Pic­ture in the Sand

September 1, 2021

Pic­ture in the Sand is a his­tor­i­cal sus­pense nov­el about faith, hope, ter­ror, and the movies.

In 1954, a young movie fan named Ali Has­san gets a dream job work­ing for Cecil B. DeMille on a film about the great­est of Jew­ish lib­er­a­tion sto­ries, The Ten Com­mand­ments, in Egypt. But that dream turns into a night­mare when Ali gets caught up in real-life events of the day, includ­ing the after­math of the war with Israel and his coun­try’s strug­gles with vio­lent reli­gious fanat­ics. He ends up in prison, but he finds sal­va­tion there in an unlike­ly life-sav­ing friend­ship with a Jew­ish film­mak­er. It’s a sto­ry Ali has kept secret for decades. But now, as an old­er suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man liv­ing in Amer­i­ca, he’s forced to share it with a beloved grand­son who’s about to make the same mis­takes by going off to fight in a holy war.

On rare occa­sions, I read a book that reminds me why I fell in love with sto­ry­telling in the first place. This is such a book.” — Stephen King

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Peter Blauner

  1. In what ways is Pic­ture in the Sand a Jew­ish sto­ry? How do Jew­ish char­ac­ters like Ray­mond Garfield and Tyler Som­mers play roles in shap­ing the nar­ra­tive? In what ways are Jew­ish ref­er­ences and val­ues reflect­ed through­out the book, even when Jew­ish char­ac­ters aren’t present? How impor­tant are the Ten Com­mand­ments – both the movie and the tablets – to the story?

  2. There’s a lot of dis­cus­sion these days about whether authors should be writ­ing from the point of view of char­ac­ters from eth­nic and gen­der groups that they aren’t part of them­selves? Pic­ture in the Sand is a nov­el by a Jew­ish author that puts a num­ber of Mus­lim and Cop­tic char­ac­ters front and cen­ter in lead roles. How do you feel about that in gen­er­al? How much did you think about it while you were read­ing this nov­el? Was it dis­trac­tion? Or did it influ­ence your inter­pre­ta­tion of the story?

  3. What did you think of the depic­tion of reli­gious faith and sec­u­lar­ism in this nov­el? How impor­tant was it in moti­vat­ing each of the main char­ac­ters, both Mus­lims and Jews? Do you think their degree of faith changes as the sto­ry goes on? In par­tic­u­lar, what did you think about the rela­tion­ship between Ali, as a Mus­lim, and Ray­mond Garfield, as a Jew? How did you inter­pret what hap­pens between them near the con­clu­sion of the story?

  4. The sto­ry of Moses is cen­tral to the movie The Ten Com­mand­ments, and the movie is cen­tral to this nov­el. Moses him­self is revered as a prophet in Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty and Islam. He’s been spo­ken of and writ­ten about by fig­ures as diverse as Sig­mund Freud and Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Why does the Moses sto­ry have such stay­ing pow­er? Why have so many dif­fer­ent groups found mean­ing in a nar­ra­tive about Hebrews? Do you believe he real­ly exist­ed? And how rel­e­vant are the Ten Com­mand­ments as a con­cept these days, in soci­ety and in your indi­vid­ual lives?

  5. Cecil B. DeMille’s pro­duc­tion of The Ten Com­mand­ments is a key part of Pic­ture in the Sand. Have you seen it? What did you think of it? What are your favorite parts? What are the most ludi­crous parts? What role, if any, did it play in your under­stand­ing of the Exo­dus sto­ry? What do you think of reli­gious movies in gen­er­al? Do you have any favorites to watch with your fam­i­ly or camp clas­sics that make you giggle?

  6. Pic­ture in the Sand is an his­tor­i­cal nov­el that large­ly takes place between the Israeli War for Inde­pen­dence and the Suez Cri­sis. Did you learn any­thing from it? Did the sto­ry make you inter­est­ed in find­ing out more about that peri­od? How much did you know to begin with? Did your own feel­ings about Israel and Egypt affect the way you read the sto­ry? Did the author’s note at the end, sep­a­rat­ing his­tor­i­cal fact from fic­tion, change the way you felt about the book?

  7. How did you feel about Mona’s char­ac­ter in the book? What did you think her motives were in rela­tion to both Ali and Ray­mond? What did you think about her dec­la­ra­tions of faith? Did your atti­tude about her change as she revealed her­self? What did you think of the deci­sions she makes in the last third of the book?

  8. How would you react if you received an email like the one Alex sends at the begin­ning of the book? What would you do? What would it do to your family?

  9. What did you think of the con­ceit of telling the sto­ry through emails between the grand­fa­ther and the grand­son? Did Ali’s fam­i­ly remind you of your own in any way? Did you relate to him as a young movie fan or an old­er immi­grant with some suc­cess to call his own? In what ways was the Mus­lim fam­i­ly like a Jew­ish fam­i­ly? In what ways were they different?

  10. Did read­ing this nov­el make you reflect on con­tem­po­rary issues involv­ing the Mid­dle East? Or make you think about how and why Hol­ly­wood movies are made? Or were the fam­i­ly char­ac­ters more impor­tant to you? Was it more a per­son­al sto­ry, a reli­gious sto­ry, or a polit­i­cal one?