The Last Watchman of Old Cairo a novel

by Michael David Lukas

Book, 2018



Call number




New York : Spiegel & Grau, 2018


In this "wonderfully rich" (San Francisco Chronicle) novel from the author of the internationally bestselling The Oracle of Stamboul, a young man journeys from California to Cairo to unravel centuries-old family secrets.   "This book is a joy."--Rabih Alameddine, author of the National Book Award finalist An Unnecessary Woman WINNER OF: THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION'S SOPHIE BRODY AWARD * THE NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD IN FICTION * THE SAMI ROHR PRIZE FOR JEWISH LITERATURE * Named One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the BBC * Longlisted for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Prize * A Penguin Random House International One World, One Book Selection * Honorable Mention for the Middle East Book Award   Joseph, a literature student at Berkeley, is the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. One day, a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep, pulling him into a mesmerizing adventure to uncover the centuries-old history that binds the two sides of his family.    From the storied Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, where generations of his family served as watchmen, to the lives of British twin sisters Agnes and Margaret, who in 1897 leave Cambridge on a mission to rescue sacred texts that have begun to disappear from the synagogue, this tightly woven multigenerational tale illuminates the tensions that have torn communities apart and the unlikely forces that attempt to bridge that divide.    Moving and richly textured, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a poignant portrait of the intricate relationship between fathers and sons, and an unforgettable testament to the stories we inherit and the places we are from. Praise for The Last Watchman of Old Cairo "A beautiful, richly textured novel, ambitious and delicately crafted, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is both a coming-of-age story and a family history, a wide-ranging book about fathers and sons, religion, magic, love, and the essence of storytelling. This book is a joy."--Rabih Alameddine, author of the National Book Award finalist An Unnecessary Woman "Lyrical, compassionate and illuminating."--BBC "Michael David Lukas has given us an elegiac novel of Cairo--Old Cairo and modern Cairo. Lukas's greatest flair is in capturing the essence of that beautiful, haunted, shabby, beleaguered yet still utterly sublime Middle Eastern city."--Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years "Brilliant."--The Jerusalem Post… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ozzer
THE LAST WATCHMAN OF OLD CAIRO is three things. First, it is a family chronicle about a Muslim father who falls for a Jewish woman in Cairo. They have a son but never marry and eventually drift apart. Second, the novel is a coming-of-age story about a young man who seeks to understand his estranged
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father following a confusing bequest. And third, it is an historical mystery about a lost Jewish scroll.

The book focuses on the little-known story of the once thriving Jewish community of Cairo. Lukas tells the story from three different historical perspectives. One thousand years ago, a Muslim orphan is chosen to be the night watchman at the endangered Ibn Ezra Synagogue where he becomes the progenitor of a long line of family members who assume the same role. A second storyline takes place in 1897 when British twins, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, assist the noted scholar, Solomon Schechter, in preserving ancient documents from the synagogue’s attic known as the geniza. One of the documents was the putative Ezra scroll, purported to be the most perfect Torah scroll ever created and supposedly stored at the geniza. Set in the present, Joseph al-Raqb, an American graduate student, receives a curious package from his recently deceased Cairene father ambiguously stating “this was something that he should want to have.” Joseph’s parents never married and his mother had emigrated to America. His father had been the last of the synagogue watchmen. In an effort to unlock the mystery of his father’s bequest, Joseph travels to Cairo.

Lukas sets a mood of mystery in Cairo and the ancient synagogue thought to have been built at the site where Moses was retrieved from the Nile as a newborn. Jewish law requires that sacred texts cannot be destroyed but must either be stored indefinitely of buried. Tales of document decay and mysterious thefts from the geniza build the mood along with a nighttime disinterment in a deserted graveyard. Lukas’ clever plotting and evocation of ancient Cairo are marred by an overly optimistic tone that suggests that mutual understanding will overcome thousands of years of cultural conflict and mistrust.
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LibraryThing member Pmaurer
I listened to this book on tape, and wished I had read the physical book. The book uses three specific time periods to tell the story, and I found it hard to make the transition between them while listening to the tape.
However, the book was well written, with interesting details included about the
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people and the time periods - well worth the time spent with it.
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LibraryThing member HeatherLINC
This book was basically three stories that loosely linked together. They were set in different time periods and, by far, Ali's story was the most interesting. He was a young Muslim boy who became the watchman of a Jewish synagogue. I loved the lush descriptions of old Cairo and Ali was a delightful
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Sadly, I found the twins, Margaret and Agnes, and their story boring, although it had potential. By the halfway point I was skimming their sections. The third story, which focused on modern day Joseph, was nearly as bad but I did like that he was a descendent of Ali. However the ending was disappointing. A mediocre read.
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LibraryThing member Bookish59
3-part story of long line of Muslim guards of Cairo's Ibn Ezra Synagogue.

I found the ancient and exotic story of the first guard Ali al-Raqb intriguing and moving. He is an honorable boy when he starts job; and in time with trust placed in him by the supportive and appreciative congregation, he
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gains experience and becomes a perceptive, intelligent man, husband and father.

The 2nd part of the novel deals with a large number of old documents found at the synagogue; recognition of their historical and religious value to Jews and Muslims, and to the world at large. And the need to collect, move and organize these documents to a safe location quickly; as their desirability, unsurprisingly, has resulted in greed and ongoing theft. Filled with twists and turns, lots of humor and wit, and mostly wonderful but some annoying and irksome characters made reading a pleasure.

But... the 3rd and most modern portion of The Last Watchman of Old Cairo sadly felt flat, boring and disappointing to me.

Still a good read overall.
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LibraryThing member AnaraGuard
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo follows three linked story lines: Ali, a Muslim youth in perhaps 1200 AD; twin sisters in 1872 who are eager to get their hands on the surviving documents of an historic synagogue's genizi; and Joseph (or Yusef), a young gay man born to a Jewish mother and Muslim
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father. These documents--and the synagogue--are important to each of them for different, but related reasons. "a thousand years of love letters and prayer books, business contracts, deeds, and the occasional shopping list, all muddled together in a great heap of possible divinity."Lukas explores themes of identity in multiple ways, giving us vivid pictures of Cairo then and now. I was intrigued to learn afterwards that the sisters are based on historical figures, under-appreciated for their contributions to archaeology and preserving Arabic and Syriac manuscripts. You may well have heard the name Solomon Schechter but you likely do not know of Agnes and Margaret Smith!

"A story is never just a story," a rabbi observes at one point. This novel gives us a compelling story, wrapped in beautiful prose and exploring profound themes. And later, a character says that "language is a gesture--a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself". That may be true, but without such pointing, we may not notice the moon's light.
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LibraryThing member pennykaplan
Intertwined stories tell of the Jewish community in Cairo and the Muslim family who watched the synagogue. Main narrative is by a Jewish-Egyptian American who finds himself in the historical documents found in the ancient synagogue in Cairo. Much better than this description, and well written, too!

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