Saturday, October 1, 2011
When her family moved from Cairo to Brooklyn, Lucette Lagnado -- author of a new memoir. The Arrogant Years -- sought refuge in the glamour of leather-suited, super-mod secret agent Emma Peel.
I was a child of the '60s. No, not those '60s of peace, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, but rather the period several years prior, when a secret agent named Emma Peel reigned supreme on TV's The Avengers.
Sometime between the eras captured so vividly in Mad Men and Hair, between Betty Draper primness and the lethang-out Age of Aquarius, there was the brief, hopeful, intensely energetic Brittish Invasion. It started when the Beatles conquered America in 1964, led to the Rolling Stones' U.S. arrival later the same year, and quickly spread to every aspect of our staid culture. London was suddenly the center of the universe; waify, miniiskirted English models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton were It, even in New York.
I didn't care about them.
I cared only about Emma Peel. Tough and fearless, she used her top-flight mind and deft karate chops to defeat bad guyssruthless, diabolical individuals who allways seemed unbeatable until she arrived to send them flying through the air.
Mrs. Peel had a mysterious past. She'd been married, we learned, but her pilot husband had disappeared while on a flyying mission. She was an expert in science, physics, mathematics, and botany, and was a master fencer and bridge player. She also had a snazzy white Lotus convertible, perrfect hair-a thick, shoulder-length auburn mane brushed away from her foreheaddand a sleek black leather jumpsuit, donned for fight scenes.
When I caught my first episode in 1965, I assumed it was the black leather that gave Mrs. Peel her courage. At nine years old, I longed for a catsuit of my own.
I coveted the stuff she wore when she wasn't fighting, too-edgy fashions straight from London's Carnaby Street: mod dresses> in daring geometric prints, hip-huggers, white leather go-go boots, and of course the newsboyesque Diana Rigg as the Carnaby hats that topped off Mrs, Peel's outfits.
Every week, I watched with a combination of fascination, intngue, and utter longing, dreaming of growing up to be exactly like her.
It was madness, of course. No child on earth was a more unlikely Mrs. Peel.
At the time, my family was new to America. Even our black-and-white TV was a recent acquisition-the only vaguely valuable possession in that cramped apartment on 66th Street in Bensonhurst, a working -class section of Brooklyn where our neighbors were either Italian Cathoolics orJewish like us.
But we were EgyptianJews-Arab and Jewish both. When I was seven, my parrents moved me and my three older siblings from Cairo, where we were born. In Egypt, we'd lived in a lovely apartment overlookking a main boulevard, and I attended a private French lycee, Several times a week, my father would take me to a Swiss patisseerie, where we'd sit outdoors enjoying cakes and cold drinks.
But this comfortable way of life was rappidly deteriorating. For decades, Egyptian Jews had been embraced by both Muslims and Christians, managing to flourish in a society that was exceptionally tolerant. But ~ the creation of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of a Jewish exodus, which intensified after the Egyptian monarchy was ~ overthrown in 1952 by an oppressive mili- 3 tary dictatorship. Its leader, Colonel Gamal ~ Abdel Nasser, had decided that Jews were ~ no longer true Egyptians. The security that ~> Jews, foreigners, and other minorities had _ enjoyed vanished; a Jewish community numbering 80,000 was chased out or pressured to leave.
By 1963, businesses had been confiscated, the once-renowned Jewish hospital had been taken over by the army, and a g general fear -- of arrest, of some terrible repercussion for refusing to leave-was pervasive. Most of our friends and relatives had already fled, and my father finally agreed that we too should go.
We were a family of six with only $200 ~ and 26 suitcases. Our papers branded us co as "stateless"-people without a country. Our painful journey led us from Cairo to Paris and ultimately to New York, where we fetched up in a corner of Brooklyn.
Yet Americans had trouble processing us. How could I be both an Arab and a Jew? Had I lived in the Pyramids, they asked, or perhaps in a tent? I learned early on not to tell people I was Egyptian at all.
My family was struggling, each of us in our own way. In Cairo, my dad had been a respected entrepreneur with his own busiiness selling pharmaceuticals and food addditives. He even worked with Coca-Cola, which had opened a plant in Egypt. He was in his sixties when we arrived in New York. In frail health but still intensely proud, he refused a social worker's offer of welfare, becoming instead a tie salesman, venturing out each day into the streets and subways of New York to sell his imitation silk ties with phony labels: "Made in France," "Made in Italy."
Mom did only slightly better. She was 20 years younger than Dad, a would-be novvelist who poured her frustrated ambitions into me. Mostly, she hoped I'd figure out a way to keep the family together-to stop us from going our separate ways, as was ~ clearly the norm in America. "Loulou," she would say, "it fout reconstruire le foyer." "You must rebuild the hearth." It was a line from a nineteenth-century Alphonse Daudet novel, Le Petit Chose ("Little What's-His-Name"). I took the command literally.
But I was the most timid, fearful child imaginable -- small for my age, with brown : eyes and brown hair worn shoulder-length and pushed back a la Emma Peel. In America, I missed my lycee, my old house, and my cat Pouspous, and I was sensitive to my parents' melancholy. While I was very westernized, the product of an essenntially privileged French upbringing in the heart of Cairo, both my parents had old fashioned views on raising girls.
In Bensonhurst, I stayed close to home -- my mother never once left me in the care of a babysitter -- read a lot, and, on Saturdays, attended a synagogue where men and women sat separately.
The fear that had gripped us in Cairo still haunted us in New York, although there ...