Lagnado, Lucette. “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Cairo to the New World”, HarperCollins, 2007.
Perhaps the most significant event in the course of Jewish history is the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was during this exodus that what we know today as the Jewish religion was formulated. It was then that the Mosaic code was given to the world and the basis for all modern law was established. That was over 2000 years ago. Along comes a new memoir of a different kind of exodus—same starting location, same basic reason for beginning the trek. What is different is the destination. Lucette Lagnado in “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” tells how her father, Leon, reacted early on after escaping the anti-Semitic thrust of the government of Egypt under Gamal Nasser and this was just 45 years ago.
The ending of the story is clear. Leon comes to America and enjoys a successful and happy life. But it is not that clear-cut. The reality is that the fate of the Lagnado family lay far away from a victory that we all expect the narratives of immigrants to be. This is not a pretty story and it paints an entirely different picture of America—one that we rarely, if ever, see.
The Lagnado family had close ties with Cairo, having lived there for generations until they were blatantly forced out by the anti-Semitism of the Nasser government. Lagnado describes this experience as a “cultural Holocaust”. Synagogues closed because no one went, cemeteries were looted and Jewish merchants closed their shops. There was a complete shut-down of Jewish life all over Egypt but especially in Cairo. It was a catastrophe for Egypt as so many intellectual lives were shuttered. This book is the story of what happened and it is indeed a holocaust.
Leon Lagnado was a renaissance man. He spoke seven languages and was charismatic and loved by all who knew him. He conduced secret business which was so private that members f his own family knew nothing about it. At night he was a man about town and visited he “in” places—places where the king of Egypt himself would visit. He was also a good Jew who prayed at the synagogue every day.
He married a girl who was twenty years younger than him and they bought a house where they lived together with his mother) a Middle-Eastern tradition) and a nephew and he and his wife had five children (one died right after birth). Leon was a man between two worlds—religious and secular.
Leon developed a very special relationship with his daughter Lucette (Loulou). She was his kindred spirit. She wrote this book in which she manages to bring us the characters in her family with such clarity and vivacity that they seem to become members of our own families. Likewise Cairo becomes our home town. The detail in the book is quite amazing and obviously a great deal of research went into the writing. Every little fact is elaborated upon.
There are sections of the book that read like a thriller—the suspense is that sharp. When she writes of Nasser’s rise to power, Lagnado is incredible. The beauty of her prose builds an atmosphere that takes you right to the scene.
Leon managed to stay in Egypt for ten years after Nasser became head of the government and would have probably stayed if he had not been harassed into leaving. He felt his family was no longer safe in Cairo and they began a long journey through Europe ultimately landing in New York.
Life in America was not easy for Leon; he was not well and his heart had been broken by his homeland. He had a rough time with the social workers who worked with new immigrants and he did not adjust to America well. He never bounced back and his family began to fall apart. They all missed Cairo desperately and wanted to return to the place that they were glad to have left.
When Lagnado was invited to return by the Egyptian government many years later what she found was not the Cairo that her family had left. Cairo was no longer the beautiful star of Africa and the situation of the Jews of the city was not good. But Lagnado gives us a view of Cairo that s rich and beautiful and the book is a monument to a time that was.