The ProsenPeople

Excerpt: The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

Thursday, March 01, 2018 | Permalink

The following chapter is from Michael David Lukas's The Last Watchman of Old Cairo. Here, we are introduced to the remarkable, real life twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. Born in Scotland in 1843, they were world-renowned scholars and adventurers at a time when women could not attend Cambridge University. After being both widowed at an early age, they spent much of their time (and a good portion of their considerable wealth) studying Semitic languages, traveling around the Middle East, and procuring ancient manuscripts. Their trip to Cairo in 1896 sparked a turn of events that would result in the “discovery” of the Cairo Geniza in the attic of a synagogue in the old city. The following chapter details the twins' return to Cairo in January 1897, after realizing the importance of their find. 


Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson arrived in Cairo on the Two-fifteen Express from Alexandria. This was how their timetable referred to it, the Two-fifteen Express. Although in actuality the train was rather ponderous. When they finally pulled into Cairo Station—having been delayed by high winds, flooding, a faulty track switch, and a fugitive cow ruminating in the middle of the tracks—it was already well past dusk. Agnes’s pocket watch showed 7:25, more than three hours behind schedule.

Taken alone, the travails of the Two-fifteen Express would not have been especially irritating. But the twins had been traveling for six days straight, without proper rest or sanitation, and they were both feeling rather crabby. Fifteen years ago, they might have reveled in the adventure of it all—the Channel passage, the train across France, the boat trip from Marseilles. Fifteen years ago they might have overlooked the fleas and the damp and the motion sickness. They might have brushed all that aside as soon as the looming hulk of the Citadel came into view. But this was not fifteen years ago. It was the first month in the year of our Lord 1897. They had turned fifty-four just a few weeks earlier, and felt every aching year of it. No matter what might happen, whether they found their documents or not, this would most likely be their last trip to Egypt.

Agnes alighted first, followed by Margaret, and they stood side by side at the edge of the platform. From a distance they were indistinguishable, both women of distinction, both wrapped in furs, both squat and sharp-eyed with stringy gray-brown hair wrapped in a loose bun. Closer scrutiny would reveal Margaret’s mole, the creakiness of Agnes’s gait, and a slightly different shade of green in the eyes. For all intents and purposes, however, they were perfect replicas of each other, an august pair of British widows fringed with the scorch of Presbyterianism.

Undisturbed by the tumult of the platform, Agnes and Margaret took in the arc of the station’s new steel ceiling and the useless clack of the arrival board. Green-turbaned pashas brushed past half-naked stevedores and dusty fellaheen laden with great bags of cotton. Two or three dark-veiled women haunted the edges of the crowd, slipping through a brigade of British tourists tromping, no doubt, to Shepheard’s Hotel, lunch at the Gezira Club, and a steam packet down the Nile. With a subtle tilt of her chin, Agnes indicated an old Nubian porter smoking a cigarette next to the newsstand, and they crossed the platform toward him.

“Excuse us,” Margaret said, using her most mellifluous Arabic. “We have ten trunks on the Two-fifteen from Alexandria, all marked with the names Lewis and Gibson. We would be exceedingly gratified if you were to convey them to our carriage outside.”

The man hesitated for a moment to examine them more closely. Then he extinguished his cigarette on the bottom of his sandal and set off to collect their things.

“They’re fragile,” Agnes called after him, but he did not appear to hear.

Once their trunks were loaded and the porter paid, the carriage driver set off down Clot Bey Street toward the Hotel d’Angleterre. He took the long way, as Margaret requested, through the Ezbekiyya Gardens.

“It is a slight detour,” she said, in anticipation of her sister’s objections, “but so much more pleasant. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” Agnes said, softening into her seat. “I do.”

For there was nothing quite like riding through the gardens at twilight. The shadow of overhanging palms, the warm night air, the scrape of carriage wheels on gravel, it all brought back that same girlish excitement they had felt on their first visit to Cairo so many years ago. Under the yellow flicker of gas lamps, the old city appeared to be nothing more than an outline, a quaint sprinkling of minarets against the darkness. And when their hotel appeared, rising up between a hedgerow and the gently arched frond of a palm, it looked like an enormous pink cake.

