The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas
2018 Winner for The National Jewish Book Award for Fiction
Joseph's mother is a Jewish American woman, his father, a Muslim, was born in Cairo. Our narrator was raised in California by his mother and stepfather, he wants to learn more about his paternal ancestry. He is a scholar specializing in the Jewish history of Cairo. He is on a mission to learn more about a large collection of Jewish documents brought to Cambridge from Cairo by two Scottish sisters, twins, endowed with family money, highly knowledgeable about Medieval Egyptian texts from the Jewish community of Cairo.
Joseph is on a flight to Cairo when we meet him. He was recently sent a news paper clipping about the ancient Cairo synagogue Ben Ezra. He also wants to learn more about his paternal family heritage.
Lukas gives us a sense of time past by focusing on the two sisters. They are just perfect characters, totally developed. It is the late 19th century. In a huge book and document market they have found for sale sacred texts housed in the temple. They fear unless they can bring all the documents back to Cambridge, they will be lost, sold to who knows who. Seeing how the sisters accomplish this was so interesting, this alone makes The Last Watchman of Old Cairo a pure delight. We sit in on the negotiations of the sisters, helped by a scholar and his mysterious lady friend. The elders of the synagogue want to send also to England a young man caught in a homoerotic act, at the time a horrible crime. This is all interwinded with the narrator's future and his sexual orientation.
Our narrator's full name is Joseph al-Raqb, al-Raqb means "watchman". He discovers his family members have held the position of watchman of the synagogue for 1000 years. Through this we get to see more of the synagogue's history.
Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, a student at the American University of Cairo, and a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Translated into more than a dozen languages, his first novel The Oracle of Stamboulwas a finalist for the California Book Award, the NCIBA Book of the Year Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize. His second novel, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, was recently published by Spiegel & Grau. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, he is a recipient of scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Montalvo Arts Center, New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Elizabeth George Foundation. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, and Georgia Review. He lives in Oakland and teaches at San Francisco State University
I give my total endorsement to The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, especially to those into Jewish history.