The Last Watch­man of Old Cairo

By – February 27, 2018

Join­ing the con­sid­er­able list of books and arti­cles inspired by the dis­cov­ery” of the doc­u­ments of the geniza in the Ben Ezra Syn­a­gogue of Fus­tat (Old Cairo) in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, The Last Watch­man of Old Cairo plots a con­tem­po­rary tale with flour­ish­es of mys­tery, and cur­rent soci­etal concerns.

Texts that include the name of God are con­sid­ered sacred by Jews. When they are no longer usable, they are either buried or stored in a geniza – usu­al­ly in an attic – in the syn­a­gogue. In the late 19th cen­tu­ry, two wid­owed Chris­t­ian sis­ters, schol­ars from Scot­land, brought the doc­u­ments to the atten­tion of Dr. Solomon Schechter. He had the doc­u­ments brought to Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty, where he was a res­i­dent schol­ar; they have been stud­ied there ever since.

Lukas cre­ates a sense of the com­mu­ni­ty of the time, with local mem­bers inter­act­ing with the sis­ters and Dr. Schechter, as well as with his sup­port­ers, whose motives in the deal­ings with the doc­u­ments range from hon­est to nefar­i­ous. They make their appear­ance in the con­tem­po­rary tale when Joseph al-Raqb, son of a Jew­ish moth­er and Mus­lim father, leaves grad­u­ate school in Cal­i­for­nia to trav­el to Cairo, where his father remained after his moth­er left upon becom­ing preg­nant with him.

Joseph’s mis­sion is to uncov­er the sto­ry behind a ref­er­ence to the ancient Ben Ezra syn­a­gogue in a news­pa­per clip­ping, sent to him along with the effects of his recent­ly deceased father. This is in keep­ing with his her­itage: Al-Raqb is a descrip­tive sur­name mean­ing the watch­man.” For gen­er­a­tions, the job of guard­ing the syn­a­gogue, a respect­ed posi­tion, was hand­ed down from father to son.

Lukas’s nar­ra­tive clev­er­ly incor­po­rates the nego­ti­a­tions for the geniza doc­u­ments by the sis­ters Agnes and Mar­garet, Dr. Schechter and a young woman whose iden­ti­ty is not revealed at first, and the elders of the syn­a­gogue. It is revealed that the elders are seek­ing to include a young man of the com­mu­ni­ty caught in unnat­ur­al con­gress” to be sent to Cam­bridge along with the doc­u­ments. The allu­sion to homo­sex­u­al­i­ty res­onates with Joseph, whose fas­ci­na­tion with what he is uncov­er­ing will ulti­mate­ly deter­mine his future.

Many issues con­cern­ing con­tem­po­rary schol­ars are raised in this fast-paced nov­el, which will inter­est fic­tion and non­fic­tion read­ers alike.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions

In a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten nov­el that tog­gles between Cairo in the eleventh cen­tu­ry, the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and the present day, Michael David Lukas has cre­at­ed a cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ry detail­ing the his­to­ry of Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Syn­a­gogue, its trea­sures, and the divi­sions among peo­ple in its midst. From the moment Joseph, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in lit­er­a­ture, receives a gift from his late father, the adven­ture to uncov­er the past begins.

The novel’s eleventh-cen­tu­ry moments and char­ac­ters illu­mi­nate an era when Jews and Mus­lims fre­quent­ly lived and worked togeth­er respect­ful­ly and agree­ably. In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the nov­el absorbs us with the search for ancient doc­u­ments that may have been hid­den in the Cairo Geniza. And in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, Joseph, the son of a Jew­ish moth­er and Mus­lim father, seeks to piece togeth­er the his­to­ry of his ances­tors, the al-Raqb fam­i­ly, to uncov­er how it res­onates in the present day.

Part fam­i­ly quest, part detec­tive sto­ry, Lukas’s nov­el weaves a thrilling tale that brims with intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al pas­sion. This his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant and dis­tinct­ly mod­ern nov­el is filled with eru­di­tion and charm.