“The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” in this stunning memoir is the author’s father, Leon Lagnado, a prosperous businessman in Cairo during and after World War II, one of the city’s most elegant boulevardiers, who spent his nights in the restaurants, cafes, dance halls and casinos of what was then “the most cosmopolitan city in the world.” Impeccably dressed in suits made by Cairo’s finest tailors, he romanced the city’s most beautiful women, did business with French colonial merchants, gambled with wealthy Egyptians and socialized with British officers. Though there was severe rationing in the city during the war, “the nightlife flourished and cafe society preened and the hedonistic streak of the city went almost unchecked.”
In the wake of the Suez Canal crisis, with anti-Semitism growing in Egypt and Nasser’s nationalization of more and more companies, Jewish families began leaving the country in droves, driven “less by a sense of panic than a sense of fatalism” and the realization that “life as they had known it was over.” Though Leon played for time, hoping to remain in the city he loved, the family was finally forced to leave in 1963, their entire lives packed into 26 suitcases. Under the government’s draconian laws they were able to take with them the equivalent of $200 for the family of six.
They moved from Cairo to Alexandria, and from there to Paris, a pit stop on their way to the United States. Their life in Paris as stateless refugees was penurious: a shock to Leon, who after a lifetime investing in the stock market and building a fat nest egg, suddenly found himself “destitute, dependent on charity for himself and his family to survive.”
In “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” Ms. Lagnado — an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal — gives us a deeply affecting portrait of her family and its journey from wartime Cairo to the New World. Like André Aciman in his now classic memoir, “Out of Egypt” (1994), she conjures a vanished world with elegiac ardor and uncommon grace, and like Mr. Aciman she calculates the emotional costs of exile with an unsentimental but forgiving eye. This is not simply the story of a well-to-do family’s loss of its home, its privileges and its identity. It is a story about how exile indelibly shapes people’s views of the world, a story about the mathematics of familial love and the wages of memory and time.
Writing in crystalline yet melodious prose, Ms. Lagnado gives us an indelible gallery of family portraits: Her mother, Edith, a shy young bride, unprepared for dealing with her much older husband’s paternalistic sense of family and his reluctance to change his bachelor ways. Her maternal grandmother, Alexandra, disowned for making a bad marriage and emotionally unhinged by her husband’s decision to sell their third child at the local souk. And her paternal grandmother, Zarifa, the family matriarch, who was a prodigious cook, slipping apricots into virtually every dish she prepared, convinced of the fruit’s magical, healing powers.
It is the author’s father, Leon, however, who exerts the fiercest hold over his daughter’s heart, and who holds center stage in this book. His story is a haunting one of dislocation and yearning, the story of a man who lost the only world he knew and loved, and who floundered in his efforts to make a new life in the land of the American dream.
Although Leon could be harsh and imperious with her siblings, Lucette — or Loulou, as he called her — arrived “at a time in his life when he was feeling discouraged and the world seemed to have lost much of its promise and possibilities,” and he greeted her arrival “the way a patch of winter shrubbery embraces a small flower that manages to spout in its midst.”
After a serious fall left him housebound with a badly injured leg, he became Loulou’s baby sitter and teacher, patiently instructing her — and her beloved cat, Pouspous — in Arabic. Later he would take her from one doctor’s office to another in search of a cure for a mysterious illness that was initially dismissed as “cat scratch fever” and year’s later in the United States diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease.
Leon was devastated by the family’s exile from Egypt — as their boat edged out of Alexandria’s harbor, he cried, “Ragaouna Masr” (“Take us back to Cairo”) — and Paris social workers at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a group dedicated to helping Jews displaced by the tumult in the Middle East, looked upon him as a poor candidate for admission to the United States: “Too old, HIAS said. Too sick. Too infirm. Too beaten down.”
It was the same story once the family made it to New York. “Leon could have been a criminal, a jewel thief, a philanderer, a swindler,” his daughter writes. “Nothing could have offended our social worker more than his refusal to conform and change and cast aside those values she clearly viewed as virtually un-American and utterly repugnant.”
His patriarchal attitude toward his family, his determination to work despite his injured leg, his contempt for welfare — all were regarded as evidence that he was “hopelessly at odds with the enlightened society he had been fortunate to enter.” After his request for a $2,000 loan to open a candy store was rejected, he began selling neckties out of a large cardboard box, accompanied on his travels through the streets and subways of New York by his daughter Loulou.
While she and her siblings began yearning for all things American — “I wanted a plastic slipcover, and a couch to go with it, a Formica table and, above all, plastic flowers” — there was nothing their father didn’t miss about Egypt. He grew more and more reclusive in New York and immersed himself in prayer, sometimes spending as many as 9, 10 hours in synagogue.
He missed the pleasures of eating grilled whitefish while gazing out at the Nile at night. He missed the Cairo radio stations and the dulcet notes of the Cairo diva Om Kalsoum. He missed the stream of relatives and friends who dropped in constantly at the house on Malaka Nazli. And, perhaps most of all, his daughter writes, he missed the smell of flowers, complaining that the flowers of America were strangely odorless and lifeless:
“Whether purchased from the corner florist or picked from a nearby bush, they still had no fragrance, a fact that filled him with a kind of existential despair, a sense of all that was wrong with our New World. How stark the contrast to the sprigs of jasmine whose perfume filled Cairo’s night air, to the lilies and honeysuckle that grew wild in the streets, and to the roses, above all, the roses, the small, red, overpowering damask roses, descendants of the very first roses to grow on earth.”