Joseph, like many other literary sons, only really learns who his father is after his death. A few weeks after his father dies, Joseph receives a package with a letter written in an archaic form of Arabic that turns out to document his family’s long history of serving as watchmen for the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas, moves back and forth in time from the first watchman, to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, to Joseph’s attempts to find out about his father’s life.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo starts in the eleventh century, when Ali becomes the first watchman for the synagogue. Through his eyes, we see a thriving Jewish community in the middle of Muslim Cairo. We also learn about the synagogue’s greatest treasure, the Ezra Scroll, believed to be a perfect torah scroll created by the scribe Ezra. We then jump to the present, to Joseph, who is currently the last in the al-Raqb family. Joseph is the son of a Jewish woman and a Muslim father. Technically, this makes him both Jewish and Muslim. In a way, Joseph is the culmination of the tangled history of the al-Raqb family and the Cairene Jews.
Meanwhile, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo gives us chapters from the perspective of Agnes and Margaret Smith. The Smith twins were linguists and Biblical scholars who played an important role in the recovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 1800s, though credit mostly goes to Solomon Schechter. Ali and Joseph’s chapters are interesting, but the Smith sisters’ parts were my favorite. I wanted to know more than the book gave me about the contents of the genizah. I also wanted more wrangling about who really owns the genizah materials, which are now scattered across several different university collections. I felt squicky at the way the Smiths and Schechter essentially snatched the genizah from the Cairene Jews.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a fast read about a small community and the people who get drawn into it. While I wish it had devoted more time to character development and ethics, I was hooked. This book will be great for readers who like their historical fiction with a heavy dose of academia.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 March 2018.