November 20, 2019

Books: Exile from Egypt through a daughter’s eyes

“The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World,” by Lucette Lagnado (Ecco, $25.95).

When Leon Lagnado would walk at his brisk pace through the streets of Cairo in the 1940s, heads would turn: He was said to resemble Cary Grant. The suave, elegant gentleman made deals in several languages, played the stock market and made himself essential to business transactions all over the city. Evenings, he frequented Cairo’s liveliest nightspots, where he was known as Leon by the owners and as Captain Philips by the British soldiers who enjoyed his presence.

Dressed in one of his signature white sharkskin suits and two-toned shoes, he dined and danced with exuberance, appreciated the company of women and loved “the shuffle of a deck of cards and the spin of a roulette wheel.” As a bachelor and then a married man, Lagnado was a prince of the night, sometimes invited to join King Farouk for a round of cards at his table. For Lagnado, a descendent of a long line of rabbis from Aleppo, Syria, religion was taken as seriously as his pastimes. Friday nights and Saturdays, he went to synagogue.

In “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World,” Lucette Lagnado, an award-winning investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, portrays her father and the cosmopolitan Cairo he loved and had to flee in 1963 when life became exceedingly difficult for the Jews, in the decade after King Farouk’s fall and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ascent to power. While her father had encouraged his siblings years earlier to leave for Israel, the one country that would take them unconditionally, he initially insisted on staying, not able to imagine life outside of Egypt. But as synagogues were shuttered, cemeteries looted and Jewish shops abandoned, they boarded a ship for Marseilles, France.

Forced to leave their wealth behind, they went to Paris before they were able to enter the United States and eventually moved to Brooklyn. But if Cairo was a well-cut suit for Leon, America was a baggy coat that never fit. He lost his home, his culture, his professional life and his buoyant spirit. Although the family settled in a neighborhood with others of Levantine background and he found some comfort in the shuls that were familiar, he never regained his stature or his ability to help his family. The resettlement officials who were to aid them had little understanding or respect for their background. Even in Leon’s last days, he had a suitcase nearby, ready to return to Egypt.

The strength of this memoir is in the writer’s prose, at once graceful and powerful. Reporting on her father with the awe of a child and the wisdom of a grown-up, she manages to make the reader understand his charm and foibles and her love for him, and to feel his loss deeply. She also captures her extended family and the complexities of their lives and longings with depth and compassion. She joins memoirists Andre Aciman (“Out of Egypt”) and Gini Alhadeff (“The Sun at Midday”) in writing lyrical, personal books that are important documents of communities that have been extinguished.

Lucette Lagnado is wearing all white when we meet. White cotton, not sharkskin. She’s not sure she’s ever seen sharkskin, and her requests for a fabric sample through friends in the textile business haven’t met with success.

A petite whirlwind, she bounces into M. Rohr’s, a cafe on East 86th Street where she greets the owner, who asks about her debut reading the previous evening, and then is embraced by a group of regulars. One filmmaker friend exits and rushes back with a copy of the book, just purchased, and asks her to sign it. This is the place where she sat every day, working on the book, when she’d take breaks from the quiet basement bedroom of her nearby duplex apartment. The 50-year old author admits to being a woman of routine, in part superstition: Every day she’d order ice coffee and two homemade Mexican wedding cookies. (The superstition was about writing, not marriage: She’s been married to Douglas Feiden, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, since 1995.)

This cafe seems a much less formal place than La Parisiana, the popular Cairo cafe of the book’s opening scene, where her parents first met. She describes that as a place where different languages are spoken at different tables, sometimes in the same conversation and even in the same sentence. In 1943, Leon, then 42, eyed a beautiful, demure 20-year-old woman across the room and knew that she was the one he’d finally marry. In a romantic moment of film quality, he had a waiter deliver a note to her, “I find you very beautiful. Would it be possible for us to meet?” and then joined her and their mother at their table. Edith was a teacher and librarian, hardly worldly, and thought Leon to be one of the most handsome men she had ever met. A big wedding followed soon after, but their marriage wasn’t a happy one, as Leon promptly reverted to his nightly adventures.

Throughout her childhood, Lucette heard this story replayed. She was 6 when they left Cairo, and retells the story of their exile through the eyes of Loulou, as she was known. As the youngest child and often one facing illness, including cancer at 16, she spent the most time with her parents. Like her siblings though, she became assimilated and Americanized, and left the Brooklyn community.

“I wish I had written this when they were alive,” she says of her parents.

“I have a lot of memories. I have this terribly unwieldy mind,” she notes, crediting her training at the Journal with helping her to write without sentimentality.

The seed for this book — and the title — was planted soon after Leon’s death in 1993. Lucette began attending services at the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, where, although the congregants were mostly of Moroccan and Algerian decent, she was reminded of him as she mourned. After services one day, she was approached by a woman who asked if she was related to Leon Lagnado of Cairo. This woman knew Leon as a young man who’d visit her mother’s Cairo home, always wearing white sharkskin. She became a great source of information for Lucette. In 2004, Lagnado wrote a Father’s Day piece for the Wall Street Journal about her father and his gradual repayment of his debt to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Soon after, she had a book contract.