Moses (Chartlon Heston) parts the Red Sea in a scene from Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 'Ten Commandments,' shot in Egypt. (Paramount Pictures)
Jan 2, 2023
Book excerpt: ‘Picture in the Sand’ is a sweeping saga by a local bestseller
A new intergenerational historical novel unfolds where 1950s Hollywood met post-revolutionary Egypt — and kicks off in Bay Ridge
Peter Blauner’s historical suspense novel, “Picture in the Sand,” began its life more than two decades ago, shortly after 9/11, when the author discovered that Cecil B. DeMille’s Bible epic, “The Ten Commandments,” was shot in Egypt in the midst of a revolution while the forerunners of Al Qaeda were operating just a few miles away. That put Blauner on a journey that included six trips to Egypt, an equal number to Hollywood, and interviews with both surviving cast members and members of the Muslim Brothers. The result is a novel that Publishers Weekly called “historical fiction at its absolute best” in a starred review and Stephen King described as “a book that reminds me of why I fell in love with storytelling in the first place.”
This opening here sets the stage, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for a story that spans 6,000 and 60 years, through an epistolary dialogue between a grandfather and the grandson whose life he’s trying to save.
June 9, 2014
I’m sorry for what I have to tell you.
Maybe if I was more brave, I would say it to your face. But by the time you read this, I’ll be gone.
I realize this will be a shock. You know me only as the quiet, obedient son you and Dad raised me to be. You dressed me and fed me only too well. You sent me to the best schools. You mainly spoke English to me at home, so that I barely learned any Arabic. You helped me with my homework. You tolerated the rap and the heavy metal, the mess in my room, paid for my PS4 and the Sony camcorder, helped me take the tests and fill out the applications to the colleges you assumed I would attend. And I know you hoped I would become a big American success story and make you proud like Dad with his office at Chase or Grandpa with his gas station and his Escalade.
I am sorry I’m going to disappoint you.
But the curtain has been thrown back. The dream is over. What happened to Dad last summer woke me up. Yes, I know the FBI agents who arrested him and held him overnight at the jail have officially “apologized” for mistaking him for a terrorist with the same name. I know that you and Dad are ready to accept this and move on. But I can’t.
I now see how easily everything we have can be taken away in an instant. All our savings, Dad’s “customer relations” job, the gas pumps Grandpa owns, the big house on Colonial Road. All our assets could have been frozen, our cash spent on defense lawyers. That American flag we fly on our front porch and the little U.S. Constitutions that Grandpa likes to give our guests? They’re jokes. We never really belonged here. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember. In fact, my earliest memory is being at the Fort Hamilton playground with you after those towers came down and having the other kids call me Osama and tell me to go back to the desert.
I remember how you tried to comfort me that day. You told me to dry my tears and hold my head up, that we were as American as anyone else. But we both know that was a lie. These people never wanted us here. And they have no business in the place where we come from. The world is what it is, a battlefield. And we must all choose sides. We must fight to be free men and women, or live and die as slaves and prisoners.
I choose to fight. I won’t be going off to Cornell to study chemistry and video production this fall. I’ll be learning more valuable lessons on the battlefront, where, God willing, we will find victory or glory in martyrdom.
My life is meaningless without struggle. How could I stand in line buying sweatshirts at the college bookstore or tossing a Frisbee across the quad when other men my age are risking body and soul to confront the enemy? How can I sit in the lecture halls, taking notes and grubbing for grades, when I know my brothers are marching through deserts and valleys with AK-47s slung over their shoulders? How can I hang out on Facebook or go to the library trying to meet girls or be in a dorm with my roommate playing Grand Theft Auto V when other boys my age are on a desert hilltop with the true power of life and death in their trigger fingers?
Even as I write this, I find myself imagining your reaction. After the shock subsides, I know there will be tears. And disbelief too. You’ll ask yourself what went wrong. What you could have done differently. You’ll ask if you should have sent me to a psychiatrist when I started fighting with you and Dad all the time. You’ll imagine there are friendships you could have encouraged. Or perhaps discouraged. You’ll think I shouldn’t have spent so much time alone, in front of screens, getting “radicalized” on the internet. And while it’s true that I’ve spent a lot of time watching martyr videos and talking to my recruiters in Syria about joining the struggle, it’s also irrelevant. This journey has been my destiny.
The soul of a warrior has always been within me, even when my only weapon was the shovel in the sandbox, or the joystick I held playing Call of Duty. I know that the course I’ve chosen must make no sense to you. But the material life of the present is not enough for me. Something further back in the past is calling out to me, telling me that those other kids were right: I should go back to the desert.
