Lucette Lagnado, a former editor at the Forward and currently a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, recently took it upon herself to unearth the full details of her family’s 1962 exodus from Egypt. The resulting book, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” (Ecco), tells the story of a family torn from its beloved city of Cairo and forced to build a new life in America — a task that proved more difficult than expected.
The family in question is also my own: I am the daughter of Lucette’s brother, Cesar (and, following in Lucette’s footsteps, a former intern at the Forward). I sat down with my aunt recently to discuss the book, from researching and writing it to our family’s reaction and her hopes for the future.
— Caroline Lagnado
What compelled you to write this book?
What I wanted to do was tackle these fairly epic themes of exile and loss and rootlessness, but through a child’s eyes: The child that I was when I left Cairo with my family in the early 1960s. I chose to tell the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt through a single family, ours, and by way of a little girl named Loulou, who is of course my alter ego. Loulou takes note of all the upheavals under way, and she is thoroughly caught up in these sweeping historical events, but she experiences the changes around her as a child would, by latching on to familiar, beloved objects.
Did you find it cathartic?
The book meant coming to grips with my father — who emerged as filled with contradictions. That was an extraordinary dilemma for me — how to reconcile the two sides of my father, the extreme bon vivant and the deeply devout Jew. In America, that is practically impossible, but it was possible in Cairo: You could be a person of deep faith and yet still revel in the pleasures of the world.
What kind of reactions did you anticipate from our family members?
I was very anxious — my siblings are considerably older than me, and I figured they would feel, “She was way off on this,” and “How dare she say that.” So in fact I agonized about it, even though I worked really closely with them, in particular Cesar and Suzette. My sister comes off as a controversial figure in the memoir, so I was particularly worried about her reaction. I am thoroughly estranged from another brother, whose role in the book is quite minor. And so yes, I was worried — deeply worried. But my feeling now is that if I had the perfect Brady Bunch for a family, then maybe I wouldn’t have had so much material for “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” — which is, after all, about 100 years in the life of a complicated and tragic family.
Did you ever feel that these revelations betray the memory of your mother?
I adored both my mother and father, and so I hope not; I think that Mom was a terribly grand figure who was so lost and vulnerable. She was young and naive when she married — so many of us are, actually — and she married a man who was not only much older but much tougher. She simply wasn’t strong enough to deal with my dad as an equal. But you know you don’t have to be a frail, tender 20-year-old schoolteacher in 1940s Cairo to make a troubled marriage — it happens every day in America….
At the end of the book, you describe going back to Cairo in 2005. How do you view Egypt as a country now?
It is afflicted by this kind of weary post-Colonial shabbiness. Egypt threw out all the foreigners and all its Jews and said, “Our country is our own.” But what have they done with it? They have let it go to ruin. They know it, and they don’t quite know what to do.
At the readings I’ve attended, I noticed many Levantine Jews in the audience. What do you think is drawing these people in?
There is such an emotional reaction to the book, and the people are not part of the Manhattan establishment. Many are from the immigrant communities that came here from the Levant — from Egypt and Libya and Morocco and Yemen and Syria. They are reacting passionately because this is their story, and it is a story that hasn’t been told — this extraordinary Diaspora, the forced exiles from lands they loved every bit as much as my father loved Cairo.
What are you hoping readers will come away with from this book?
That once upon a time there was this amazing culture of book-loving, theater-loving, life-loving, intellectually vivid, charming and cultured people who were forced to give it all up and reinvent themselves. Somewhere — anywhere.
Unlike the Palestinians, the Jewish refugees of Egypt and other parts of the Middle East didn’t become a political cause. Most [Middle Eastern Jews] quietly assimilated, and those who could quietly set about rebuilding their lives, but many others, like my father, died mourning their lost home and country. They died yearning for this corner of the Middle East they had loved so much, but which had stopped loving them back.