The long read: Amid the convulsions in the years following the Arab Spring, Peter Hessler went to the ancient city of Amarna, site of another short-lived attempt to remake a nation
They say there is something special about buying your first brand-new car, and this is particularly true if it happens in Egypt during a revolution. By the spring of 2014, my wife, Leslie, and I had lived in Cairo for more than two years, as American foreign correspondents, and we had reached a point of decision. The previous summer, Mohamed Morsi, the countrys first democratically elected president, had been removed in a military coup, and the security forces massacred more than 1,000 Morsi supporters in the capital, according to estimates by Human Rights Watch. At the time, our twin daughters, Ariel and Natasha, were three years old, and Leslie and I had the inevitable conversation: do we stay or do we go?
We had always intended to spend at least five years in Egypt. It seemed the minimum, given the richness of the countrys history and culture, and in the end we decided to stick to the plan. Purchasing the first new car that either of us had ever owned was part of that commitment an act of determination, or maybe desperation.
Initially, the normalcy of this routine seemed reassuring. At a dealership in eastern Cairo, a salesman in a dark suit gave us a firm handshake and a good price on a Honda City sedan. After that, we scheduled a meeting with an agent at the insurance company Allianz but, at the last minute, he called to cancel, because he had just destroyed his own car in an accident. Another agent stepped in. She mentioned that she no longer qualified for auto insurance from Allianz, because she had had multiple wrecks every year for three consecutive years. She handed us a glossy brochure that read: Our own data shows that six out of every 10 cars purchased in Egypt will either be crashed, damaged, or stolen.
By the time we finished the paperwork, I was so scared that I telephoned a car-owning friend. He drove over and guided me through rush-hour traffic, like a tugboat, to our home in Zamalek, a district on an island in the Nile. But it wasnt long before I started exploring the city, and then I discovered the joy of driving to ancient sites. Even at the most imposing monuments, there was something intimate about the experience, because these places had been abandoned by tourists. When we made a family trip to the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, I parked the Honda City at the base of the structure, as if we had pulled up at a friends house. There wasnt another vehicle in the car park; the guard at the entrance was so bored that he didnt bother to accompany us inside. We descended alone into the pharaohs burial chamber, where the twins voices echoed off the high corbelled ceiling.
For a couple of years, I had researched archaeological digs in Upper Egypt, and now I made trips alone in the car. The hardest part of every journey was escaping Cairo. From Zamalek, I would head south along the Nile, past Tahrir Square and Garden City, the old district of the British colonialists. Then I reached Fustat, where, more than 1,000 years ago, Arab invaders founded the capital that eventually grew to become Cairo. The distance was only three-and-a-half miles; on a bad day it took an hour.