Please don’t grieve. I will always keep you, Dad, Amy, Samantha, and Grandpa in my heart. Insha’Allah we will be together again in a better place someday. Please tell Amy and Samantha to stay out of my room—except to feed my fish. No one wants his little sisters nosing around. Feel free to put all my video games and DVDs out on the sidewalk, though I seriously doubt anyone will want them because most of them are really old.
Try not to be too sad or scared. I know I’ve never traveled anywhere farther than New Jersey on my own, but I’m totally doing what I need to do.
Your son, Abu Suror (I looked it up. It means “father of joy.”) P.S. I don’t want to be called Alex anymore.
July 23, 2014
Dear Alex (I’m too old to call you any other name),
I do not use the email very often, but there seems to be no other way to reach you. Your mother tells me that your cell phone is turned off and that you have left no forwarding address for regular mail. Whether this message will ever reach you or whether you will respond in any way, I have no idea. I pray, Insha’Allah, that you are still alive to read this.
It has been more than six weeks since any of us have heard from you. Your mother cries every single day. Often several times in the course of one meal. Occasionally your two sisters cry as well. But mostly they just stay in their rooms. Your father is like a zombie. Since you haven’t answered any of your parents’ emails, I don’t know if you’re aware that he left his job at the bank to devote himself full-time to searching for you. He has spoken to every taxi service, every airline, every State Department and embassy official who will take his phone calls. He flew to Cairo and Istanbul, showing your picture and spending thousands of dollars on “fixers” trying to track you down. It appears that you slipped through the fence to Syria to join these so-called militants fighting the government there under the black flag. When your father tried to follow your path, he was detained by the Syrian police, badly beaten, and then sent back to Turkey. Now he is home, Alhamdulillah, and though your mother says she doesn’t blame him for not finding you, they are not happy the way they used to be. Which makes me very sad.
There is no real reason for you to respond to me when you haven’t responded to anyone else. Even though I’ve been part of your life since the moment you were born, you hardly know me. And I am sure you would say I hardly know you, even though we’ve lived under the same roof since your grandmother died and your parents asked me to move in so they could keep an eye on me.
You are a young man who says he is off to fight a battle for his people. I am an old Egyptian with one eye who owns a gas station with a convenience store in Bay Ridge, prays five times a day, roots for the New York Mets, and cries at old movies and misses his wife terribly. You have always played the dutiful polite grandson around me. You have smiled at my tiresome old man jokes, pulled the chair out for me at the dinner table, and covered me with a blanket when I fall asleep snoring in front of the TV. You have shown me respect as the family elder, the father of your father, still working at the age of eighty-five. You have always been patient and said the right things. But I know you have not been very much interested in me.
And why should you be? Someone who has lived what seems to be such a dull complacent life could understand nothing about the great heroic journey you have embarked upon. Except that one thing you said in your letter to your mother caught my attention. You say this journey you have embarked upon is your destiny. You believe that something far back in the past, beyond your parents’ comfortable lives, is calling out to you.
I understand this better than you believe.
When I was your age, I went on a similar journey and very nearly did not come back. It’s a story that I have never told you. In fact, I have told very little of it to anyone in the United States since I came here more than forty years ago. Even your father, my only child, knows just the broad outlines, because I have always cut him off from asking too many questions. I wanted him to be an American, bright eyed and hopeful, proud of me as his father, and knowing as little as possible about the past.
Because the truth is that your boring grandfather, Ali Hassan— the gas station owner with his leathery skin, his old man cologne and his corny jokes—spent many years in prison for being a violent criminal, and lost his left eye in the process.
I have always been strict about keeping this secret. But after your grandmother died, I found myself starting to write things down. Why, I wasn’t sure at first. But when I was a young man, I was a kind of writer. Or at least I aspired to be. So I began to write my life story. Not because I believed anyone would ever publish it, but because I recognized something of my own restlessness in you when you started having problems with your parents a few years ago. I wanted you to know me. To know that I had this life, so there would be some record to pass on. For a while, I thought I might not show it to you, at least not while I was still alive. But now I feel more urgency to share it. I don’t know if you will have the time or the inclination to read what I have attached here, if God sees fit to have it reach you. But I hope you will. Because I know how this movie ends.
Yours, with love and compassion,
Grandpa (in Arabic, Gedo.
But I prefer you call me what you always have.)
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