The Last Watchman of Old Cairo
I read this a little while ago, but I can't get the story out of my head. Michael David Lukas tells the tale of Cairo's Ibn Ezra Synagogue, and the Muslim family who served as its watchmen. At the center of the story isn't the synagogue, or the al-Raqb family, but the Cairo Genizah — "a collection of 30,000 Jewish manuscript fragments found in the genizah or storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo, Egypt." Basically, any documents that had the word "God" on it couldn't be thrown away, so they were kept in the genizah, which built up a remarkable archive.
Michael David Lukas explained to the Millions (read the whole interview, it's worth your time), "I studied abroad in Cairo during my junior year of college. It was a weird period in my life, and in the world, and it was my first time living in the Arab World. I was feeling somewhat alienated from my Jewishness. It was during the Second Intifada–I was hyper aware of, and also very conscious of, and also sort of defensive about, and alienated from my Jewishness all at the same time. I was really enjoying the city but having a hard time figuring out how I fit into it. And in the midst of this, I came upon the synagogue at the heart of the city. Seeing that, and realizing that there was thousand-year-old history of Jews in Cairo, I had a sense not only of the possibilities of coexistence, but also of how I fit into the place."
Lukas weaves together a few stories. First, the heart of the novel is story of Joseph, a young gay Egyptian American man, who has a Jewish mother and Muslim father. He is the descendant of the watchmen of the synagogue, and of a family who belonged to the synagogue for centuries before fleeing Egypt. Second, two British twins — Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson — who helped discover the Cairo genziah. And third, Ali, a Muslim orphan who becomes the first watchman of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue. My only critique is that it took me a few tries to get into it — but once I made it through a few chapters, I was hooked.
Really engaging and a beautifully told story of the Jews of Cairo.
Get it here: https://amzn.to/2Ic5G4O