East Bay author creates magic with Oracle of Stamboul

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To anchor his highly successful first novel, “The Oracle of Stamboul,” Bay Area author Michael David Lukas chose an unlikely heroine: an 8-year-old Jewish girl who winds up as an adviser to Sultan Abdulhamid II in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

Her name is Eleonora Cohen, and she’s a child prodigy who has an unexpected impact on Middle East history.

But from where did such a seemingly improbable idea come?

It started with a vision Lukas had while living in Tunisia as a scholar in 2004: a little girl playing backgammon with two older men. A few months later, in Istanbul, the vision was cemented when he wandered into an antique shop and found an old photograph of a determined-looking little girl. He began writing the story of Eleonora.

In retrospect, however, Lukas — a 32-year-old Berkeley native now living in Oakland — has an additional explanation.

“I was trying to fulfill the goal of my Rotary scholarship at that time in my life, which was to help bridge the gap of understanding between the U.S. and the Arab world,” Lukas recalls. “And I was feeling really frustrated with my inability to do that. So I think the idea of just one person who’s able to push back against the tides and change the course of history was very appealing to me.”

And appealing to readers, as well. Since its publication in February, “The Oracle of Stamboul” has made national bestseller lists and garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews. The book took Lukas six years to write, during which he spent time as a Rotary scholar in Tunisia, a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, and as a writer for Slate, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.

Describing the novel as “historical fabulism,” he says he drew inspiration from writers who have successfully used that style, such as Salman Rushdie and José Saramago.

“I want to stick to reality as much as possible,” he says, “but there are certain times when reality really isn’t doing it for me.”

For example, the novel is set against the backdrop of “Stamboul,” a stand-in for Istanbul. The slight tweak in the city’s name was an attempt to highlight a separation between the “real historical city of Istanbul, and this city I’m writing about,” Lukas explains.

Michael David Lukas

Stamboul is a bustling, vibrant city full of color and gossip, and the narrative matches the energy of its setting. The book oozes with Lukas’ love for the region and his attention to historical detail, but it also reads like a fairy tale, drawing the readers in for the duration of Eleonora’s magical journey.

As for his protagonist’s Jewish identity, Lukas said he didn’t spend much thought on it.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why did you make your main character Jewish?,’ ” he says. “For me, it wasn’t a question: She was always Jewish. The question was what part that would play in the story. I wanted to represent the anti-Semitism that did exist at that time in the Ottoman Empire and all over Europe, but I also wanted to show what it would be like for a Jew day to day. And it was important for me to show that Judaism wasn’t necessarily the most important aspect of her identity.”

The author’s own upbringing — his family belonged to Reform Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, and he attended Camp Tawonga and Camp Kee Tov for many years as a child — remains a root of his interest in Jewish themes.

“It was living in Israel after high school that really sparked my initial interest in the Middle East,” Lukas says. “That was the first time I realized that there was so much more to [Middle East dynamics]. That was what made me want to study in Tunisia and Turkey and Cairo.”

Presently, Lukas is dividing his time between working on his next book (a novel about Jews in Cairo) and teaching creative writing to third- and fourth-graders at an after-school program in the East Bay.

But he’s also taking time to enjoy the warmth with which his debut novel has been received, especially in the Jewish community. As part of the Jewish Book Network, Lukas has been booked for talks, readings and book signings in Jewish communities across the country.

“It’s really been a blessing to be a Jewish writer, to get to be part of things like the Jewish Book Network,” he says. “To have all these different communities who want to fly you out to speak to them, to meet people who are so eager and open and ready to talk to you — it’s been truly amazing.”

Michael David Lukas will read at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 11 at the Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd, Walnut Creek. (510) 318-6453 or [email protected].

“The Oracle of Stamboul” by Michael David Lukas (291 pages, Harper Perennial, $13.99)

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.