This was not their first stay at the Hotel d’Angleterre, but in the past few years its decor had changed considerably. The lobby had been draped in heavy teal curtains and someone had seen fit to adorn the room with paintings of typical Egyptian scenes, as if to imply that the Nile, the pyramids, Mount Sinai, and the Colossus of Abu Simbel were all waiting there on the other side of the wall. As they followed the bellhop across the lobby, the sisters both glanced at a party of package tourists huddled around the grand fireplace, drinking cordials and talking excitedly about the high quality of perfume to be found in the Khan el-Khalili. Margaret gave them a quick smile, pleasant almost to the point of inviting conversation, but not quite.

“Your room, please,” the bellhop said, after leading them up the staircase. Agnes stepped up to the threshold of Room 327 and leaned in to get a better look.

“Your room,” the bellhop offered again, stiffening his arm to indicate that they should enter before him. The sisters exchanged a glance and Agnes stepped back into the hallway.

“Unfortunately,” she explained in Arabic, “this is not our room. We asked for a north-facing room with two queen-sized beds and a bath. This room faces south and, I may be mistaken, but I do not see a bath.”

The boy looked to Margaret, who nodded her agreement.

“Please,” he said in English and, holding up his index finger, rushed back down to the lobby.

A few minutes later, he returned with the concierge, a large man with the aspect of an overripe and somewhat bruised tropical fruit. Arriving at the threshold of Room 327, he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and looked inside.

“The ladies’ room is not to their liking?”

“The room is nice enough,” said Agnes. “Unfortunately, it is not the ladies’.”

While Margaret explained that they had requested a room with a north-facing view, two queen-sized beds, and a bath, the concierge sucked at his mustache and watched his fingers walk around a circle of prayer beads.

“There is one room I can offer,” he said, “on this floor, very large, facing north, with two queen beds.”

Room 322 was across the hall. And indeed, it was quite a bit larger than 327, with a north-facing view, two queen-sized beds, and a claw-foot tub in the bathroom.

“Of course,” the concierge said, when he saw that the ladies found their new room to be satisfactory, “this room is somewhat more expensive.”

“Of course,” Margaret agreed, placing a hand on her sister’s forearm.

Traveling throughout the Near East, often without the fortification of male companionship, Agnes and Margaret had, over the years, developed a nose for swindlers and a stomach for bargaining that matched even the most tenacious of shopkeepers in the Khan el-Khalili. Not that they needed to be frugal. Their dear father had left them enough money to be happily fleeced for the rest of their lives, and then some. For the twins, thrift was a point of pride. And moreover, every pound saved was another pound they could give to charity. In a very real sense, this smarmy concierge was attempting to divert funds away from the assistance of war orphans, the rescue of ancient documents, and the establishment of a new Presbyterian Synod in Cambridge.

“We will gladly pay the price we agreed to last month,” Margaret said. Reaching into her handbag, she produced a letter from the owner of the hotel, detailing the terms of their agreement. “Seventy piastres a night, I believe.”

“Yes,” the concierge said, without looking at the letter, “seventy piastres a night, plus taxes and tips.”

◆     ◆     

After their trunks had been brought up and a round of baksheesh dispensed to everyone the least bit involved with the endeavor, Agnes lay down for a moment while Margaret busied herself making certain all their luggage had arrived in good condition. Between them, the twins had ten steamer trunks. Four were filled with various dresses, petticoats, shoes, furs, hats, and other sartorial items required for a journey that would take them from the dining room of Shepheard’s Hotel to the wilds of the Sinai Desert. Two trunks were crammed with dictionaries, Bibles, lexicons, travel accounts, and sundry other books essential to the identification of ancient manuscripts. One trunk contained all the foodstuffs and medicines they knew they could not procure in Cairo. Another held their tripod, two hundred photographic plates, and the camera itself, a traveling half-plate from Fallowfield. There was a trunk filled with the chemical reagents and other conservation equipment they would need for their trip to St. Catherine’s. And the final trunk contained those items that Mrs. Schechter had asked them to deliver to her husband: a respirator, its attendant spare parts, quinine, and a large magnifying glass.

Once certain everything was in good condition, Margaret unpacked their chess set from the second library trunk and began arranging the board on a small side table. She was nearly finished setting up her own pieces when the bellhop knocked and slid a note under the door.

“A letter?” Agnes asked, raising her head from the pillow to see what Margaret was holding.

“From Dr. Schechter,” Margaret confirmed.

The twins had come to Cairo to assist Dr. Schechter in obtaining a cache of documents currently housed in the attic of a synagogue in the old city. They had originally planned to travel with him. However, at the last minute they had been detained in Cambridge by an urgent piece of business related to the establishment of the Presbyterian Synod, and everyone agreed that it would be best for Dr. Schechter to go ahead without them, so that he might begin securing the necessary permissions from the Jewish community. Given the exigencies of travel and the sorry state of the postal system in Egypt, they hadn’t heard from him since he left Cambridge, nearly a month earlier, and they were eager for his news.

