A long, long time ago, before Mubarak and the revolution, before Sadat and Begin, before Nasser, the Free Officers, and the Suez Crisis, before the Suez Canal, before Herzl, before Dreyfus, before Solomon Schechter and the Cambridge University Library, before Ismail Pasha and Muhammad Ali Pasha, before the British, the French, the Ottomans, the Mamluks, and the Ayyubids, before the Great Plague and Saladin, before Maimonides the great sage—may his memory be a blessing—our story begins before all this, in the reign of al-Mustansir, when Cairo was still two cities and the Jews but a tribe among them.
It was late summer in the forty-eight-hundredth year of creation, four centuries after Muhammad’s migration to Medina and more than a thousand years after the birth of Jesus. The Nile had crested a few days earlier, and its entire shallow valley shone with damp brilliance. Beneath the purple silhouetted swoop of storks, the clang of an eager blacksmith mingled with the call to prayer and the smell of baking bread. That particular morning there was another smell too, something sharp and unfamiliar at first. No one could put a name to it until, bleary-eyed and still warm from bed, they stepped out into the day and saw that neat black thread of smoke rising from the Ibn Ezra Synagogue.
Before long a crowd gathered in the courtyard of the synagogue: women and children, dyers and glassblowers, pharmacists, money changers, and fishermen. For most, this was their first glimpse of the newly reconstructed synagogue. Still unfinished, still unconsecrated by prayer, and already this beautiful new building was blackened by fire. It was a terrible thing, and yet it could have been worse. Apart from the smell of smoke in the prayer hall, the damage was limited to a shadow of soot beneath the scaffolding where the fire had started.
Who would do such a thing? Some more hopeful members of the crowd thought they saw signs of an accident, a stray coal or a clumsy housewife. Others insisted that the fire would turn out to be the work of petty vandals. And then there were those who regarded it as something more sinister, a reminder and portent of things to come, not that anyone needed reminding. Who could forget the reign of al-Hakim the Horrible? Who did not shiver to think of that sister-loving false prophet who had destroyed nearly a dozen synagogues and churches, including the original Ibn Ezra? Who could forget that hateful despot who had gone so far as to outlaw molokhia, the leafy green vegetable also known as Jew’s mallow? He was gone now, al-Hakim, dead for nearly twenty years, and the current caliph, al-Mustansir, had proven himself to be a friend of the Jews. Still, one never knew.
This discussion about the cause of the fire went on for some time. And all the while, Ali ibn al-Marwani was standing at the edge of the courtyard, waiting for the right moment to step forward. Fingering the sleeve of his robe, he tried to recall what he had been told to say, whom he was supposed to seek out. But in the effort to remember the directions to the synagogue—a right at the old palace, a left at the Abu Serga Church—he had forgotten what he was supposed to do when he got there.
Eventually, as the crowd was beginning to disperse, someone noticed him. All at once, he felt the balance of attention shift. They were talking about him—an unfamiliar boy, thin cotton robe and cheap sandals, no older than thirteen—and as the murmur of insinuation collected to a boil, a circle formed around him. For a moment, Ali was alone in the middle of the courtyard. Then a young man stepped forward and grabbed him by the scruff of his robe.
“Did you do this?” the young man demanded, forcing Ali’s gaze toward the remnants of the fire. Ali opened his mouth, but he was not able to speak.
“It is said that a thief returns to the scene of his crime,” the young man continued. “Could not the same be said for our arsonist?”
There was a buzz of agreement followed by a few muttered calls for revenge.
“Why does he not respond? Why did he not announce himself? What is his business with us?”
The young man paused and looked out over the crowd as if expecting an answer. Instead, the silence was punctured by the sound of an older man clearing his throat.
“Shemarya the Pious,” someone said and everyone stepped aside, making way for a hunched man with a mane of white hair tangled in his beard. When he got to the center of the circle, he addressed himself to the young man, who was still holding Ali by the scruff of his robe.
“Amram,” he said. “Is it not written that we should judge everyone from his most favorable side?”
“Yes, Father, but would you not—”
“Release him,” Shemarya the Pious said, then turned to Ali.
He did not smile, but his eyes crinkled with compassion.
“Tell us your business here, my child.”
There was a long silence before Ali could bring himself to speak.
“I have a message from Abu Saad,” he said finally.
The crowd grew ever more silent as Ali produced a note from the sleeve of his galabiya. Abu Saad was chief adviser to the caliph and the Jews’ most important ally inside the palace. Correspondence from Abu Saad was always important, but on this day of uncertainty the Jews of Fustat were particularly eager for his reassurance.
“You are not Abu Saad’s usual messenger,” Shemarya the Pious observed. “What is your name, my child?”
“Ali ibn al-Marwani.”
“You are Muslim.”
“And your father’s profession?”
