Peter Blauner: Picture in the Sand

This sweeping, enjoyable epic by Peter Blauner isn’t really a mystery, though it has a crime at its center.  Like the Mrs. Pollifax books (which also treasure and honor different cultures), this is an adventure novel, containing a crime.  The premise is this: young Alex, the pride of his Egyptian-American family, accepted into an Ivy League university, had disappeared.  It becomes obvious to his family that he’s joined some kind of radical group somewhere in the Middle East. He refuses to communicate with his parents, but then his grandfather, Ali, reaches out to him and it’s this connection that Alex chooses to pursue.

With the severe judgement of the young, Alex is sure his grandfather, a New Jersey gas station owner, has nothing interesting to relate in his past, but he agrees to listen to Ali’s remembrances of his life.  The book is mainly set in 1952, with the correspondence between Alex and Ali functioning as a framing device.  As it turns out, Alex couldn’t have been more wrong.  As the book opens, Ali, a huge fan of the movies, has gotten a job as a driver on Cecil B. DeMille’s new film, The Ten Commandments.  As DeMille arrives in Egypt, the agreement originally made with King Farouk has been nullified by the new government, and DeMille must make his case to Nasser, a man not yet President of an Egypt free from British rule, but about to be.

As Ali drives DeMille and his associates to meet with Nasser, they are caught up in a street protest, and their car is almost flipped over.  It’s a red car that had belonged to King Farouk, and in leaving, they run over a man.  The men in the car agree never to discuss it and Nassar gives the men permission to film. Blauner’s recreation of the massive set is one of the true delights of this book, making me want to have another viewing of what is really a very corny movie. But this book is only tangentially about filmmaking, it’s really about Egyptian politics, and I was consulting Wikipedia with frequency as I read, as my knowledge of Egyptian history was sketchy at best and I had no idea DeMille made his movie at such a time of upheaval.

During the course of filming, Ali is radicalized, though he’s torn not only by his love for the movies, but by his attraction to a woman who is part of the movie company, as well as by his love for his family.  As Alex reads his grandfather’s messages, he goes from enraged – the fact that Ali ran over a man, who turned out to have been a well-loved Imam – to disdain for his grandfather’s love of the movies.  Alex views DeMille as someone who was appropriating Egyptian culture for his own purposes.

This book, however, is all about nuance.  While Ali becomes involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, mainly because of his cousin, the extreme radical actions that are sometimes taken by the brotherhood don’t sit so well with him.  Alex, in a different yet similar situation, begins to feel the same as actions are taken that don’t sit well with him, either.  Blauner paints a portrait of an Egypt in the middle of change, as well as the ways that ordinary men and women are swept up in that change, in ways that are completely life altering.  You may come out of this read with a more nuanced view of the Middle East yourself, but you will certainly emerge from this read with a real love for Ali, who is brave, human, scared, loyal, and intelligent as well as massively stupid at times.  He’s a wonderful tentpole for this epic read, making it understandable and relatable.  That’s certainly a virtue of storytelling, one that’s discovered, in the course of this novel, by Alex.  This was a wonderful read.