The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas (4 out of 5)
Michael David Lukas grew up in Berkeley, attended local public schools, and got deeply immersed in writing while at Berkeley High. “I was editor of the Jacket and wrote all sorts of bad poetry – everything a literary man does when they are 17 or 18,” he said. Lukas works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland. His book, ‘The Last Watchman of Old Cairo,’ was published in March 2018.
Over the centuries, the relationship between Jews and Muslims has often shifted from intimacy to bitter enmity. In fact, historically, Muslims have been far friendlier to Jews than have Christians. The vitriol spewing out from Islamic extremists today is the most extreme example of the hostility directed at Jews. In my experience, Muslims who are just trying to live their lives in peace have no problem living next door to Jews. In the new novel by Berkeley native, Michael David Lukas, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, the close relationships between people of both faiths illustrate the norm, not the exception.
In his novel, Lukas nimbly shifts the scene in Cairo from the 11th-century to the final years of the 19th, and then to the 21st in Cairo and Berkeley. The narrative strand that connects these three scenes is the family of al-Raqb, which the author translates as “the watcher.” The founder of this nearly 1,000-year dynasty is Ali, a Muslim boy who is 13 years old when the story commences. Over time, Ali gains the name after becoming the night watchman at the ancient ibn Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.
More than 800 years later, his descendant, Muhammad al-Raqb, holds down the same job. In turn, Muhammad’s grandson or great-grandson, Ahmed, guards the ruins of the ancient synagogue as the 21st-century approaches.
And his son, Yusuf, or Joseph al-Raqb, is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, who returns to Cairo to learn about the father he knows only barely.
The most important aspect of Ali al-Raqb’s job is to guard the geniza. This is an attic storeroom where, by Jewish custom, the congregation deposits every scrap of paper that includes one of the names of God. None may be discarded. And, in addition to the marriage contracts, commercial correspondence, and shopping lists in the geniza, there is reportedly a truly ancient scroll, the Ezra Scroll. The scroll is said to be the work of the Prophet Ezra, “a perfect Torah scroll, without flaw or innovation.” In other words, it represents the original version of the Old Testament.
Eight centuries later, in 1897, two 50-something Scottish widows travel to Cairo in search of the Ezra Scroll. They are antiquarians with a specialization in Biblical studies. Together with two well-connected Jews from Britain, they enlist the help of Muhammad al-Raqb in their quest.
Yet another century later, Joseph travels to Cairo. After his father died, he had been unable to attend the funeral in Cairo. But a mysterious package that arrives months later leads him to travel there. The package contains a fragment of ancient parchment. We will soon learn that this centuries-old scrap of writing will connect Joseph to his ancestor, Ali al-Raqb, and to the two English ladies.