Sunday, August 12, 2007

Departing Jews marked Egypt's 'cultural Holocaust'

A 'crushing, brilliant book' is how Alana Newhouse in the International Herald Tribune describes Lucette Lagnado's memoir, 'The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit'. The man in question, Lucette's father, never recovered from the experience of being uprooted, while the departure of the Jews marked 'a cultural Holocaust' for Egypt.

"In her new memoir, "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit," Lucette Lagnado relates how her father, Leon, first reacted upon escaping the dangerous anti-Semitic environment of Nasser's Egypt in 1962: "Ragaouna Masr," he cried, as their boat left the Alexandria harbor - "Take us back to Cairo."

"It's a sad moment, but one would be forgiven for finding it melodramatic. After all, we know how the story ends: the family settles in America and, judging at least by the ascent of Lucette, their youngest daughter, as a prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter, they presumably enjoy success and happiness. That this assumption is so far off the mark - that the reality of the Lagnados' fate is so far from the triumphalism that Americans have come to expect from immigrant narratives - is one of many reasons to read this crushing, brilliant book.

"Lagnado traces the story of a family so connected to Cairo that they held on until they were forced out, thankfully alive. "Alas, what no one could stop was the cultural Holocaust - the hundreds of synagogues shuttered for lack of attendance, the cemeteries looted of their headstones, the flourishing Jewish-owned shops abandoned by their owners, the schools suddenly bereft of any students." Some will blanch at her use of the word "Holocaust" here, arguing that only the World War II murders of European Jews are worthy of this term. But the wholesale destruction of Middle Eastern Jewish life, along with the even more devastating evisceration of individual lives, was nothing short of a catastrophe - and not only for the Jews.

"Leon Lagnado, like many others, had a love affair with his city, and "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" is a story about what happens when two such lovers are torn apart. The man of the title is, of course, Leon. Fluent in seven languages and full of charisma, he was the consummate man-about-town. He spent his days immersed in a web of discreet business deals - all conducted in such privacy that even family members couldn't describe his profession - and his nights gallivanting at the city's hot spots.

"But Leon was also a good Jew, as it were, one who went to synagogue every morning. "It was as if two people resided within one sharkskin suit," Lagnado writes, "one who was pious and whose vestments resembled those of the priests at the Great Temple, all white and sparkling and pure, and the very different creature who led a secret, intensely thrilling life."(...)

"Lagnado is equally adept at maintaining suspense, particularly as the skies begin to darken for Egypt's Jews after Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to power. Leon resisted leaving for a decade and then did so only after harassment and discrimination extinguished all hope for his family's future in Cairo. Beaten down, they shuffled weakly through Alexandria, Athens, Genoa, Naples, Marseilles, Paris, Cherbourg and Manhattan, before finally landing in Brooklyn. But an easy union between Leon and America was not to be. Heartbroken and infirm, he failed to impress the social workers and bureaucrats in charge of helping new immigrants, leading to a string of humiliations and failures. The "boulevardier of Cairo" never regained his footing, and the already thin threads holding his family together frayed irrevocably. Lagnado recounts the irony of their Passover Seder in Brooklyn: "No matter how loudly we sang, our holiday had become not a celebration of the exodus from Egypt but the inverse - a longing to return to the place we were supposedly glad to have left."

Read article in full

This review also in The New York Times

Interview of Lucette Lagnado in The Forward

Review in the Washington Post


David Lisbona said...

I am reading Lucy Lagnado's book and enjoying it immensely.

Modern Pharaoh said...

I am also reading this book, very moving. Many Egyptians now, specially my generation are very interested in the Jews of Egypt, we all hear from our Grandparents what a loss it was and what an injustice it was when they were pushed into leaving. The Jews of Egypt were EGYPTIANS, they loved Egypt, they helped Egypt, they were like ANY EGYPTIAN! :(

Anonymous said...

I just read the book. The first part which took place in Egypt is brilliant. It is true that Egypt was a totally different country. It is true that the Jews were a major part of Egypt and that it was a loss to have them leave. I personally would have loved to see Egypt back in those days." Cairo the most cosmopolitan city in the world", who could imagine this now knowing how it is in decline unfortunately. I would like to thank Loulou for her book. Though I have a comment and I need to correct one thing: Egypt at the time of the British colonialism was not like Algeria, Lybia and other Arab colonies. We were not banned from going to places like Groppi's as the book said. This is not true. I have asked people who lived at that time. Jews were not colonialists in order to allow them to sit in Groppi's while prohibiting Egyptians. This is due to the fact that there were a lot of Egyptian elite who mingled with the royal family and the British...etc. At the time Loulou was a child, Groppi's was a popular place for Egyptians for sure. My own mother has memories of Groppi's and she is even older than Loulou. I hope I have made my point clear and again it is a shame that some Egyptians were forced to leave their country.