The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

by Michael David Lukas

Overview: 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 tangled history that binds the two sides of his family. For generations, the men of the al-Raqb family have served as watchmen of the storied Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, built at the site where the infant Moses was taken from the Nile. Joseph learns of his ancestor Ali, a Muslim orphan who nearly a thousand years earlier was entrusted as the first watchman of the synagogue and became enchanted by its legendary—perhaps magical—Ezra Scroll. The story of Joseph’s family is entwined with that of the British twin sisters Agnes and Margaret, who in 1897 depart their hallowed Cambridge halls on a mission to rescue sacred texts that have begun to disappear from the synagogue.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a moving page-turner of a novel from acclaimed storyteller Michael David Lukas. This tightly woven multigenerational tale illuminates the tensions that have torn communities apart and the unlikely forces—potent magic, forbidden love—that boldly attempt to bridge that divide.

Faith Bowers (06/22/19): As soon as I started reading this book, I could tell it was a winner. This is a Gineza story told in 3 parts: Ancient Cairo, late 19th century Cairo when the articles from the Gineza were imported to Cambridge and a modern story told by the last watchman’s son. A Gineza is a sacred storage place in a synagogue where you leave any unwanted papers, books, scrolls with the name of God on them. Each chapter is a part of one of these sections leaving you with a cliff hanger at the end of most chapters. Each story also explains parts of social hierarchy in the different centuries. Though two middle aged twin sisters are learned scholars in ancient writings but because they are women in the late 19th century their names are excluded from most that they have brought to their modern world. The first watchman was an orphan who was dependent on the Jews of ancient Cairo for his largess. Joseph hated his arabic last name which means the watchman when he went to school in CA. I really enjoyed Lukas’ writing style and have reserved an older book written by him.
Rating: ****

Judy Stanton (04/14/19): At the last Jewish Film Festival, the movie "From Cairo to the Cloud" told the story about a genizah in a synagogue in Cairo. I had never heard of the word genizah, but with the movie and this book, I now see the amazing amount of information that historians have had access to thanks to th"storage" area in the synagogue. The book intermixes stories from old, colonial and modern Egypt -- which at times proved a little difficult to follow. The story is based on the Muslim family whose job for generations was to watch over the synagogue and preserve documents, above all, the perfect Ezra scroll. The plot line is moved along by Joseph, a Berkley graduate student whose mother is an Egyptian born Jew and father is a Muslim from the family of "watchers." He returns to Egypt after his father dies to learn more about his family. The book portrays a time when Jews and Muslims lived side-by-side in harmony. It is a compelling work historical fiction, that touches on issues of family relationships, homosexuality, courage and sacrifice, and coming of age.
Rating: ****

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