“Will you read it?” Agnes asked.

Margaret glanced over the note, written in Dr. Schechter’s broad and rather hasty scrawl, then seated herself on the edge of the bed and began reading aloud.

After the requisite salutations, welcoming them to Cairo and asking after their journey, Dr. Schechter informed the twins that they would be very happy to hear of his progress with Rabbi Ben Shimon. He was looking forward to discussing these matters in detail that following evening, when he hoped they would be able to join himself and Miss de Witt for dinner.

“One supposes that Rabbi Ben Shimon is the Chief Rabbi of Cairo,” Agnes said, once her sister was finished, “but who on earth is Miss de Witt?”

“I have no idea,” Margaret said, “though it does appear that Dr. Schechter has been rather busy.”

“Not surprising.”

“Not at all.”

Agnes and Margaret had known Dr. Schechter for years. They were of the same set in Cambridge and often saw each other at Dr. Taylor’s house. In addition to their shared interest in biblical scholarship, there was another unspoken bond between them as well: the somewhat bitter knowledge that, in spite of their many scholarly accomplishments, the three of them would always be relegated to the outskirts of Dr. Taylor’s circle and none of them would ever be allowed to join the permanent faculty at Cambridge, Dr. Schechter because of his religion and the twins because of their sex. This knowledge did not encourage a deeper relationship, however. If anything, it did the opposite. Occasionally, the twins had Dr. and Mrs. Schechter over for tea, as part of a larger group, but their connection with him had never progressed much beyond this initial stage of congeniality and shared resentment, at least not until recently.

One afternoon that past spring, Agnes and Margaret had invited Dr. Schechter over to look through a pile of documents brought back from a previous trip to Egypt. In their initial perusal they had found more than a few intriguing manuscripts, including a fifteenth-century prayer book and a clump of what looked to be ancient incantations of some sort. When they had described the documents to him a few days earlier at Dr. Taylor’s house, Dr. Schechter had been rather excited. Seeing them for himself, however, he seemed unimpressed. Shuffling through the general hodgepodge of ancient letters and business contracts, he paused here and there to smile politely or read a few words aloud. His gaze didn’t rest on any item for more than a moment until, at the bottom of the pile, he came upon a seemingly unremarkable leaf from an early Hebrew codex. After staring down at it for a full three minutes, Dr. Schechter asked whether he might remove the fragment for further inspection. When he returned, later that afternoon, he was in a state of what could only be described as hysteria. The fragment, he had said, once he was able to calm himself, appeared to be a leaf from the original Hebrew version of Ecclesiasticus.

The sisters exchanged a glance.

“The original Hebrew?”

“I believe so,” Dr. Schechter said.

The implications were tremendous. If authenticated, the fragment would establish a reliable source text for Ecclesiasticus and might even prove Dr. Schechter’s theory about the language of its composition. But what excited him most was the idea that there might be more where this had come from. The condition of the fragment, its size, and the paper on which it was written, all these things led Dr. Schechter to suspect that this leaf from Ecclesiasticus was, as he had put it, but a single petal in a great field of wildflowers. Hands trembling so much he could barely drink his tea, Dr. Schechter had tried unsuccessfully to explain the Jewish prohibition against discarding Torah scrolls, prayer books, and any other papers that might contain the name of God, how most congregations buried these documents in a special section of the graveyard, but some chose to gather their godly texts in an attic or storeroom, known as a geniza, until they could be disposed of properly.

Despite his incoherence, the reason for his excitement was clear. Somewhere in Old Cairo there was a synagogue, the attic of which was filled with ancient manuscripts that hadn’t seen the light of day in hundreds of years. If they were able to secure these documents and bring them back to Cambridge, it would be among the most significant discoveries of the past twenty years, with profound effects on liturgy, linguistics, and biblical scholarship. But they needed to act quickly. For if Agnes and Margaret had been able to purchase this fragment from a common manuscript dealer, it meant that others would be able to buy them, too. Someone with access to the synagogue—a member of the Jewish community, or perhaps one of its employees—was selling the documents on the black market and, without their speedy intercession, this treasure trove of manuscripts would soon be dispersed to the four winds.