“He was a water carrier, but he died before I was born. I live with my mother’s brother near Bab Zuwayla.”
“May God protect the orphans,” Shemarya the Pious said, and a murmur of assent rippled through the crowd.
Once Ali’s business, name, faith, and patrimony were established, Shemarya the Pious unfolded Abu Saad’s note and read through it twice. He closed his eyes for a moment to think; then he pulled a reed pen from his pocket, requested a bit of ink, and composed a reply on the reverse.
“This is for Abu Saad,” he said, handing the note back to Ali. “You must not give it to anyone else. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Ali said, and he returned the note to the folds of his sleeve.
Shemarya the Pious concluded the exchange by addressing himself to the assembled crowd, though his words were clearly intended for his son Amram.
“We should not stoop to unfounded accusations, especially not today. There is too much work to be done.”
While the Jews of Fustat scrubbed soot off the light-gray stones of their synagogue, Ali ran back to Qahira with the message for Abu Saad. Through the jumbled crowd of pack animals outside Bab Zuwayla, past his uncle’s house, past the market of the coppersmiths and the students congregated around al-Azhar, darting between food vendors, camels, magicians, and slaves, he cut across the market of the money changers and made his way around to the back entrance of Abu Saad’s palace.
Larger than all but the most magnificent of mosques, the residence of Abu Saad was one of the grandest buildings in all of Qahira, its outer walls decorated with turquoise banners and a thick band of calligraphy carved so intricately that the letters looked like a nest of snakes. Earlier that morning Abu Saad’s usual messenger—Ali’s neighbor—had lifted his head from his sickbed to describe the palace’s back entrance, a tall cedar door at the end of an unremarkable side street, home to a butcher, a knife sharpener, and a few unscrupulous-looking money changers. Approaching the entrance for the second time that morning, Ali caught his breath, stepped up to the door, and knocked. He waited for some time before knocking again, louder this time. As he did, the door swung open to reveal an enormous guard wearing a white linen robe trimmed with turquoise of the same shade as the banners hanging outside. This guard was much more imposing than the one Ali had spoken with earlier that morning, and much uglier.
“What do you want?”
“I have a message for Abu Saad, from Shemarya the Pious.”
The guard stuck out his hand and Ali took a small step backward.
“Shemarya said I must not give the message to anyone but Abu Saad himself.”
“To you, I am the same as Abu Saad.”
Ali stared at the guard’s meaty palm and felt the sun on the base of his neck. As he tightened his grip on the note, a drop of sweat slid down the valley of his spine.
“Shemarya said I must not give the message to anyone but Abu Saad himself,” Ali said again. It was a bold request, but he had his instructions and he intended to follow them.
“Abu Saad himself,” the guard growled.
A few moments later, Ali found himself standing less than an arm’s length from Abu Saad, the chief adviser to the caliph. He was a short man with an enormous stomach, and he wore a fine purple silk caftan embroidered on the collar with white and turquoise flowers. He introduced himself, took the note from Ali’s outstretched hand, and returned several minutes later with a tightly folded piece of vellum.
“The note is for Shemarya the Pious,” he said. “And this is for you.”
A servant stepped forward and presented Ali with a silver cup, filled to the brim with a deep-red liquid.
“Pomegranate juice,” Abu Saad explained, noticing Ali’s hesitation. “In appreciation of your discretion. May it give you strength.”
Over the course of the day, Ali ran seven times back and forth between Fustat and Qahira. Dodging donkey carts, refuse, and stray dogs, he delivered dozens of messages from the Jews of Fustat to their coreligionists, business partners, and other supporters throughout the city. Ali carried notes to tradesmen, qadis, merchants, and priests. Cutting through rank back alleys slick with sewage, squirming under locked gates, and sneaking across the shaded courtyards of great mansions, he delivered messages to the Hanging Church, the market of the glassblowers, the Garden of Kafur, and the secret inner sanctums of al-Azhar. In one day, Ali saw more of his native city than he had seen in his entire life.
All day, Ali performed his duties with the utmost discretion and care. He always announced himself forthwith, never lingered or made inappropriate eye contact, and never once considered opening any of the notes he was carrying. Then, at the end of the day, as he ran back to Fustat with a final note from Abu Saad, Ali tripped over an exposed root and cut his hand on a pebble. He didn’t notice the wound at first, but when he pulled Abu Saad’s note from his sleeve, he saw that the top edge of it was smeared with red.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled to Shemarya the Pious, mortified by the sight of this elegant paper stained with his own sticky blood.
Sinking into a dim corner of the courtyard, Ali watched the note pass among the council that governed the affairs of the Jewish community, from Shemarya to his sons, Amram and Ephraim, to a Tunisian spice merchant known as Ibn Kammuna, then on to Doctor Mevorakh, the scribe, the head cantor, and finally to al-Zikri, a barber who also served as guardian of the synagogue. Ali held his breath, bracing himself for their censure, but none of the men seemed to notice the bloodstain. They were more interested in the message itself.
