I have to admit that this is my second try at The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit — a friend gave me a hardcover last year and it languished on the “to read” pile. But sometimes books come at you again and again, have you noticed? So when another strong recommendation from a well-read friend accompanied its appearance on the laundry room book exchange shelf, I obeyed.
I have to admit that I found the writing rather flat-footed, which was a distraction from start to finish. But I kept reading eagerly, which I can only attribute to the power of Lucette Lagnado’s story. She begins with the improbable courtship between her parents in Cairo in 1943 and I was fascinated by the exotic milieu of Egyptian Jewry in World War II. Her father Leon, tall and courtly, came from a Syrian family, and retained for the rest of his life the strict mores of that Arab country. Lagnado’s mother Edith was the sheltered daughter of a single mother, a teacher and an intellectual. Despite being poorly matched they bore five children and spent their lives together.
Although this is a memoir of her parents, Lagnado’s real subject is exile. Her parents were both citizens of the cosmopolitan colonial Egypt: Leon spoke English with an upper-crust accent and move easily in British social circles, while French was the Lagnados’ language at home and Lucette, like her siblings, went to a lycée. Few of their friends knew any Arabic at all. But the Cairo they inhabited so comfortably became more and more inhospitable with the realignment of power in the Middle East following the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. After the deposition of King Farouk and the Suez Crisis, Jewish families like the Lagnados were no longer welcome. But theirs was not a family that could pull together in a crisis. They packed 26 enormous suitcases full of impractical objects like brocade dressing gowns and fine china and left. Lucette’s beloved cat Pouspous stayed behind in their rambling apartment.
After months marooned in uncomfortable poverty in Paris, they fetched up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. As part of her research, Lagnado was able to read the records kept by the social worker who attempted to get her family settled, and the contrast between the loving daughter’s memory of her father and the social worker’s frustration with the stubborn disoriented emigré is startling. Leon Lagnado, who had cut such a dashing figure in Cairo, had no interest in accomodating himself to the United States. He hated it all, from the bold women to the bland food. Even the roses lacked the heavy scent they had had in Egypt. His faith was his only comfort.
I knew very little about the diaspora of Arab Jews, and the fact that Lagnado is almost exactly my age gave me an extra level of sympathy. The final chapter, when she goes back to her family’s Cairo apartment, some 40 years after their departure, is almost unbearably poignant.