The Book Smuggler, by Omaima al-Khamis

Compared to the world of Mazid ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi, I live in a paradise. Whenever I have a question, I have access to an incalculable amount of information. I can call up Google, Wikipedia, and the catalogs and databases of two libraries at any time. Mazid, however, has to travel across deserts, mountains, and seas to get to libraries that may or may not have copies of books that can answer his questions. He also has to contend with growing sectarian violence, anti-intellectualism, and fracturing caliphates on his way to those libraries. Omaima al-Khamis takes us to the second decade of the eleventh century and drops us onto a caravan route between Baghdad and Jerusalem in The Book Smuggler, translated with a lovely medieval flavor by Sarah Enany.

All Mazid has ever wanted was to read books and learn. Once he is old enough, he leaves the Arabian desert and travels to Baghdad. Unfortunately for Mazid, Baghdad is no longer the shining city of learning that hosted the House of Wisdom. There are some remnants. Mazid’s abilities as a scribe and his love of learning help him find those remnants, but it isn’t long before increasing fundamentalist violence sends Mazid out into the world again—this time with a precious cargo of books full of translated Greek philosophy and science.

The Book Smuggler chronicles Mazid’s travels across the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Córdoban caliphates, from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Cairo and finally to Córdoba. (At the time, Córdoba was believed to be a haven for science, literature, and the arts). It’s a journey that takes Mazid years to complete as he moseys his way across the Islamic world. I’m not terribly familiar with medieval Islamic writing, but al-Khamis (via Enany’s translation) sounds medieval to me. Mazid interrupts his narration with side stories and the text wanders as much as he does. He also has a habit of falling instantly in love with the women he encounters. He spouts poetry at the drop of a hat and blames any bad health on imbalanced humors. The medieval flavoring takes some getting used to. Once I was in, I was hooked.

Mazid’s physical journey is mirrored by his intellectual journey, which I found almost as interesting. (I love a book that can transport me from my couch in the twenty-first century to a camel in the eleventh.) When we first meet young Mazid, he is in awe of the people and places of Baghdad. It is the city he always dreamed of as a child at his grandfather’s knee. He has complete faith in the Qu’ran and Mohammed. Although he remains a faithful Muslim, he starts to have serious questions about the imams who teach in the mosques and their followers who “police” the streets. The philosophy he reads add to his questions.

It’s never easy to be a questioner, but Mazid has a mission to guide him. Before he leaves Baghdad, he is inducted into a society called the Voyagers. These men shepherd books—especially translations of the ancient Greeks and radical thinkers from around the Islamic world—from city to city. They sell the books to intellectuals who share their questioning values, but mostly they want to make sure that these books will be safe from anti-intellectuals who want to burn anything that might make them question what they’ve been taught.

The Book Smuggler was an amazing read. It was the closest I’ve ever come to time traveling I’ve ever had while reading.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Tabula Rogeriana, by Muhammad al-Idrisi, c. 1154 CE (Image via Wikicommons, note that the map is oriented with Africa and the Arabian Peninsula at the top of the page)

The Last Watchman of Cairo, by Michael David Lukas

35791972Joseph, 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.