Fiction as a means to tackle stereotypes

The Last Watchman Of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas is inspired by a story he heard from a woman he met on a plane, who said she was related to the Muslim watchmen of synagogues in Calcutta.
The Last Watchman Of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas is inspired by a story he heard from a woman he met on a plane, who said she was related to the Muslim watchmen of synagogues in Calcutta.PHOTO: IRENE YOUNG, SPIEGEL & GRAU

In his second novel, Michael David Lukas, a Jew from California, traces the story of Muslim watchmen of a synagogue in Cairo

American author Michael David Lukas is drawn to the stories of unlikely communities - to be specific, of Jews in the Muslim world.

In his first novel, The Oracle Of Stamboul (2011), a precocious Jewish girl is born portentously into the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and runs away to Istanbul, followed by a flock of birds.

His sophomore effort, the recently published The Last Watchman Of Old Cairo, was inspired by a story he heard from a woman he met on a plane, who said she was related to the Muslim watchmen of synagogues in Calcutta, India.

At this point, Lukas, a Jew from California, had been trying for years to write a book about the Jews of Cairo, an age-old community obscured by history, whose existence he stumbled upon literally one day in a Cairene cemetery.

He noticed some of the graves had the Star of David on them and upon wandering further, came upon the Ben Ezra Synagogue of old Cairo, built on the site where the infant Moses was said to have been plucked from the river Nile.

"I became obsessed with the Jews of Cairo," recalls the 39-year-old over the telephone. Still, he failed to write the novel for years until he heard the story about the Muslim synagogue watchmen.

The watchmen of the novel are the men of the al-Raqb family, who have watched over the synagogue for almost a thousand years.

Fiction is all about bridging the boundaries that divide readers, characters and writers. The world would be a much better place if we had more empathy.

AMERICAN AUTHOR MICHAEL DAVID LUKAS

In the present day, their descendant Joseph - the son of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father - arrives in Cairo from California to trace the provenance of a manuscript fragment sent to him by his late father.

His story is entangled with that of British twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, Semitic scholars who, in the late 19th century, came to Cairo to secure the ancient documents of the synagogue's geniza, a treasure trove of religious texts.

Lukas, who spent a year in Israel and has studied Arabic, first visited Cairo in 2000 when he was a student and has returned many times since. "It's a beautiful, overwhelming, decrepit and out-of-this-world kind of city. I really fell in love with it."

Even so, he did not feel comfortable revealing his Jewish heritage to Egyptians because of the strong anti-Semitism he encountered in the Arab world due to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Taxi drivers would insult Jews while he sat in the back of their cars saying nothing. When he told a close friend he was a Jew, the friend was shocked because he had never met a Jew before.

In the seven years he spent working on his novel, Cairo kept changing.

First, there was the Arab Spring, which sparked the 2011 Egyptian revolution that forced the resignation of then President Hosni Mubarak.

The year after that, an anti-Islamic video inflamed violent protests in the Muslim world. The culprit was eventually found to be a United States-based Coptic Christian.

"It caused me to doubt the whole project," says Lukas. "I wondered if the semi-harmonious, multi-ethnic city was a figment of my imagination."

But then he heard stories of Egyptians who guarded a synagogue from protesters and vandals during the revolution . "It gave me a renewed sense of hope in the story of people risking their lives to watch over another religion."

Lukas, who is married with two daughters, is now working on a futuristic, feminist take on the biblical Book of Esther, about a Hebrew queen of Persia who thwarts the genocide of her people.

He believes literature is the best way to counter stereotypes.

"What worries me is that for generations of Muslims, the only Jews they see are Israeli soldiers on Al-Jazeera and YouTube - just as a lot of Americans have stereotypes about Muslims being the cause of violence around the world.

"Fiction is all about bridging the boundaries that divide readers, characters and writers. The world would be a much better place if we had more empathy."

• The Last Watchman Of Old Cairo ($29.96) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2018, with the headline 'Fiction as a means to tackle stereotypes'. Print Edition | Subscribe