Agnes and Margaret had reason to believe that the synagogue might also contain an even greater treasure: the Ezra Scroll. That very morning in fact, on their journey from Alexandria to Cairo, Margaret had stumbled upon a passage in a seventeenth-century travel account, suggesting that the ark of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue possessed a recess containing a copy of the Mosaic law, written in the very hand of Ezra the Scribe himself, of happy memory. Upon reading those words, she had let out a small yelp of joy and showed the passage to her sister, who responded in a similar manner. The very notion of the Ezra Scroll—a perfect copy of the Hebrew Scriptures written thousands of years ago by the prophet Ezra—was enough to make one’s skin goose with anticipation. If it truly existed, if they found it, if they were able to bring it back to Cambridge, the implications truly could not be greater. It was an idea almost too delicious to ponder. An indisputable source text for the Old Testament, without hint of error or innovation, the Ezra Scroll would be the greatest archaeological discovery of the century, if not the millennium. Their names—Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson—would be known to history for years to come and, more importantly, the scroll would serve to establish the true word of God, a perfect and unimpeachable copy of the Hebrew Bible without intermediary or innovation.

And so there they were, in Room 322 at the Hotel d’Angleterre, tired and somewhat irritable, their bones aching from nearly a week of travel. They were both rather anxious to begin the search, but at the moment their exhaustion took precedence.

“Are you hungry?” Agnes asked, and Margaret shook her head.

“Not especially.”

“Then I can see no reason why we shouldn’t avail ourselves of sleep.”

“No,” Margaret agreed, “neither can I.”

After finishing their nightly exercises, they washed up and changed into their sleeping gowns.

“Would you mind, Meggie?” Agnes asked as she rolled onto her stomach.

“Of course not, Nestor.”

In the trunk devoted to foodstuffs and medicines, Margaret found a small bottle of the specially formulated ointment that, although smelling of opium and chili peppers, did a great deal toward alleviating the pain of her sister’s rheumatism. Rubbing the ointment into her palms, she unbuttoned her sister’s gown and began applying a coat of it to her naked back.

It was just the two of them, and so it had been for some time. Margaret’s beloved husband, Mr. James Gibson, had passed away after only three years of marriage, and Agnes’s dear Samuel had died less than five years later. This wasn’t the life they had imagined for themselves—no husbands, no children, no domestic interests—but it was a life well lived, in the pursuit of knowledge and the general well-being, and they both took some comfort in knowing that their husbands would have been proud of their accomplishments. They had their causes, supported their church, wrote letters to The Times, and, when they weren’t traveling around the Near East, searching for ancient manuscripts that might shed light on the origins of their faith, they spent most of their days in quiet contentment, reading or studying Arabic grammar in the parlor. Like any partnership, theirs was a negotiation, a carefully constructed edifice of favors and moods. They had disagreements, of course, but in large part they got on remarkably well. For each knew the other’s thinking as well as her own.

At that particular moment—Agnes lying on her stomach and Margaret rubbing the ointment into her sister’s back—they were thinking, as they often did, of their beloved father. He had been dead now for years, but they could both very clearly recall him, bent over his writing desk, rebuking them for an excessive display of pride, praising a well-wrought translation.

Where would they be without the guidance of his steady and sometimes chastising hand? It was he who had given them the gift of a proper education, he who had sparked the light of their faith, he who had instilled in them the importance of hard work and a curiosity about the world beyond Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. For although he disapproved of female education in general, he had seen their promise early and resolved to school them himself, beginning when they were five with Latin and Greek, then moving on to Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. Six days a week, from breakfast until dinner, Agnes and Margaret had worked side by side, diligently translating Cicero, Exodus, and Ibn Sina. Their dinner conversations were primarily of an instructional nature, but every night after the table was cleared and the dishes washed, their father would read aloud to them from the Odyssey or the Arabian Nights. And as they drifted off to sleep, the sound of his voice filled their dreams with wooden ships, great marble palaces, magic lamps, and dark caves overflowing with treasure.

That following evening—after a mostly pleasant day spent reading, strolling through the gardens, and making inquiries with their friends at the antique book market—Agnes and Margaret took a carriage to Dr. Schechter’s hotel.

“So good to see you,” he said, leaping up from his chair as they entered the lobby.

With his wild hair and his great silver beard, Dr. Schechter looked as if he would be more at home among the monks of Mount Sinai than the tourists milling about the lobby of a modern hotel.

“It is so very good to see you both,” he went on. “I must apologize for not writing earlier. But we have been having quite a bit of excitement here. I have been making great strides with Rabbi Ben Shimon, great strides.”

