Navigating History, Religion in ‘The Last Watchman of Old Cairo’

Why take time to read a book about time? For quiet revelations and epiphanies.

Michael David Lukas. Photo: Irene Young.

I regret that I can’t recommend to everyone, without reservation, Michael David Lukas’ new novel. It’s not for all markets. If you demand a twist-filled plot, flamboyant characters, heart-racing suspense and a denouement that makes you want to reach down through the fictional ether to high-five the protagonist, you will be disappointed. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo just isn’t that sort of book.

Maybe it seemed a particularly contemplative work to me in part because I started reading it directly after finishing a book from which Lucas’ couldn’t have been more different: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. I read that 300-plus-page tangle of sniping, slurring, clawing and caterwauling as if racing to a finish line — hoping against hope that, when I finally stopped sprinting, I could soak my tired feet and feel refreshed and well. That obviously didn’t happen.

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I read Lukas’ book at a much different pace. I took my time with it and found myself leaving the final chapter unread for a couple of days, though I knew perfectly well that I could zip through it over a quick cup of tea.

Perhaps my leisurely pace had something to do with the fact that the book is itself about time. It is one of those novels that tell multiple stories, each discrete yet paradoxically connected with each other. (Think of works like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.) The Last Watchman includes three narratives, all centered on the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. And it covers events spanning a millennium or so. All the major characters along the novel’s timeline have a strong connection to a single object associated with the synagogue: the mysterious and elusive “Ezra Scroll,” described as “a perfect Torah scroll, without flaw or innovation.”

The scroll was already ancient when the earliest of the three narratives begins, 1,000 years after the birth of Jesus. In chapter one, a third-person narrator tells the story of an orphaned Muslim youth, Ali ibn-al-Marwani, who is called on to fill in one morning as a messenger, spending the day delivering notes back and forth between Cairo’s Muslim and Jewish leaders. He does such a splendid job that, to his surprise and eventual delight, he is offered a job as night watchman at the synagogue.

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In the book’s second chapter, we encounter a first-person speaker and an entirely different world: Berkeley, CA at the dawn of the 21st century. A bookish young man named Joseph, born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father, both Egyptian, receives a package from Egypt that may have a link to Ali’s story in chapter one. Joseph’s late father, it turns out, was himself a watchman at the Cairo synagogue, and the package apparently has something to do with that.

In the subsequent chapter, a third story commences as we take a step back to 1897 and return to a third-person point of view. Two real-life characters — a pair of widowed, middle-aged twins from Cambridge named Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson (née Smith) — arrive in Cairo. The sisters, staunch but not especially starchy Presbyterians, have previously gained some celebrity as Bible scholars. They’ve now arrived in Egypt to help rescue (and, they hope, take back to the UK) boxes of documents that were housed over the centuries in a storeroom (called a geniza) in the old synagogue. And, just maybe, they’ll succeed in unearthing the lost Ezra Scroll as well.

With chapter four, we return to Ali’s story and the cycle begins again.

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Interior of the Ibn (Ben) Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.

You might think that a book with such broad historical scope, set in a city with Jews and Muslims (and Presbyterians) sharing turf, would be a grand and colorful adventure. And, to a degree, it is. But the novel is rooted in the quotidian lives lived by Ali, Joseph, Agnes and Margaret. These are not the kinds of protagonists who fight great battles, vanquish imposing foes or engage in love affairs for the ages. None of their stories requires Dolby Surround Sound. There are revelations and epiphanies throughout the book, but they are quiet ones.

Lukas’ characters face the sorts of basic conflicts we all face in life. Agnes and Margraret, for instance, fret about the ethical dilemmas they’re drawn into during their quest to gain control of the synagogue’s documents. They grit their teeth in silent impatience at the sexism in academia that keeps them from getting their due as researchers.

In a flashback, Joseph, who is gay, describes a visit with his father in Egypt, during which his uncle goads him into coming out. It’s a big moment, but it is not a cataclysmic scene:

I hadn’t been disowned. No one had thrown any plates or made any angry proclamations. There wasn’t even any overt disapproval. But that next morning when I sat down next to my father, the couch cushion between us felt like a brick wall.

It’s young Ali who undergoes the biggest crisis in the novel, when his lustful feelings for a beautiful Jewish girl lead him to compromise his watchman job. Security at the synagogue is breached, and he is filled with agonizing self-reproach. He faces the painful choice between confessing his guilt or living with secret shame.

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I’ve not read Lukas’ first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, so I don’t know whether his approach as a fiction writer is always so subdued, but I did read a New York Times article he wrote while working on The Last Watchman. In it, he tells of the quandary he faced when the Arab Spring happened. Should he revamp his novel to acknowledge Egypt’s new reality?

It wouldn’t be difficult to bump the setting forward a decade or so. Perhaps Joseph could find himself caught up in the revolution. He might be torn between his family and his morals, his political sympathies and his sense of self-preservation. He might learn a poignant and subtle lesson about the nature of political change.

Ultimately, Lucas decided against this, concluding that he wasn’t the writer to pen “the Great Arab Spring Novel.” A novelist, he wrote in the article, must consider the “long view” of events. So he held to his original plan.

I believe he made the right choice, opting to write about historical continuity and interconnectivity. And while the human timeline contains devastating events, it also contains ordinary people going about their lives in spite of those events. Such are the people he’s writing about here.

Lukas’ decision to write The Last Watchman of Old Cairo will, I believe, sit fine with readers who need a break from noise and strife. As we’re often reminded these days, uninterrupted exposure to fire and fury can singe the psyche.