An American student with a Jewish mother and Muslim father explores his family’s tangled roots in the history of Cairo's ancient synagogue.
When he receives the bequest of an ancient document fragment after the death of his Egyptian father, Berkeley grad student Joseph al-Raqb embarks on a search to discover its provenance. His journey unfolds, for the most part, in an extended visit to Cairo, where he learns more details of his family’s nearly 1,000 years of continuous service as night watchmen for the city’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue. In a dusty attic space, the synagogue once contained a geniza, a storeroom filled with hundreds of years of discarded documents, from records of mundane commercial transactions and routine legal disputes to sacred texts. It was a treasure trove that shed light on a broad swath of life in Cairo’s once-thriving Jewish community. Blending his fictional creations with real characters—including Rabbi Solomon Schechter, the scholar who persuaded the leaders of the remnant of the Cairo Jewish community and Egyptian authorities to allow him to export a substantial portion of the contents of the geniza to Cambridge University in 1897, where most of it remains to this day, and Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, the British Presbyterian twins and antiquarians who inspired his effort—Lukas creates a thoroughly credible mystery, centering on the whereabouts of an apocryphal text of the Torah known as the Ezra Scroll, without sacrificing any of the complexity and subtlety of a work of character-centered literary fiction. In Joseph’s voice, Lukas (The Oracle of Stamboul, 2011) also reveals, through quietly moving scenes, the challenges of identity posed by the ambiguity of his protagonist’s own heritage, as the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother who never married each other. And in his exploration of some 10 centuries of Cairo’s history, including times when the city’s Jews and Muslims lived side by side in relative harmony, Lukas at least hints that another era of peaceful coexistence is not beyond imagining.
An appealing family drama illuminates the fascinating story of a famous repository of Jewish documents, the Cairo Geniza.