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.