cover image The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

Michael David Lukas. Random/Spiegel & Grau, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-399-18116-0

In this evocative novel, Lukas takes readers to Cairo at three different points in its history. One thousand years ago, Ali ibn al-Marwani, a Muslim orphan, becomes the night watchman at the Ibn Ezra Synagogue. In 1897, English twin sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, arrive in Cairo to assist Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter in acquiring the ancient scrolls held in the synagogue’s storage area. And in the present, Joseph, a Berkeley graduate student who is half-Jewish, half-Muslim, receives a mysterious package from his recently deceased father, which sends him to Cairo to unravel the secret behind the unusual bequest. What binds all three stories is the legendary 2,000-year-old Ezra scroll, purported to be the most perfect Torah scroll ever created and supposedly stored at the synagogue. Over the centuries, Ali finds that love and duty don’t mix, Agnes and Margaret traverse a bureaucratic labyrinth to arrive at the Jewish Holy of Holies, and Joseph goes from clue to clue to unlock his father’s past and his own future. Like a contemporary Lawrence Durrell, Lukas (The Oracle of Stamboul) turns the Egyptian city into a tantalizingly seductive place of mystery. And although the story is dramatically diffuse, it is redeemed by the author’s vision of a more hopeful world where Jews and Muslims come together over a shared cultural heritage. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc. (Apr.)