In his latest novel El-Gameya El-Serreya lel Mowatenin, or Citizens’ Secret Society, Achraf El-Ashmawi builds a story on one of history's most unusual art thefts. The crime was the theft of Vincent Van Gogh's famous “Poppy Flowers” painting from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo – twice.
The painting was first stolen in 1977 and later returned, then stolen again in 2010. As of 2023, the painting’s whereabouts remain unknown. The masterpiece and its famous theft play a role in the popular American TV series “the Blacklist” as a mode of payment in the underground world of high-class criminals.
Many believed that the "Poppy Flowers" restored to the museum in the late 1970s was a fake; a copy standing in for the still-missing original. Art experts the world over argued for its authenticity. An obscure Egyptian artist, however, claimed that the painting which hung in he museum was in fact his own work, and was condemned to years in prison for its theft.
El-Ashmawi's novel follows the story of that forger, Matooq El-Refai. A struggling artist with incredible talent, he lives off of selling his paintings. Eventually, he becomes the exclusive shadow painter of a corrupt and talentless fraud named Gharib Abu Ismail, who becomes famous through Matooq's work.
Towards the end of the novel, Abu Ismail nearly becomes the Minister of Culture in Mubarak’s last government before his regime falls in January 2011.
Without coming out and saying it directly, El-Ashmawi's novel is a condemnation of the regime that ruled Egypt for thirty years. It is suggested that corrupt men like Abu Ismail filled the elite circles of Mubarak's government, and that mediocre artistic talent was no obstacle to becoming even the culture minister in that era.
The “Big Brother” motif is elaborated in the novel quite clearly. The secret society, however, is not so secretive.
Once out of prison, Matooq decides to put his talents to work as a money counterfeiter. From among his poor, miserable neighbors in Helwan, he forms a secret society. Through it, he provides them with small bills of counterfeit money to face the hardships of life. These society members in turn help others in similar conditions suffering from poverty and living sad, unhappy lives.
The society meets monthly. Investigations into the financial situation of each member are conducted and sums allocated to each according to his or her needs, and in proportion to the amount of money printed.
The novel opens with the society's final meeting, at which the group's leader is absent, and "plan B" is voted on and approved. As the novel slowly unfolds, it is revealed that the society has been functioning for nearly three decades, printing small bills in innocuous quantities, and devising clever schemes to replace their counterfeit bills with real ones.
Although the title might suggest that the book will deal with a secret society of elites controlling the world, the Citizen's Secret Society is anything but. The novel's cast of marginalized characters is one of its weak points. The bottom line is that they are everyday people struggling to make ends meet, using counterfeiting money to survive.
One of the novel’s drawbacks is the unrealistic longevity of that secret society; it lasts for more decades despite being almost totally exposed to the security apparatus from the beginning of their criminal activities. This is unimaginable, especially given their lack of sophistication. The author hints several times that the police know about the counterfeit money and the drug dealing of some of the members, but that they intentionally turn a blind eye in pursuit of a “controlled harm” principle used by some police forces around the world.
Readers generally look for a love story in each novel. El-Ashmawi gives them one in Zahra; a history teacher who teaches the “unofficial” history of Ezbet El-Walda in Helwan where most of novel’s events take place. Through her, the reader learns some of the untold story of humble Egyptians, their rebellions and their defeats.
Zahra teaches Matooq’s daughter and becomes a sort of surrogate mother for her father is in prison. Despite all of life's mishaps, they finally end up together and find happiness as some compensation for their trials and tribulations.
Without revealing the ending, plan B works. The author leaves the ending open to the reader's interpretation. Optimists will see hope for the marginalized, while cynics will understand that all rebellions, revolutions and uprisings are oppressed even if they change history forever.