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.”
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, like L’Auberge des Pyramides, where “on a good night, the king was almost certain to drop by with both an entourage and a determination to seduce the prettiest woman there, or whoever appealed to him the most.”
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.”
Leon eventually married an innocent waif 20 years his junior, whom he brought into the home he shared with his mother and teenage nephew — though he hardly settled down. The two would have four children together (a fifth died shortly after birth), but throughout, Leon remained resolutely social, “a broker and middleman between two worlds — cosmopolitan colonial Cairo and mystical, sensuous Islamic Cairo.”
He developed a special relationship with Lucette, known as Loulou, who became his eager sidekick and kindred spirit. In this book, she so effortlessly captures the characters in her family, and the Egyptian metropolis around them, that the reader may fail to notice the overwhelming research buttressing this story. But then you stumble upon a wonderfully vivid detail: the kind of stove used by her grandmother, what her mother was drinking when she met Leon, the exact menu of the elaborate meals served to a relative struck with pleurisy.
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.”
Lagnado did eventually return, decades later, encouraged by an Egyptian government now “hungry for Western currency and Western tourism and Western goodwill.” She found a city suffering, just like her own family, from “decline and faded splendor.” Cairo and its Jews should never have been torn asunder. But by this point, the author has drained herself of anger and instead makes a surprising peace — one final kiss from the Lagnados to their beloved city.