Old Cairo, family secrets and religious history resonate in Michael David Lukas’ ‘Last Watchman’
By Lou Fancher
If reading a novel is like an intimate conversation with an author, writing a novel is visceral, rather like running from a monster or wondering if a rustle heard when lost in a forest is just a squirrel or a tiger about to pounce.
This is truth, according to Oakland writer Michael David Lukas. His sophomore novel, “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo” (Spiegel & Grau, $27, 288 pages), delivers in polyphonic textures a timeless yet contemporary story set in ancient and modern Cairo and Berkeley. After taking eight years to deliver “The Oracle of Stamboul,” his international best-selling debut, he vowed to write faster. “This one took me seven years,” says Lukas. “It was written at wise-fool pace. Your second novel, you know what you don’t know.”
An interview in his new home — Lukas, his wife, Haley Pollack, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mona, moved in just months ago — takes place, fittingly, at the dining room table. At what place other than where meals are shared have generations of people throughout history more often told stories that bridge divisions of age, gender, culture, race, religion and even language? “Last Watchman” weaves a young man’s journey to discover answers to family secrets through multiple generations, Muslim and Jewish history, British imperialism and protection of an enigmatic, elusive Jewish artifact, the Ezra Scroll.
Lukas, 38, recalls frequent childhood trips to the Berkeley Public Library and the now-shuttered Black Oaks Books. Fond of math until encountering calculus, he says literature attempts to answer questions that are ultimately more meaningful than what mathematical analysis can provide. “I’m interested in stories we tell that are unreal,” he says. “Not whether or not you can prove them, but why do we tell them? Do we want them to be true?”
For example, he mentions tour guides who identify locations as connected to Moses or Biblical history. “It’s probably BS, but it’s a selling point. It exists as truth in thousands of people’s minds. There’s power in stories.”
Studying power—through literature—led Lukas to pursue a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s of fine arts at the University of Maryland (during which time he moonlighted as an assistant to cookbook author Joan Nathan and developed a passion for Middle Eastern cooking). He has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey and recipient of grants and awards from National Endowment for the Arts, Montalvo Arts Center and others. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate and more. He teaches creative writing in the Bay Area and is program coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley.
From reading, Lukas says he gains deep connection to authors he cannot “know” directly, such as Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie. He appreciates surprises, like the accurate depiction of parenting recently discovered in Victor La Valle’s chilling, surreal The Changeling.
As a teacher, he finds bouncing ideas off of students, conceptualizing a class or breaking a novel into components for them is instructive to his life as a writer. He works on fiction three or four mornings per week; in the afternoons, he cares for his daughter and completes part-time work. His greatest struggles—passages that provide context or move characters from scene A to B—are necessary and worth the effort for readers but uninteresting to execute. Flow is found in extended physical descriptions of people, places and objects. “The challenge for me there is not going overboard: Write a sentence, not a paragraph,” he says.
Allowing the leash to loosen in “Last Watchman,” Lukas writes marvelously about Old Cairo, a city he cherishes. He spent a semester there at roughly the sameage as the story’s protagonist, Joseph. Although Lukas refers to the novel as “lightly veiled autobiographical,” there are important differences. “Joshua’s similar to me, more than anyone else I’ve written. At a certain point, it got too close,” he says. “I realized he had to be his own person: That’s why he’s gay, half-Jewish, half-Muslim. I’m connected culturally to my Jewishness,” he adds. “I’m interested in religious aspects, but they’re not what’s getting me up in the morning or arranging my life.”
Instead, it is human influence, forces that create division and the love that overcomes it that Lukas explores through writing. “Any character will impact the next person down the road. If someone yells an obscenity at you on the street, that will influence how you behave when you come to my house,” he notes.
There is also intrigue in the novel that leads Lukas to ponder the many names of god. The book’s original title was “The Forty-Third Name of God,” referencing Joseph’s last name, al-Raqb, which is Arabic for “the watcher” and one of the 99 names of God in the Islamic tradition. Ultimately, it all loops back to each person being a hero of his or her own story while navigating in worlds we never entirely understand. Listening for squirrels and tigers, running from monsters, Lukas says, “I’m an optimist who sees the dark.”
His next book is a retelling of the biblical Book of Esther. The family’s second child is due in April, one month after “Last Watchman” is released. Readers’ best hope is that his third book arrives in less than seven years.