Book review: A tale of love and exile

Mohamed Metwally, Tuesday 21 Dec 2010

Lucette Lagnado writes about her Jewish family's happy life in Egypt and the pains of exodus

Al-Ragul zu Al-Badla Al-Baidaa Al-Sharkskin: Wakae’ Khorug Osra Yahudeya min Masr(The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: The Proceedings of a Jewish Family’s Exodus from Egypt), Lucette Lagnado, translated by Mustafa El-Tanany and Medhat Maklad and Cairo: Dar Al-Tanany, 2010. pp 388

When Lucette Lagnado was asked what compelled her to write her book, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit”, she answered that she wanted to tackle the epic themes of exile, loss and rootlessness, through a child’s eyes, the child that she was when she left Cairo with her family in the early 1960s.

The book “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit”, first published in English by Ecco in the US and awarded the Sami Rohr prize for Jewish Literature in 2008, was published in Arabic by Dar El-Tanany in 2010.

A Cairo of charm and appeal

Loulou, an extremely intelligent and witty child, tells the story of her family’s exodus from Egypt in the early 1960s, and their journey to Paris, before later going to the US. Her father, Leon Lagnado, plays the main role in this deeply-moving story, in which we see a Cairo of charm and appeal, now long ceased to exist.

"By sunset, the streets around Malaka Nazli welled up with men … on their way to temple … this quintessentially Arab city was supremely accepting of its Jewish inhabitants. Muslims and Jews lived in close quarters in the same streets, the same buildings, and usually very harmoniously".

Lagnado describes Cairo in the 1930s; a beautiful and cosmopolitan city resembling any Europe capital today.  Filled with gardens and beautiful buildings, buzzing with night-life, Egyptians were a diverse population of mixed roots and different religions, but everyone lived together peacefully. Cairo, though much smaller than today, had a heart much bigger, and offered a place for everyone to call home.

Thirty years later in the 60s, many Jews were forced to depart Egypt for good, abandoning their homes and possessions, even signing a document that they would never return. On board the ship that deported the Lagnados to Europe, carrying identity papers with the category of ‘stateless’, Loulou recalls her father’s agony:

"We had barely drifted out of Alexandria's harbour when I heard my father cry: "Raga’una Masr"- Take us back to Egypt...."Raga’una Masr" my father kept shouting. He had lost all inhibitions and for a man whose life had exemplified elegance and propriety, any sense of decorum seemed gone. He would cry when he sat alone, and he'd cry in front of other passengers… only saying what they felt in their hearts".

Loss, despair and fear were the only companions on the journey by sea to Paris, then onto the United States, where they were granted residence and became American citizens.  The Captain - a wealthy and aristocratic gentleman, Leon Lagnado  became a tie salesman.

 “They murdered your president!” the porter was shouting towards our window. My family looked at one another, thoroughly befuddled. Had Nasser been murdered in Egypt? It took a few minutes before we realised that “our president” was the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy".

Many years later, Lagnado returns to Cairo for short visits to work on the Arabic translation of her book. She describes her view of Cairo in 2010 saying:

"I really love Egypt with all my heart, even though perhaps it is not the country my father had known - or not exactly.    

I feel very close to my father when I come - and with some exceptions I have been received wonderfully by most Cairenes. Nothing really gives me more pleasure.  I don't go to the touristic areas - I still haven't been to the Pyramids; but I love to walk the streets of Sakakini, Heliopolis and Garden City".

While the simple Cairenes that Lagnado met on her visits to Egypt were welcoming, her book was rejected by some of the intellectual people in  Cairo.  Written by a Jewish write lamenting the exodus of her family from Egypt caused controversy, questioning her intentions and whether she was asking for forgiveness or a normal relationship between Egypt and Israel.

Dedicated to the country she loves

On several occasions, Mostafa El-Tanany, the publisher of the Arabic translation, had to defend Lagnado, stating that she is an American citizen and not an Israeli. He stressed the fact that Judaism, Zionism and the state of Israel are three different entities, and do not have to be linked together. Lagnado herself has declared that she refuses to indulge in political debate.  She says  her book is a personal memoir and dedicated to the country she loves.

From Cairo to Paris to New York, Lagnado and her family have snatched pleasures and escaped from pain as much as possible, trying to thrive against all the odds. The more real the tales of Loulou are, the more heartbreaking they become. The book provides a very intimate and personal view of a traumatic experience, unknown to most of us.

Lucette Lagnado now lives in the US and works as a journalist and memoirist.



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