For the past six months, the already somewhat frantic Dr. Schechter had been a man possessed, muttering to himself on King’s Parade or in the stacks of the Cambridge University Library, unwashed and disheveled, looking for all the world like a madman. Being in Cairo apparently hadn’t done much to calm his nerves, though it did look as if he had bought himself a new suit.

“We have some exciting news,” he told the twins, “very exciting.”

“We?” Agnes glanced at the rather pretty young lady with whom Dr. Schechter had been sitting.

“Excuse me,” he said with a slight blush. “Please allow me to introduce Miss Emily de Witt, from Girton College. Did I not mention I had a student along to help with the transcriptions?”

“I can’t say I remember anything about a student,” Agnes said. “But then again, I can hardly remember the name of my own dog.”

Margaret smiled for her sister.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss de Witt.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” she said, and gave a slight, but very winning, curtsey.

“We have some exciting news,” Dr. Schechter repeated as he led them into the dining room of the hotel. “I have been making great strides with Rabbi Ben Shimon.”

It was slightly vexing how Dr. Schechter spoke about the project. Over the past few months, he had assumed de facto ownership over the expedition, referring to the documents as “my find” and repeatedly thanking the sisters for their assistance. Of course, they had enjoyed more than their share of accolades a few years earlier, after their discovery of the codex at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Agnes had been invited to address the Royal Asiatic Society, and Margaret’s account of the discovery was praised in newspapers around the world. Many said it was one of the most significant such finds since the Codex Sinaiticus. But fame was only a by-product. If their experience—uncovering the codex, bringing it home, having their names briefly trumpeted about—had taught them anything, it was to remind them of what their father had often said. The text was what mattered, not the author. The true purpose of their work, of any scholarly endeavor, was not recognition. It was the steady accumulation of knowledge, the illumination of an ancient textual variant, the revelation curled upon itself in a dusty palimpsest.

“Great strides,” Dr. Schechter said again.

Unable to contain himself any longer, he dove into a dramatic account of his time in Cairo, detailing a series of meetings with the Chief Rabbi and other notable members of the Jewish community. There was a Mr. Bechor, a Mr. Mosseri, and three or four others who, along with Rabbi Ben Shimon, constituted an informal governing council. Knowing something of the Oriental character, Dr. Schechter had invested most of the past two weeks in fraternization, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and touring around the city. At times, he had to admit, it all seemed like nothing more than a grand diversion. Then, three days ago, his hard work had paid its dividend. Rabbi Ben Shimon had granted them full access to the geniza and intimated that he would support the idea of safekeeping the entirety of the collection at the Cambridge University Library.

“What does he want in exchange?” Agnes asked.

Having dealt with all manner of Egyptians, from Bedouin camel traders to Coptic patriarchs, she had a difficult time believing that Rabbi Ben Shimon would give up such a valuable cache of documents without compensation.

“Nothing,” Dr. Schechter said, “at least not as far as I can tell. Rabbi Ben Shimon understands the great scholarly value of the geniza documents and I have been able to convince him that they will be well looked after in Cambridge. He is a lovely man and very learned. When you meet him, I am sure you will agree.”

“I am sure we will,” Margaret said, though she shared her sister’s suspicions. In their experience, the shrewdest of characters were often those who seemed, at first, to lack an ulterior motive.

“I’ve visited the synagogue twice,” Dr. Schechter said, redirecting the course of conversation. “And truly, the geniza is beyond anything I could have imagined.”

Pausing to cough while the waiter served their dinner—beef Wellington for the ladies and, for the gentleman, a kosher meal provided through the generosity of the governing council—Dr. Schechter went on to describe a vast battlefield of paper, books, and letters, dust everywhere and all of it mashed together without any order whatsoever. Most of the documents held little scholarly interest—business and marriage contracts, deeds, the proceedings of the religious court—but there were gems to be found amidst the rubble, gems of a most astonishing nature. In just two visits he had already uncovered a number of invaluable documents: a page from a fourteenth-century Passover Haggadah and the first half of a letter written by the great poet and scholar Samuel ha-Nagid.

“Samuel ha-Nagid,” Agnes marveled, but before she could formulate a question about the letter, Dr. Schechter was overcome by another fit of coughing.

“It’s the geniza,” he said. “I’ve never seen such dust.”

He continued coughing until Miss de Witt handed him a glass of water.

