Commentary Magazine


The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
by Lucette Lagnado

Exile
Ecco. 352 pp. $25.95

Lucette Lagnado was seven years old when her family—father, mother, two older brothers, and an older sister—immigrated, via Paris, from Cairo to New York in the winter of 1963-64. Generally speaking, this is not an age from which immigrant children retain strong memories of their first homes, let alone nostalgia or longing for them. And it is certainly not an age from which they are expected to do so in America, whose new world, Americans have always believed, offers every reason to forget the old one as quickly as possible.

Lagnado, moreover, might be considered a model American success story. Arriving in New York as the daughter of penniless Jewish refugees from Nasser’s Egypt, which forbade them to take any money or valuables with them, she did well in school; won a scholarship to Vassar; became a highly successful investigative reporter for the New York Post, the Village Voice, and the weekly Forward (of which she was also managing editor); and is now a senior staff member at the Wall Street Journal. Outwardly, indeed, she appeared to have left her Egyptian childhood thoroughly behind her. During her stint at the Forward, at which time I was the paper’s Israel correspondent, I had frequent contact with her. Never once do I remember her mentioning her origins.

But they were there inside, it would seem, all along, for she has now published a book about them in which America, though its benefits are by no means treated dismissively, does not fare as well as one might have thought it would vis-à-vis the Egypt she remembers and has taught herself about. With the help of extensive research, culminating in a visit to her old neighborhood, street, and home, she has written a book whose first two-thirds are about the city of her early childhood and the life her family lived there. Set beside them, New York, for all its freedom and opportunity, is depicted as a cold and alienating place of refuge.

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Above all, it was such a place for Lagnado’s father, “the man in the white sharkskin suit.” Leon Lagnado, as he is described with clear-eyed love by his youngest daughter, could have been a character in a novel. A Cairo dandy, gambler, womanizer, and man about town known to his acquaintances as le Capitaine, a man whose mistress was at one point the legendary (and non-Jewish) Egyptian singer Um Kulthoum, he was also a successful entrepreneur, a caring if generally absent paterfamilias, and, in his own way, a deeply believing Jew like his rabbinic ancestors.*

This combination of rakishness and religiosity was Leon Lagnado’s most exotic and fascinating feature. The same tall, handsome man who had a “passion for clothes and food and women that made him a fixture at the leading restaurants and patisseries [of Cairo] by day, and the cabarets, dance halls, and cinémas en plein air by night” became, Lucette Lagnado writes, “a different person on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, arriving well before sundown with a large bouquet of roses for my grandmother . . . before preparing for synagogue”:

What none of Leon’s acquaintances could do was reconcile the man at synagogue, who seemed so immersed in his prayers, and was relentless about observing every ritual, fasting every fast, and obeying every possible commandment, and the man who disappeared night after night for forbidden, sinful pursuits. It was as if two people resided within one sharkskin suit, 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 far beyond Malaka Nazli [the Cairo street on which the Lagnados lived].

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This “secret” life took place in a different city from the one Cairo has become today. Although the Egyptian capital is more than ever a huge, teeming, colorful metropolis, it is also, like its sister city Alexandria (better known than Cairo to Western readers from the poems of Kavafy and the novels of Lawrence Durrell), a less worldly and sophisticated place than it was in the 1940’s and 50’s.

Then, in the last years of the British colonial presence, which ended with the Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal and the unsuccessful Anglo-French invasion of 1956, the city was, in Lucette Lagnado’s reconstruction of it, an extremely cosmopolitan one. Numerous foreign colonies existed in it; large Coptic and Jewish minorities lived in full equality beside their Muslim neighbors; pan-Arab nationalism was in its infancy; and Islamic fundamentalism, too, was only beginning to emerge as a significant force. A Jew conducting a liaison with a Muslim woman who was on her way to becoming the most adored performer in the Arab world, unthinkable today, was not a great scandal at the time.

Edith Lagnado, a young French teacher half the age of the bachelor playboy she was to marry, met Leon at Cairo’s La Parisiana café, where he approached her while she was drinking coffee with her mother to compliment her on her beauty. It was not, as Lucette Lagnado describes it, a happy marriage. Edith, a cultured woman, had to give up her job and devote herself to being a mother whose husband was rarely at home and had no interest in the books she loved to read. Leon—with whom she spoke French, the language in which, like many middle- and upper-class Egyptian Jews, they raised their children—led his own life and did not share his thoughts with her.

The only person in his family Leon Lagnado was ever close to was his youngest daughter, nicknamed “Loulou” and born too late to see him in his prime, for she was two years old when he had a bad accident in which he broke his leg and hip, leaving him permanently lame and in pain. It was the end of his gallivanting days and the beginning of a long period of economic, physical, and psychological decline. This reached its nadir after the family emigrated to New York and he found himself, an aging, lonely, and unwell man, living in humiliating poverty in a strange city he did not care for while longing for a Cairo that no longer had a place for him—or for that matter, for Jews of any kind.

And yet Leon Lagnado’s New York period, which lasted until his death in 1992, had, if not a happy ending, then a redeeming one. For all his vanity and superficiality, Leon had three qualities that saved him in a situation in which more ordinary men might have crumbled: an unshakable faith in God, a strong sense of his own dignity, and a feeling of responsibility to his family, whose provider he had always been and was determined to remain.

