“The Last Watchman of Old Cairo” centers on a synagogue guarded by men of Muslim faith. The "watchmen" protect magical, ancient texts like the Ezra Scroll, which has such strong energy, it emits a shimmering vibration, causing everything around it to glow.
Michael David Lukas’ novel bounces between three eras. Some of the characters are in Egypt now. Others knew Moses. A third group, from the 1800s, could have come right out of an Agatha Christie mystery. Lukas brilliantly weaves together the three storylines and the connection of each one to the sacred texts. He sat down with CapRadio's Donna Apidone to talk about what inspired him to write this book.
Talking about Cairo and the diversity and the many facets of religion and culture in that city, did you know all of that in advance or did you have to dig in and do some research to write this?
A little bit of both. I first experienced Cairo when I was studying abroad in 2000. I was a junior in college and had been studying Arabic a little bit. I had lived in the Middle East, in Israel before, but I had never lived in the Arab world. And being Jewish and being American, I felt a little disconnected from the city, and at the same time was completely in love with it.
Why? What do you like about Cairo?
It’s a hectic and sort of decrepit and welcoming and overwhelming and beautiful city. Like Istanbul and other cities, you can see the layers of history. In Istanbul it’s there for the taking, but with Cairo, you have to work a little more for it. I appreciated that.
Yet there was this disconnect between my love of the city and my sense of Jewish identity. For good reason or not, I felt nervous about coming out to people as Jewish. This disconnect continued for a few months and then one day I happened upon a graveyard. I noticed these Jewish Star of David headstones and came upon this synagogue, the Ben Ezra Synagogue which is at the center of the book.
I heard this tour guide talking about 1,000 years of Jewish history in Cairo. It’s not an exaggeration to say it made me feel whole again. It connected these two parts that had been disconnected. And from then on, I was kind of obsessed with the Jews of Cairo.
Donna Apidone interviewed Michael David Lukas on July 19, 2018.