The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, and The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth from Cairo to Brooklyn, by Lucette Lagnado, (Ecco, 2008 and 2011.) - Review
I stumbled across these in a used bookstore. Lucette Lagnado is familiar as a feature writer for the Wall Street Journal – usually interesting and often obscure articles, covering New York or Middle Eastern topics. What a powerful treasure of information and family homage is captured within these books. Sharkskin Suit is the Lagnado family’s life in Cairo, traditional and as secure as any Jews ever feel. Her father Leon is the focus, his mysterious life as a trader, a bon-vivant, and a dispassionate husband and loving, yet absent, father. His marriage was between a patriarchal, Sephardi Jew, Leon, and a beautiful, submissive, Syrian Jewish wife, Edith—and between Edith’s mother, abandoned by her husband and family, and Leon’s mother, the autocrat who ruled the house. For a Gentile, the combination of regionally close, yet traditionally different, Jewish spouses (Syrian and Sephardic) was interesting. Prayers are different, relationships are different, roles are different. Naturally, Edith’s were purged.
After Egypt took control of the Suez Canal, Jews began to leave—taking the opportunity to migrate somewhat thoughtfully. By the time the Lagnados left Cairo, with 26 suitcases and $200, there were no choices. They fled to Paris to a pauper’s life assisted by Jewish Relief. Eventually, they made their way to the U.S., but Leon, crushed by the loss of his life in Cairo, never adapted. He kept his merchant ways, selling ties out of a cardboard box, and scrupulously repaying the $2,000 loaned to him by Jewish Relief for fare from LeHarve to New York.
The Arrogant Years is not so much about Lucette as about Edith, who blossomed in New York. A skilled teacher of French before her marriage, she found work and a new life within the city library system accessioning books. Stories of the siblings, a rebellious older sister and two older brothers, are told, but not in depth. Lucette excelled in high school, struggled at Vassar, regrouped, graduated and began work as a reporter. Throughout both books, her mysterious illness, finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, interstices her life with pain and despair. The Arrogant Years, as with most memoirs, does not plow new ground of the immigrant, destitute Jews who thrive in the U.S., but is beautifully written with love and thanksgiving.
Both books are elegantly illustrated with photographs that bring the family to life. Highly recommended for history lovers and those who appreciate well written memoirs.