Finding an Egyptian synagogue in the Brooklyn neighborhood the Lagnados moved to, Leon slowly rebuilt his life around it and the men he befriended there while managing to earn a living, first by peddling neckties, then by graduating to a self-employed fabrics salesman, and, finally, by making some successful investments with the small amounts of money he managed to put aside. Lucette Lagnado’s descriptions of her father, the former Capitaine of Cairo, limping with his suitcases full of ties and fabrics down the streets of New York without falling prey to self-pity are heartbreaking. But they are also inspiring. They remind us that an indomitable spirit is something no person knows he has until faced with the need to have it—and that it sometimes turns up in unexpected places.

Lagnado has written a moving memoir in which, perhaps thanks to her investigative reporter’s instincts, she is always present without upstaging her two main characters, her father and mother. Although many of the events in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit took place before she was born, she has so absorbed them into herself that the reader almost forgets she was not there.

Leon Lagnado was a truly unusual combination. Still, he was perhaps not quite so unusual in the context of Egyptian Jewry as he seems when viewed from contemporary America. As practiced in the Sephardi communities of southeast Europe and the largely Arabic-speaking communities of the Middle East, traditional Judaism was more relaxed, less puritanical, and more tolerant of religiously deviant behavior than in the Ashkenazi world. Conversely, types of Jews who would have left religion completely had they been Ashkenazim retained an often superstitious attachment to it even when they did not observe many or most of its precepts.

Even today in Israel, where Jews from Sephardi and Middle Eastern backgrounds have become heavily Ashkenazified, the dichotomy between “religious” and “secular” Jews is far less pronounced among them than it is in Ashkenazi circles. I have heard of religious families from such backgrounds whose non-observant members excuse themselves in the middle of a Sabbath meal to go
outside and smoke a forbidden cigarette, something unimaginable in the case of religious Ashkenazim. It is also common to observe totally “secular” Israelis from Sephardi or Middle Eastern families kissing a mezuzah every time they enter a home or even go from room to room. The Judaism they come from was never a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Leon Lagnado can be viewed as a somewhat extreme case of such behavior. The Jewish community of Cairo in which he lived and raised a family was truly the community of all Cairo’s Jews; there was hardly a Jew who did not belong to it and play a role, no matter how great or small. As modernized as parts of Cairo society were in the mid-20th century, it was a city in which you were either a Muslim, Christian, or Jew—and, whichever you were, you were part of a shared world that had its holidays and rituals, its foods, customs, ceremonies, prayers, and rites of passage, and its extended families that observed them together.

Dropping out of this world was all but impossible. If you were an adventurous or non-conventional spirit, you might have found it confining or asphyxiating; but you were never abandoned or forgotten in it. It was a traditional society, small versions of which have existed in America, too, among religious separatists from the Amish to black-hat Hasidim, as well as among immigrant and second-generation ethnic communities of the kind celebrated and mourned in The Godfather. Yet in its essence America from its inception has been a land that has stressed individual autonomy over community.

In comparing the Egypt her family left with the America it came to, Lucette Lagnado never sentimentalizes the past or excoriates the present for supplanting it. She is aware that, had her parents remained in Cairo, she could never have become what she is today, and that the journalist mourning a lost world of human solidarity might then have grown up to be a frustrated housewife like her mother, longing for another life. Yet she also knows that, in this lost world, her parents would not have ended up, frightened and alone, in impersonal nursing homes, and that she would not have had to write about her dying father:

I tried to embrace him, reaching for his thin, skeletal frame barely covered by the blue nightgown, but more often than not he was too agitated. “Loulou, ou je suis?” he’d ask; Loulou, where am I? And then, as some nurse passed by, he’d try to catch her eye and say with that tony British accent he still maintained after all these years, “I want to go home, please take me home.” More often than not, the nurse would simply keep walking.

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The sad truth about the Cairo of Lucette Lagnado’s childhood and the New York she lives in now is that there is no way of combining the best features of each, of having tight-knit communities and individual freedom, strong networks of mutual obligations and a culture of self-fulfillment. Although the first kind of society may take a long time to evolve into the second, it is ultimately a package deal. And given the direction today’s world is heading in, which explains much of the fury of radical Islam, Cairo itself will sooner or later be like New York.

Lucette Lagnado knows this, too. When she finally revisits her family home on Malaka Nazli, now patriotically renamed Ramses Street, she finds that

Egyptian bureaucrats had decided to build a highway parallel to it, ostensibly to improve traffic flow. Now, the ugly concrete structure extended like a dark shadow across the once-serene avenue, traffic flowed only one way instead of two, and bottlenecks were worse than ever.

Only the elderly Muslim woman who lives in the Lagnados’ old apartment with her daughter does not know it. Simply, graciously, with no sense of how preposterous it is, she tells Lagnado that she has a spare room and will gladly let her have it if she will come back to live there. Overwhelmed by the gesture, Lagnado rushes to embrace her. But, of course, one can never move back to Malaka Nazli. Hence the elegiac tone of this beautifully written book.

About the Author




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