A few years ago while casually window shopping at the university bookstore near my office I spotted Lucette Lagnado’s memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. I had recently enjoyed Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt in which he chronicles his childhood as well as the lives of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other members of Cairo’s old Jewish community. Eager to read a memoir similar to Aciman’s I made a mental note to read Lagnado’s memoir should I ever come across a copy of it during one of my frequent library visits. After seeing it on the shelf and passing over it countless times one day I finally decided to grab it. After finishing it a few weeks ago I’m angry I didn’t jump to read it sooner. Lucette Lagnado’s memoir is a delightful, engrossing memoir and thus a joy to read.
Lagnado begins her memoir with her parents’ brief courtship set against the background of old Cairo and its Levantine atmosphere of alleyways, souks and European-influenced cafes. Immediately after the wedding her father, a charming, handsome and resourceful businessman would refuse to abandon his night owl bachelor lifestyle, much to the sadness of his young wife. Naturally, this would result in a troubled marriage and considering the social conventions of the day no relief for Lugnado’s mother in the form of a divorce. Eventually, her family, as well as the other Jews of Egypt would be driven from the country as the twin spectres of anti-colonialism and anti-Israeli sentiment would haunt the land. After a short sojourn in France her immediate family would settle as refugees in New York City, where after a bout of serious illness, (and a brief schoolgirl crush on her attending physician) she would go on to be an investigative journalist for The Wall Street Journal.
While her excellent writing and storytelling would certainly make this memoir a hit with me, I also liked Lagnado ability to recapture old Cairo’s lost Levantine atmosphere. With the city a welcoming mecca for expatriates from diverse communities across the mediterranean, by taking a short stroll through the center of Egypt’s cosmopolitan first city one could hear voices conversing in Greek, Armenian, French, (as a matter of fact, Lagnado grew up speaking French and not Arabic, a testament to the language’s cultural cache and wide-spread acceptance by mid-twentieth century), Italian, English as well as the demotic Arabic. In addition, her memoir like that of Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt and Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise helps paint a vivid picture of a vibrant Jewish community which once stretched from Morocco through Egypt and Iraq to Yemen. As Arab nationalists and local monarchs would supplant European dominance in this region, sadly by the end of the sixties Cairo would lose this cosmopolitan charm. Technically modern and free from European control perhaps, but also provincial and culturally one-dimensional.
Reading Lagnado’s memoir has put me in the mood to read other books about Cairo. Fortunately, since I already have a few suitable candidates gathering dust in my personal library this won’t be too difficult, and as a result this probably won’t be the last Cairo-centric book to be featured on my blog. But until then, let me say this is a superb memoir and I loved reading The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. I wholeheartedly recommend it.