“We left your respirator at the front desk,” Margaret offered. “If we had known the need was so urgent, we would have brought it with us.”

Agnes glanced at Miss de Witt, who was watching Dr. Schechter with a concern that bordered on excessive familiarity.

“Mrs. Schechter sent along a few other things as well.”

“Thank you,” Dr. Schechter said and, recovering himself, steered the conversation back to the geniza. “All that filth, it makes one feel less like a scholar than a housemaid, dusting out the attic of History.”

“We are eager to help in whatever capacity you deem most useful,” Margaret said. “As you know, my sister and I are not above dusting, and our Arabic is quite passable.”

“It’s quite good, really,” Dr. Schechter said, missing her irony entirely. “But first, we must secure Rabbi Ben Shimon’s permission to remove the documents. He has agreed in principle, but such things take time.”

“If you think it would be at all possible,” Agnes put in, “we would be thrilled to visit the synagogue.”

They were both rather curious to see the geniza for themselves. They had come halfway around the world. And, after hearing Dr. Schechter describe its contents, they felt an even greater urgency to get on with their work, securing the geniza and protecting these invaluable documents from whoever was selling them off.

“Yes, of course,” Dr. Schechter said. He paused for a moment and tapped the side of his head, like a schoolboy trying to recall the exact wording of a difficult recitation. “The only trouble is, Mr. Bechor offered to take us all out on a tour of the city tomorrow. He is an important member of the governing council. Perhaps we can visit the synagogue the following afternoon?”

As much as they wanted to get on with their work—and as little as they wanted to be led around on a tour of a city they had visited nearly a dozen times—the twins knew better than to refuse an invitation from an important member of the governing council. So they agreed, reluctantly, to meet that next morning in the lobby of their hotel.

After dessert, the twins bade Dr. Schechter and Miss de Witt a good evening and took an open carriage back to their hotel. It was a dark night, clear and cold, and the stars shone like inflamed grains of sand.

“She is rather pretty,” Margaret said after a few minutes of silence.

“Certainly not who I imagined when Dr. Schechter said he was bringing along a research assistant.”

“Maybe she has some Hebrew.”

“I doubt she has much of anything, apart from her charms.” Margaret let this bit of nastiness dissipate before she spoke again.

“And Rabbi Ben Shimon,” she asked, “what do you suppose he wants?”

“Money,” Agnes said, troubling a loose flap of the seat next to her. “It’s usually money, isn’t it?”

“Nine times out of ten.”

“Or maybe a political favor, protection from the vagaries of Abbas II.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t care about the documents at all,” Margaret speculated. “Perhaps he thinks they’re nothing but rubbish and we’re fools for chasing after them.”

“Or maybe he does care, very much, and truly believes they will be better cared for in Cambridge.”

“Which they will be.”

“It doesn’t really matter, does it? So long as he’s willing to grant us the necessary permissions.”

“And soon,” Margaret added.

“And soon.”

They were silent for the remainder of the ride, thinking about Rabbi Ben Shimon and Mr. Bechor, the possibility of the Ezra Scroll and Dr. Schechter’s unfortunate willingness to trust in the good intentions of others. Being granted access to the geniza was certainly something, but there was still a great deal of work to be done. The twins were both quite certain now that there was a leak in the geniza. Someone was selling off the documents piece by piece and whoever it was—a member of the governing council, the synagogue watchman, Rabbi Ben Shimon, or someone else entirely—the twins wouldn’t stop until the documents were removed to a safer location. Until then, until the proverbial bird was in their hands, the geniza would continue to be parceled out and sold in the stalls of the antique book market. One of the greatest discoveries of the century, thousands of potentially invaluable documents, would be dispersed among the curiosity cabinets of pleasure tourists who couldn’t tell the difference between Syriac and Aramaic.

Excerpted from The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas. Published by Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2018 by Michael David Lukas. All rights reserved.

Image of Al-Hakim Mosque via Wikimedia Commons. Postcard of Cairo at night via the British Museum.

Michael David Lukas' Food For The Essence Of Life (Or Reading)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Michael David Lukas, the author of The Oracle of Stamboul blogs for The Postscript on understanding the Middle East through food, and what to eat while discussing his book. The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Michael at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

A few years ago, I wrote an essay for Slate arguing that food—particularly Claudia Roden’s cookbook, Arabesque—might be the best way to understand the Middle East. I may have overstated my case (I was working, at the time, as an assistant to the Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan and was very much enamored by the power of food). But I still stand by the basic crux of the essay: food is an excellent means of understanding Middle Eastern history, society, and religion. Food brings people together and allows us to communicate beyond language. As the Turks say, “food feeds the essence of life.” Thus, I have devised the following menu for book clubs reading The Oracle of Stamboul.

