In his second novel translated into Arabic, the American writer Michael Lucas searches for many manuscripts and files in a large file, which is the Temple of “Ben Ezra” and the Jews of Cairo.
In his new novel, “The Last Guard of Old Cairo,” published by Dar Afaq, translated by Inas Zaki, Lucas poses a mystery through an ordinary incident, and goes through more than 300 pages to solve this mystery, and the related mysteries, accidents and other characters.
The normal incident is the arrival of a postal parcel of the narrator Yusef, residing in America, from a friend of his father, “Ahmed Al-Raqib,” which contains a clip written on both sides in Arabic and Hebrew. Friend Claude Moussiri puts his card inside the parcel, asking him to communicate with him if he visited Cairo.
This parcel reaches Yusef in the year 2000, and this strange gift, which is “an antique looking paper lying in the middle of the velvet lining of the black box”, makes him decide to search for his father’s past and the secret of this paper. It is one of the times in which part of the events of this novel takes place, that is, the time that was during the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and it is the third time in which this novel is divided.
As for the first time, it takes place during the period of the succession of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir Billah who took over the caliphate in Egypt in 427 AH (corresponding to the year 1036 AD), which is the time of that clip that reached Yusef, which was an exchange of letters between “Abu Saad,” the chief advisor to the caliph from On the one hand, it is written in Arabic, and between “Shemaria the Pious”, one of the priests of the Temple of Ben Ezra and a senior figure in the Jewish Community Council, on the other hand, and it is written on the back of that paper in the Hebrew language.
Throughout the novel, we discover that the bearer of these exchanged messages was the Muslim boy, “Ali Ibn al-Marwani” – who, along with his sons and grandchildren, would obtain the title of the watcher, meaning Ali the guard – and who was the first guardian of the Temple of Ibn Ezra the Jew.
In this time – which takes about a third of the novel – the reader finds characters related to this time, as well as the stories of these characters. In addition to the story of the orphan boy Ali and his drunk uncle who sponsored him after the death of his father, who was working as a bailiff, we find his story with his cousin, who lacks beauty, but Ali is forced to marry her after he falls in love with the daughter of “the pious Shimaria” and exploits the magician “Hasidi Siffardi” For the love of Ali forbidden. In order to write a magic spell for him so that the Jewish girl falls in love with him, he asked him to put a sheet of leather in the place that shines with the light of Ezra’s scroll, so that the magician could steal the scroll and take its power and energy in his magic.
The second time in which the events of the novel take place, and also takes up a third of it, takes place in 1897, the year in which two British twins – Agnes Lewis and Margaret Jason – arrived specializing in the search for archaeological manuscripts.
Their rich father – as well as their deceased husbands – had left them a great fortune, and they used that wealth to satisfy their love for discovering manuscripts and documents, as well as for continuous travel to different countries, especially since they had reached the age of 54 without having children.
The two researchers came to Cairo to search for the “Ezra scroll” which is known to be in that temple bearing the name of Ezra.
This scroll is the oldest manuscript of the Torah, and it is said that it is found in a room called “Al-Junaizah”, as it was the custom of the Jews to bury their documents and contracts – which contain the name of God in them – in a special room in the temple, or a special tomb within the sect graves in the Al-Basateen cemetery.
The novel says, “The room was piled with various texts from the floor to the edge of the window, an ancient cemetery of manuscripts that were disposed of as agreed. (…) Amidst the rubble of a thousand years of books, property deeds, magic spells and marriage contracts, they may discover a message from Saladin (Al-Ayoubi). ) Or a new chapter from Ibn Khaldun’s introduction, or a new, unknown version of the Gospels, or one of the works of Maimonides, Plato, or Judas the Levite. Even ordinary documents were important. One might not find anything interesting in a particular letter or a decade of Decades, but with the passage of thousands of years the details of daily life become raw material for history. “
In this part, the reader explores the lives of the twins, and the fame of one of them after discovering the manuscript of “St. Catherine” and transferring it to the University of Cambridge for study. Other personalities were also found at the time of Lord Cromer, who was the de facto ruler of Egypt, such as the stories of Dr. Shechter and his student assistant De Witt, the guard, Muhammad Al-Raqib and his cats and his dedication to defending the Jewish temple, and the story of “Bijo” and his son Marcel.
So there were thousands of documents buried in the temple or the cemetery, and the task of the research team was to find these documents – especially after a number of them were leaked and sold on the market – and transferred to the University of Cambridge.
The last of the guards
As for the story of the narrator Yusef and his Jewish mother who carried him from the visit of her Muslim lover Ahmed Al-Raqib, who is the last guard of his family to that temple, we find it in the third time that was taking place during the time of President Hosni Mubarak.
Youssef – who was born from that relationship between his mother and Ahmed Al-Raqib, who visited her in Paris – will search for his father’s trace, and find with his father’s brother his mother’s letters to his father while she is still a young teenager in Cairo, as well as her messages during her family’s migration to Paris and then to America, where he lives. Youssef with his mother and husband “Bill”.
In addition, we find the remains of the Al-Raqib family in Cairo, and the story of the doorman who helps Joseph to find a solution to the mystery of expulsion that reached him.
The novel is not divided into 3 separate parts, each part goes to narration and research in its own time. Rather, it was written by Michael David Lucas (born in 1979) in 16 sections, where he presents, for example, a section of the first time and then a section of the second and then the third and then back to time First and so on.
If we take the novel from the time of Ali al-Raqib (1036 AD) as the first guardian of this temple that the novel revolves around, to the time of Ahmad al-Raqib (2000 AD) as the last keepers of the Jewish temple, we will find that the novel extends over a time span of about a thousand years.
The novelist introduces us to the hitherto existing temple through a slow and coherent narration, but he excites the reader in such a large way that he wants to finish the novel in one sitting. It is one of the features of novels that pose a mystery and search for a solution or solutions to it.
However, this novel by Lucas remains a classic one, especially if we learn that the author of the novel “The Oracle of Istanbul” – also translated into Arabic – who works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, had previously studied the art of creative writing in Valencia and the book studio at the University of Stanford as well as at the University of the Pacific, and actually traveled to Cairo in 2000 to study at the American University.
The novel “The Last Guard of Old Cairo” aroused great passion among the non-Arab reader, which contributed to its translation into many languages, and won multiple awards, as the East still retains that special charm among researchers and readers.