Reviewed by Chris Loza
THE LAST WATCHMAN OF OLD CAIRO
By Michael David Lukas
288 pp. Spiegel & Grau.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas is a mesmerizing, lyrical work of art. It is a triptych of three stories from different eras hinged together by the protection, search, and mysteries of the famed Ezra Scroll, considered the most perfect Torah scroll produced without flaw or innovation.
The novel opens with Ali al-Raqb, who, because of some serendipitous event, and despite being a Muslim, becomes the first watchman of Ibn Ezra Synagogue. It shifts to the present day, generations of al-Raqbs later, to Joseph, a graduate student at Berkeley, receiving a package all the way from Egypt after his father had died, apparently, from his sleep. Then it shifts close to the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, where we find two rich British sisters, both widowed, chasing after old manuscripts that are appearing in the black market for sale and for a pittance. They believe that these manuscripts are important and that the leaks can be traced to an old synagogue that may or may not be the resting place of the Ezra Scroll.
The search for the Ezra Scroll and its contents, which are believed to have great ramifications on biblical scholarship, feels like the premise of a conspiracy thriller, but Lukas is not interested in what the Ezra Scroll possibly contains that could change humanity forever. He is interested about the journey, about the passage of time, and how we are a product of everything and everyone that came before us. In one particular passage, he writes eloquently, how the minutiae of daily life may not seem much now, but compounded by time a thousand times over, the debris of life becomes the stuff of history.
There is no real suspense here. No one gets killed searching for the Ezra Scroll and yet I felt myself on edge every time and kept turning the pages of the book to know more about these characters. Ali becomes a semi-tragic figure, desperate for love he cannot have, settling for the one he could have, and accepting that version of happiness. The story of Agnes and Margaret contains a certain levity as they trump their way over the prejudices of their time and the politics and bureaucracy of old Egypt. Joseph’s story is a meditation on grief, or as one of the minor characters said, wrestling the grief. His is a story of tying loose ends and rediscovering a father he barely knew. In his journey to Egypt to find answers for the package that his father left him, he discovers what has been elusive to him all his life: his real purpose.
In this sense, he assumes the role of the watchman of old Cairo, not because he sits outside the synagogue every night, but because as a watchman, his real job was to look after the geniza, a storage of documents containing the history of the Jewish people. He becomes the last al-Raqb watchman because it is implied that the family name will die with him.
Separately read, the three stories might feel small and self-contained, but such is the power of the reader that we are granted an omniscient view of the three stories. We are able to see how the events from the past inform the present, how a simple act of the sisters in 1897 have a profound effect on Joseph without him ever knowing it. But we, as readers, know. We know that Ali, Margaret and Agnes, and Joseph are linked despite the separation in time. Each of their stories, their decisions, and their mistakes, each moment in their lives inform the lives of others. It is the beauty of literature, and of this book, to give us a perspective that is otherwise lost to us in our everyday life.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas is available at Fully Booked stores and Fully Booked Online.
Chris has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter and Instagram @cd_loza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]