself in the details of the man’s marital problems, meetings with his divorce lawyer, time-wasting mediation sessions where one of the two parties is not even present (because she’s female), safe in the knowledge that his stay in Cairo is temporary, and this carefully constructed relationship will never become a personal burden. For longer-term Cairenes, however cleverly they may reveal Egypt to the outsider, these sagas are too much part of the fabric of daily life to be actively sought out; we live with them in suffocating repetition as we sometimes try to help – and sometimes do anything to avoid helping and end up helping anyway – friends, acquaintances, employees and our own, sorry selves with the twists and turns and tragedies of life lived a bit too close the sharp end. Which is why a fresh eye can be so telling, of course.
Then there’s the question of privacy. Egypt’s human rights advocates, even more harassed and tormented by state security and hostile public opinion than its journalists, defend the disenfranchised. So if they are ranting to each other about Hessler’s invasion of privacy, they are probably concerned more about Sayyid’s privacy than that of the entitled few, like the late ambassador with impotency, or the miserly cleric, through whose garbage Sayyid sifts. But for people used to counting bodies in morgues and cataloguing the entry and exit points of bullet wounds, fussing about Hessler’s invasion of Sayyid’s privacy is a welcome diversion, particularly these days, when President Sisi’s consolidation of power involves the imminent enforcement of the notorious NGO law and its accompanying crackdown on human-rights work across the board. Conversation recently has been dominated by talk of expected arrests and the most recent trial hearings. The rights and wrongs of this nicely put together article are light entertainment.
It seems unlikely that someone as sensitive as Hessler would reveal so much about his friend, and the man’s inside knowledge of his clients, without first getting his garbageman’s permission. But then how would a man whose illiteracy is one of the pivotal points of the article, predict the consequences of having his private life published in a magazine with a worldwide readership of four and a half million – and counting once it’s done the rounds of Egypt’s social media? And why did Hessler expose his friend so uncompromisingly by publishing his photograph?
Unfortunately, one of the consequences seems to be that a member of an organization called the Zamalek Guardians has decided she should have Sayyid’s guts for garters. In a city where everyone really does seem to know everyone, despite its being so vast, appearances count for everything, and appearances cast a long shadow. One of the big words hiding in that shadow is sex, and Hessler’s article is full of it. It’s one thing to know that your garbage man could deal the dirt on you in theory. To find him doing it in the New Yorker via a US journalist, is too much. So her wrath is being meted out on Sayyid, who stands accused, so far only on Facebook, of being a spy. Which of course he is, but not in the dangerously politically charged sense that is implied by his connection to a foreign journalist. He has overstepped the mark and if putting him back in his place means depriving him of his livelihood then so be it.
With any luck this is a storm in a teacup that will blow itself out and Sayyid will be working the backstairs of Zamalek unmolested in a month or two. But it is also possible that while Sayyid has not reckoned on the power of the New Yorker (how could he?) Hessler has underestimated the viciousness of Cairo’s ‘mili-tantes’ – the bourgeois ladies who have been such stalwart supporters of President Sisi. These women are great believers in maintaining the status quo even if it means suspending their humanity for as long as it takes to get ‘unsavory’ characters, be they ‘Brotherhood supporters’ or nosey garbage collectors, out of their way. And Hessler has given them plenty of ammunition with which to hurt Sayyid. Maybe Hessler’s friendship with Sayyid, for all that it made for an interesting article will turn into rather a burden after all. What’s for sure is that my chance of bumping into Peter Hessler at 6am on my back staircase is gone for good.
That’s the end of the original letter.
I have a handful of postscripts:
1. Hessler wrote an interesting response to the furore his article caused which his sister posted on Facebook.
2. Sayyid’s name is actually Sa3eed – I kept The New Yorker spelling to save them proof-editing hassle.
3. Some people are claiming on Facebook and Twitter that Sa3eed has lost his job. It’s true that he’s a bit less visible than he was, comes every three days rather than every one or two, and some of his clients are pretty cross with him, but he was still collecting garbage in Zamalek on Thursday.
4. For the record, I think it’s impossible to write about ordinary daily Egyptian life – or Indian, or South American or anything non-western for that matter – for a foreign western audience without laying oneself open to accusations of ‘orientalism’ or, more generally objectifying the subject. Some writers do the objectifying more crassly and stupidly than others. In my opinion Hessler is not one of them.