Slow Roasted Lamb Stew
(About halfway through The Oracle of Stamboul, Eleonora and Moncef Bey have roast lamb and carrots for dinner. For those who don’t have time to roast a lamb, this Turkish inspired lamb stew is a great substitution.)

 Stuffed Grape Leaves
(Who doesn’t like stuffed grape leaves?)

(I made this recipe almost every week when I was living in Turkey. Make sure to use fine bulgur. Pomegranate syrup is an excellent addition if you can find it.)

Fried Artichokes, Jewish Style
(This recipe isn’t Turkish, per se. But it is goes well with the rest of the menu, and I wanted to include a recipe from Joan Nathan.)

(It’s probably easier to buy baklava at your local Middle Eastern grocery. But, for more confident chefs, I’ve included this recipe.)

Fresh Loquats
(I love fresh loquats and they are mentioned briefly in the novel.)

Turkish Tea and Turkish Coffee
(What Turkish meal would be complete without Turkish tea and coffee?)

To read more from Michael, see his blog posts for The Visiting Scribe

Want to share your own book club menu ideas? Go to the new JBC Book Clubs Menu page. Submit your book/food pairing before August 6, and you'll be entered to win a free bundle of books!

This Storm is What We Call Progress

Friday, February 18, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top ten favorite Jews of all time and his connection to Nomi Stone. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Histories of Jews in the Ottoman Empire (like histories of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, Ancient Rome, and the Arab World) tend to fall into one of two camps: those that emphasize coexistence and those that emphasize strife. This seems a rather simplistic binary, I know, but pick up any book about the Jews of the Ottoman Empire—say Bernard Lewis’ The Jews of Islam or Avigdor Levy’s Jews, Turks, and Ottomans: A Shared History—and you will be able to tell in a page or two which camp the book falls into.

In writing The Oracle of Stamboul, a novel about a young Jewish girl who becomes an advisor to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, I tried my best to portray a sense of multiethnic coexistence without ignoring anti-Semitism, and the many other brands of ethnic strife rampant in the Ottoman Empire. Thinking about daily life in such a time caused me to think back on Walter Benjamin’s memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900 and Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. Both these books look back on a period that we might now think of as a turning point for European Jews. Proust explicitly discusses the Dreyfus Affair while Benjamin is a bit more coy in his treatment of anti-Semitism in pre-WWI Germany. But in both books it is the business of daily life that predominates. Even at the very fulcrum of History, on the brink of the Great War and everything that followed, Benjamin’s and the Proustian’s narrators are caught up in their daily lives. One might argue that the power of both these books depends on a certain type of silence, an obscuring of events we all know will take place. That may be true. Still, I tend to think that most of us aren’t aware of the History we’re living through.

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a late-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a Rotary scholar in Tunisia. His first book, The Oracle of Stamboul, is now available.

The Stranger’s Notebook

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top ten favorite Jews of all time. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog. His first book, The Oracle of Stamboul, is now available.

In my last post I mentioned the loneliness and alienation I felt during the first few months of the year I spent in Tunis. While my list of top ten favorite Jews of all time cheered me up, it wasn’t until I met Nomi Stone that I truly got out of my funk. Nomi is a poet and a scholar who was in Tunisia on a Fulbright. Her project was to research and write a book of poems about the Jews of Djerba (a desert island off the southern coast of Tunisia), which is exactly what she did. The fruits of her year in Tunisia, The Stranger’s Notebook, was published by TriQuarterly Press in 2008 and it is just amazing.

I may be biased, because Nomi is a dear friend, so I have included links to a few poems available online. Through Nomi I had the pleasure of eating a Rosh Hashanah dinner with one of the very few Jewish families still living in Tunis. (There are thousands of Tunisian Jews living on Djerba, but only a few dozen still in the capital, Tunis). Dinner was wonderful—a slight variation on the classic Tunisian couscous, followed by shots of fig liqueur, which had been distilled by Tunisian Jews for centuries—but it was an encounter I had a few weeks later that I will always remember.

I was wandering through the old city of Tunis, looking to buy a mix tape for a musically inclined friend, when I saw the son of the family I had eaten dinner with, a slight man in his early forties. When I saw him approach, I waved and called out his name, but he didn’t appear to see me. Soon he was lost in the crowd.

