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PICTURE IN THE SAND by Peter Blauner: Book Review

Picture in the Sand is a family history, a lesson in politics, and a crime novel all in one fascinating package.  It takes the reader from Brooklyn to Egypt to Hollywood, and it encompasses both popular culture via the making of “The Ten Commandments” and the political turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East for over seven decades.

The novel opens with an email from a son to his mother.  Alex Hassan (asking henceforth to be called by his new name, Abu Suror,”father of joy”) is leaving home, rejecting his acceptance from Cornell University in order to fight with his “brothers” in Syria.  His parents, of course, are devastated and try everything they can think of to locate him and bring him home, but their search is in vain.

His aging grandfather then begins an email correspondence, telling Alex his own life story, how he came from Egypt to the United States, and his realization that Alex’s ignorance of this story may nevertheless have impacted on his life.  His hope is that by telling his story, it will bring his grandson back.

In a scenario familiar in many immigrant families, there is often a desire to shield descendants from unpleasant, even traumatic, family history.  This has been the case for the Hassans.  Basically all that Alex knows about his grandfather is that Ali was born in Egypt, made his way to the United States, and eventually opened a successful business in Brooklyn.  But there is more, much more, to Ali’s story, and most improbably Cecil B. DeMille played a major part in it.

As Ali begins to tell his story to his grandson, he recalls his desire to be a part of the motion picture industry.  He went to his local movie theater in Cairo as frequently as possible, mesmerized by the stories the films told.  In 1954 Ali sent a letter and an “enhanced” resume to the production company that had come to Egypt to film DeMille’s last film, “The Ten Commandments.”

At first he was assigned a lowly job in the company’s motor pool, but after a few days he was promoted to an assistant to DeMille himself.  That presented an opportunity for Ali’s cousin and closest friend Sherif to begin a plan for sabotaging the director’s movie, and for that he needs Ali’s help.

Complicating the story even more, DeMille arrives in Egypt in 1954, just when Gamal Abdel Nasser wrested the premiership of the country from Muhammad Nagui, two years after the monarchy was overthrown.  There was turmoil everywhere, and Sherif and his cohorts are planning to take advantage of the political chaos to overthrow Nasser.  As part of that plan, they want to ruin the movie, and that’s where a very reluctant Ali enters the picture.

All of this was unknown to Alex, and in the emails that go back and forth between him and his grandfather there’s a lot of history he has to learn and then accept, much of it contrasting with what he’s being told by the group he joined to fight in Syria.  In the process we learn how Alex’s “boring grandfather…spent many years in prison for being a violent criminal, and lost his left eye in the process.”

The author has brought mid-century Egypt to life with his vivid descriptions of Cairo and the countryside where “The Ten Commandments” was filmed.  Peter Blauner has written eight previous novels, including his Edgar-award-winning first novel, Slow Motion Riot.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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