Reviewed by Katya Rara
THE LAST WATCHMAN OF OLD CAIRO
By Michael David Lukas
288 pp. Spiegel & Grau.
Joseph’s known that his father has been dying for years, but when Ahmed al-Raqb finally passes away, Joseph’s world quietly grinds to a stop. They’d grown distant, and he couldn’t say that he wasn’t prepared. But just as he thinks mourning is all that’s left to do, a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep, containing a note from his father and an ancient piece of parchment with Hebrew and Arabic writing on it.
Joseph knows the broad strokes of his family’s history, including the story of the young Muslim orphan whose duty to watch the Ibn Ezra synagogue turned into a tradition. But now he realizes there must be more to the story and follows the trail to Cairo, falling in love with history along the way.
Every generation has a story to tell
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a multigenerational novel that tells us three vastly different stories: Joseph in modern-day Cairo; his ancestor Ali, who lived over a thousand years ago; and twin researchers Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson in 1897, who bravely went places where women couldn’t go.
As Joseph returns to his father’s homeland to understand the significance of the artifact in his possession, we meet Ali, the first watchman whose love for a Jewish girl leads him to make a decision he learns to regret.
Their lives converge because of Agnes and Margaret, who discover that one of the manuscripts they bought in Cairo is the real deal, and may have come from the oldest synagogue in the city. But this means that the storeroom must be compromised—and if they don’t act fast, more artifacts, possibly even the legendary Ezra Scroll, could be sold and lost forever.
Fiction and history entwine to create a true sense of place
From the very first sentence of The Last Watchman, I knew one thing very acutely: There is so much I don’t know. My knowledge of Jewish history is close to zero, and that of Egyptian history, in the negatives, making me wonder if I would properly appreciate the book while giving it a fair, balanced review.
To Michael David Lukas’ credit, he explains historical events and religious beliefs as clearly as he can without oversimplifying them. And as a Jew who has lived and studied in Cairo, he doesn’t shy away from harsh truths, showing different times and places through different eyes—those of a Muslim boy, Presbyterian widows, and a young man who never practices any religion—so that we can draw our own conclusions.
Lukas also brings more than real events and places into his story; some of his characters are real. Agnes Smith and Margaret Gibson were Scottish-born scholars and self-taught polyglots who made incalculable contributions to Semitic studies at the turn of the 19th century. Even Solomon Schechter, a rabbi and scholar who runs roughshod over Agnes and Margaret, is real, and the fact that Lukas made me believe that they were fictional was wonderful.
But the narrative can move too slowly
Though The Last Watchman tries to tell three stories—two of them fictional, one of them real—as beautifully as possible, the pace never quite picks up, which makes the novel lack intensity, urgency, and a compelling emotional connection.
Despite this, Lukas portrays love across generations, cultures, and genders sensitively, especially the struggle of love versus duty, and how love can flourish from or without it.
More than anything else, The Last Watchman is a story of love and magic
Though Ali’s story has the most young adult progression of them all, the beating heart of the story is Joseph, whose Jewish-Muslim parentage came with complications that resonated with me. The mutual yearning, love, and respect in his parents’ relationship, told through calls and conversations, rang true. The raw honesty balanced out the intellectual rigors and sometimes staid historical learnings on Margaret and Agnes’ end.
Another thread running throughout the stories, beyond that of family, is the legend of the Ezra Scroll, said to be the perfect Torah scroll and the one true incarnation of God’s name. The lure of its legend reels in every character, and even I was transfixed as I debated whether it existed. We all felt the magic in a mystery that has spanned generations so wholly.
Three lives, one moving read
Like many books I’ve read thanks to the First Look Club, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo isn’t a novel I would have picked up myself, mostly because of the weight that comes with its history. But once I got over my fear of not knowing, I settled into the details of lives lived rather than the big picture—and grew to love the lives I glimpsed, especially the quiet, tender moments in Joseph’s life.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a tenderly written coming of age story that takes its time guiding you through centuries of faith, stories, and secrets. Readers aware of the nuances of Jewish-Muslim relations will appreciate it most, but anyone with an open mind and a patient heart will enjoy this story of family, history, and love in all its forms.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas is available at Fully Booked stores and Fully Booked Online.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[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.]