While the council deliberated, speaking in hushed but urgent voices, Ali relaxed and let his gaze wander along the façade of the newly reconstructed synagogue. Aside from the subtle stonework just below the roof, the building’s only exterior decoration was the main entrance, two heavy wooden slabs adorned with the image of a grapevine twisting around four large Hebrew letters arranged in a square. Lost in his inspection of the mysterious script, Ali did not notice that a silence had fallen over the council. When he glanced up, he saw that the men were all looking at him.
“We have a proposal,” said Shemarya the Pious.
“We have decided,” Ephraim ibn Shemarya continued, “that it would be beneficial to employ a night watchman for the synagogue. We have al-Zikri, of course, but he cannot be responsible for watching the building day and night.”
“Since you have proven yourself to be trustworthy and discreet,” Ibn Kammuna said, “we would like to offer you the position. In addition to three dinars a month, you would be free to live in the old schoolroom at the other end of the courtyard.”
“I imagine it should suffice for your purposes,” al-Zikri added as he motioned toward the small structure, “and with a fresh coat of paint it will be very hospitable.”
“Thank you,” Ali said, unsure how else to respond.
Three dinars was more than he made in six months as a water carrier, and the schoolroom was larger than the house he currently shared with his uncle’s family. It was an unexpected and generous offer, a stroke of good fortune, but Ali had learned to be distrustful of fate and, although the Jews had treated him well, he knew nothing of them or their practices. While he could not see anything wrong with the offer, he was not ready to accept the position outright. Naturally, the Jews of Fustat understood such caution. It was to be expected, valued even, and only confirmed the good sense of Abu Saad’s suggestion.
“There is no need to make your decision now,” said Doctor Mevorakh. “Sleep will be your best counsel.”
There was a murmur of agreement, and it was decided that Ali should send word the next morning with his answer.
Ali stayed up late that night, staring at the mud walls of the storage room where he slept. He wanted very much to leave his uncle Rashid and aunt Fatimah’s house. Although he was fond of his cousin Fawziyah and would always be indebted to the family that had raised him, life in his uncle’s house had been quite difficult for some time now. A few years earlier, an errant donkey kick had crippled his uncle’s right hand, leaving him unable to practice his trade as a blacksmith. The family became dependent on charity, and Ali was forced to work as a water carrier. Meanwhile, Uncle Rashid had grown increasingly bitter. He spent most of his days at the neighborhood café, chewing seeds, drinking palm wine, and gambling away any money he was able to obtain.
The Jews’ offer seemed like the perfect solution to Ali’s problems. Even so, he was wary. He didn’t know if he could trust them—he didn’t know anything about them, really—and either way, he wasn’t certain how his uncle would react. Following the night shadows across the ceiling of the storage room, Ali prepared a long list of answers to the questions his uncle might ask. In the end, however, all that was unnecessary. Once he learned how much Ali would be paid, Uncle Rashid had only one question; whether he would continue to contribute to the welfare of the poor relations who had so kindly taken him in.
“A small price,” he said as he chewed over a mouthful of taamiya and pickled turnip, “to repay all we’ve done for you.”
Eventually, Ali agreed to provide his uncle’s family with one dinar a month, a portion of which was to be reserved for the dowry of his cousin Fawziyah. It was nearly twice as much as he currently contributed to the household and he knew most of the money would disappear into his uncle’s vices. Still, his uncle was right. It was a small price to repay all they had done for him.
“I will be forever indebted to your kindness,” Ali said, and so it was settled. He sent word to Fustat, and the following afternoon he departed.
Waving farewell from atop his donkey cart, Ali felt as if he were a prince leaving home for distant battle. It was a luxury for him, traveling by cart. His possessions—a few changes of clothes, some bedding, a basket of food, and an old teapot Aunt Fatimah had given him as a parting gift—could easily have fit on the back of a donkey, but at the last minute he chose the cart, and he was glad he had.
Following the east bank of the Nile past the Siba bridge, Ali leaned back against his bedroll and watched the midday sunlight reflect white off the sails of ships lining up to unload their cargo. It was a beautiful day, and he felt that all was right with the world. His only regret was leaving his cousin Fawziyah behind. He knew how much she hated being alone with her parents and, homely as she was, she could not count on marriage to deliver her a better situation. She was only fourteen, and already the matchmaker was trotting out widowers and cripples. If anything, Fawziyah’s married life would be worse than her current circumstances. Ali wanted to help his cousin, to give her some piece of the good fortune he had stumbled upon, but aside from contributing to her dowry, there was nothing he could do. He was starting a new life in Fustat, and there was no room in it for Fawziyah.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael David Lukas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.