Lukas, Michael David. “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo: A Novel”, Spiegel & Grau, 2018.
There is something about Egypt that has always drawn me to her even though, as a Jew< I am not supposed to feel that way and instead remember that we were once slaves there. We have been told to never go back yet we are drawn to it. I remember all too well, when I was living in Israel and Sadat came to Jerusalem to make peace and once the borders were opened, Israelis could hop on a bus and go there. I also did that and found Cairo to be exhilarating and very alive.
Joseph is a literature student at Berkeley and the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. Upon receiving a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep one day, he was pulled into a mesmerizing adventure to uncover the tangled history that binds the two sides of his family. For many generations, the men of the al-Raqb family have served as watchmen of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. It was built at the site where supposedly the infant Moses was taken from the Nile. Joseph learns about his ancestor Ali, a Muslim orphan who was the first watchman of the synagogue. Jacob was enchanted by the legendary and perhaps magical Ezra Scroll.
The story of Joseph’s family is interwoven with that of the British twin sisters Agnes and Margaret, who in 1897 leave the halls of Cambridge halls to rescue sacred texts that have begun to disappear from the synagogue.
In this multigenerational story we feel the tensions that have torn communities apart and the unlikely forces (potent magic, forbidden love) that boldly attempt to bridge that divide. This, together with the seductiveness of Old Cairo make this an exciting read. This is also a coming-of-age story and a family history of fathers and sons, religion, magic, love, and storytelling. Cairo is not an easy city to describe but Lukas pulls it off and wonderfully so. When I was asked how was Cairo, I never could explain why I could not answer this question. Lukas has captured the essence of the city and manages to move with ease between the new Cairo and the old Cairo
“Michael David Lukas has given us an elegiac novel of Cairo—Old Cairo and modern Cairo. He also is able to introduces us to Jews and Muslims who ignore cultural divides for a common cause.
Joseph’s parents had been childhood friends since childhood; they had both been born in Egypt but his mother left when, under Nasser, the Jews were forced to leave and she and her family made it first to France and then to America, where she met and married Joseph’s stepfather. Yet throughout Joseph’s life, his father remained in contact from Cairo. He was the last in a long line of Muslim men who were watchmen over an ancient synagogue. When he died, he sent Joseph the fragment of an ancient manuscript and a brief note telling him that this was something that he should want to have. Just at that time, Joseph was working on his doctoral dissertation but decides to fly to Cairo to try out the true story about the fragment. In a series of flashbacks the story goes back some 1,000 years earlier and the first al-Raqb, the orphan Ali, to the 19th century and two wealthy widowed twin sisters devoted to finding and saving documents of antiquity, to Joseph’s own story and what we get is the story of differing cultures that come together in Cairo. In particular, the book revolves around a “geniza,” (a repository of discarded documents that mention God, and therefore, according ancient Jewish tradition, cannot be discarded but must either be buried in a cemetery or stored). Many genizas are actually a treasure trove.
Writer Lukas brings fact, fiction and wonderfully created characters together and he is able to integrate three stories that span 1000 years into one book. The themes here are complex—religion, war, rulers, politics, and culture yet when humans are present we see these themes differently and a wonderfully human story emerges. Lukas’ prose is at times melancholy or bittersweet and at times mysterious yet he manages to give us a story that will stay with us long after we have closed the book’s covers.