Strange, I thought. I worried that maybe I had offended him somehow. And then I thought that perhaps he was worried about acknowledging my presence, because of where we had met, because he was scared of somehow being revealed. A paranoid thought, but still. That fearful uncertainty — being unsure whether I was snubbed, or not seen, or something else more sinister — gets at the heart, I think, of what it means to be a Jew in a place without many Jews, or any such stranger for that matter.

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a late-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a Rotary scholar in Tunisia. His first book, The Oracle of Stamboul, is now available. Check back all week for more posts from him on the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

Tunisia, Whitesnake, and My Top Ten Favorite Jews of All Time

Monday, February 14, 2011 | Permalink

Michael David Lukas’ first book, The Oracle of Stamboul, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Author Blog.

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few months about the year I spent in Tunisia. It was 2003, I had just graduated college and was living on the outskirts of Tunis. Officially, I was there as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and was supposed to be studying Arabic while bridging the gap of understanding between the United States and the Arab World. It was, by all accounts, a good year. I did my best to bridge the gap between the United States and the Arab World, I read a trunk full of classic literature, and towards the end of the year I started writing what would later become my first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul. Those first few months, however, were full of loneliness and alienation. I missed my family and my friends, I missed my girlfriend, I missed being in college, and I missed those small American comforts (peanut butter, dryers, wood floors) which seemed not to exist in Tunisia. I had a few Tunisian friends at the internet cafe around the corner, and my Eastern European roommates—Ozzie and Petr—were good guys, though I had difficulty connecting with them at first. One reason for this was that I got up early for Arabic class and they stayed up late partying, drinking cheap Tunisian beer, and playing hair metal at the highest volume Petr’s tinny laptop speakers could bear.

In those early months—before I met Nomi Stone, a Fulbright scholar/poet who will feature prominently in the next post—the only Jews I saw were those in the cemetery I passed on my way to school. I didn’t realize how much this absence of Jews bothered me until I found myself lying in bed one night with the pillow clutched over my head and the sounds of Whitesnake drifting through my door. “Here I go again on my own. Going down the only road I’ve ever known.” Those melancholy lyrics, accompanied by Ozzie’s warbled harmony, hit me like a sledge hammer, clarifying the alienation I had felt for months, the yawning distance between my current life and everything I knew myself to be. It wasn’t that I was living in a Muslim majority country with two uncircumcised Eastern Europeans. Rather, the absence of Jewishness in my life was like the absence of peanut butter. I never knew it existed until it wasn’t there.

And so, to cheer myself up, I decided to make a list of my top ten favorite Jews of all time. I slept on it, woke up that next morning, and wrote the list out on a small yellow piece of paper, which I still keep in my wallet. It is a very personal list and arbitrary by nature. In the past eight years, my list has changed quite a bit, but I share this 2003 version (in alphabetical order) because it speaks to where I was at the time.

My Top Ten Favorite Jews of All Time [2003 Version]

Walter Benjamin

Martin Buber

Jacques Derrida

Albert Einstein

Emma Goldman


Franz Kafka

Rosa Luxemburg

Moses Maimonides


Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a late-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a Rotary scholar in Tunisia. His first book, The Oracle of Stamboul, is now available. Check back all week for more posts from him on the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

JBC Bookshelf: Icy Day Edition

Wednesday, February 02, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Gosh, it never ends. But, bad weather = more time to read, so we’re not complaining too much! On the book award front–Cynthia Ozick and David Grossman will both be attending the National Jewish Book Awards on March 9th, so come on out to see them. The ceremony begins at 8:00PM at the Center for Jewish History, and space is limited! In other news, spring books are flowing into our office and authors are about to begin to register for our 2011-2012 NETWORK tours, so we’ll have a lot of new books to share with you…bloggers to blog…and books to review.

Today’s lit picks from the desk:

The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel, Michael David Lukas (February 2011, Harper)
Michael will be blogging for us the week of February 14th, so be on the look out…

Mr. Funny Pants, Michael Showalter (February 2011, Grand Central)                   Writer of one of the greatest movies of all time, Wet Hot American Summer.

Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, Ariel Sabar (February, 2011)
Ariel’s first book, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, is a favorite of the JBC team

Modern Jewish Literatures: Intersections and Boundaries , Sheila E. Jelen, Michael P. Kramer, and L. Scott Lerner (December 2010, University of Pennsylvania Press)
Read an excerpt here.