Culture Bytes: Returning Home to the Past
David Freeman reviews %%AMAZON=0060822120 The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World%%, by Lucette Lagnado; the story of a family forced to leave the old Cairo of cafes and English officers for the unfamiliar shores of Brooklyn.
August 25, 2007 - 1:00 pm
The man in that beautifully tailored suit is Leon Lagnado, a Boulevardier of Cairo. Born in Aleppo, Syria – a city even older than Cairo – he was brought to Egypt as a tot and found his only self there. Leon’s story becomes one of displacement and collapse. It’s also the story of the last century.
Leon’s daughter, Lucette (LouLou), tells it movingly. She was born in Cairo and had every reason to assume she would always be a Cairine. She’s now a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a New Yorker. And that is part of the story, too.
Leon spent his nights in the clubs and bo√Ætes of Cairo, the city that all but invented cafe society, and made his living in the age old way of the Levant: he knew people, he did favors, he bought here and sold there. He kept some records, probably false. Mostly he kept it all, the great edifice of his life, in his head.
He left his young wife, Edith, and their children at home while he caroused with his cronies and mistresses – one of whom may have been Om Kalsoum (as it’s spelled here), the Egyptian singer known as “The Nightingale of the Nile” who was far more popular than any king or queen.
Lucette, Leon’s youngest child was born when he was in his fifties. She adored him and believed he could do anything. He was elegant, (she compares him to Cary Grant, which may be more a sign of her devotion than an accurate description) and spoke seven languages. The Laganos spoke French at home in their much-loved flat in Malaka Nazli Street, named for the Queen mother. It was the only home LouLou wanted. She knew no other.
Leon was made for a culture that his daughter says “managed to be both old-fashioned and libertine at the same time.” He was an observant Jew, which was fine in the years before Nasser. There was a well-established haut juiverie in Cairo. Farouk had at least one Jewish mistress. Leon wasn’t of that class – he was self-made, but Leon played cards with the king in the company of English officers.
After Suez, Nasser nationalized businesses and began throwing Europeans in general and Jews in particular out of Egypt. Cairo lost its cosmopolitan magic. “Egypt – Jewish Egypt – was finished and would never be again.”
Lucette’s charmed childhood of tea at Groppi’s, the patisserie that all Cairo thought was the finest in the world, came to an end. The family put the wrong things into twenty-one trunks and kept the tiny amount of cash they were entitled to take — about $200 for the whole family — and made their way into an unforgiving future.
When they sailed out of Alexandria, Leon called out, to his family, to his god, to the sea itself, “Ragaouna Masr.” (“Take us back to Cairo.”) After an unhappy stay in Paris, they eventually landed in Brooklyn, which might have been the moon to Leon. Edith told LouLou to tell the teachers at her public school that she was French believing, probably correctly, that if they knew she was Egyptian they would think she had lived in a tent.
Leon’s manners, which had been graceful in the Levant, were thought oily in Brooklyn. His English accent, learned from all those English officers, was seen as fake. It was fake, I suppose, but to Leon at least it was a genuine fake.
For a while, he sold neckties on street corners. He retreated into his Jewishness to the point of mania, spending all day praying. If will alone could make a life, Leon would have had one. He grew old, driven deeper into himself. Edith struggled with America and because she had simpler ambitions, eventually found work.
LouLou fought illness and managed to overcome poverty and make herself an American. The price of American ambitions to an immigrant child is always the same: an unwitting casting off of the past. She wanted plastic flowers, plastic seat covers and the entire panoply of American crap. Her beloved father continued to put his foot wrong, fighting with social workers, doctors, landlords and neighbors.
This book, so rich in character and incident, is told in a direct voice that makes its own music and is not soon forgotten. A family memoir has to begin before the life of the teller, which can create intractable narrative problems.
Before Lucette is on the scene, she tells her story in the third person. As she joins the family, the narration shifts to first person. It changes as she changes. It’s handled here with seeming ease.
The time sequence, however, can occasionally be difficult to follow. A time line or a family tree might have been helpful. The ages of family members aren’t always clear. In a memoir, that can be a sign of general inaccuracy. Memoir, like history itself, often creates its own truth. I don’t know if Lagnado has done some embroidery here, but if she has, she’s done it awfully well.
The story of modern Egypt, before the revolution of 1952, is not well known in the US. In recent years, Andre Aciman’s superb %%AMAZON=1573225347 Out of Egypt%%, another tale of Egyptian Jewish displacement, has opened the door to books like %%AMAZON=0060822120 The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit%%.
Artemis Cooper’s %%AMAZON=0140247815 Cairo in the War: 1939-1945%% has become a standard reference for the period. For a more Egyptian view of this world, the novels of the Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, particularly %%AMAZON=0552995800 Palace Walk%%, the first of his Cairo Trilogy are available.
If you’re interested in Om Kalsoum, Leon’s possible mistress, Felim Nassib’s novel of Kalthoum (another spelling), I Loved you for your Voice Alone, tells her story from the point of view of the poet who wrote her lyrics. It’s available in an English translation.
I’d like to add %%AMAZON=0786705914 One of Us%%, my novel of Egypt and England to this list. I spent time in Cairo in the early 90s researching the book. Caf√© Society was gone and Cairo was crumbling, but I fell under its spell, and Alexandria’s too, hardly the first Westerner to be enchanted by these ancient cities.
In 2005, her work completed, the story of her torn family set down and Leon and Edith in their graves, Lagnado and her husband went to Cairo for what would surely be a last look at Malaka Nazli (now called Ramses Street.)
A woman who had lived in the building for some sixty years remembered LouLou and told her she looked like her mother. “I am old,” she said. “I am lonely. Why don’t you stay? Why don’t you move here? You can have any room you want.”
What that woman wanted was the past, which is what LouLou, now Lucette, wanted too. It was not to be of course, but she was also asking for what Lagnado calls “that wondrous quality the Egyptians call rahma – mercy, compassion.”
“The past is a different country: they do things differently there,” are the opening lines of %%AMAZON=0940322994The Go-Between%%, L.P. Hartley’s wise novel of England in 1900. Lucette Lagnado is a go between too. She has made her epic journey into a vanished past and brought back this indelible book.
David Freeman is the author of six books including, “%%AMAZON=0881848700 A Hollywood Education,%%” “%%AMAZON=0786705914 One of Us,%%” and, most recently, “%%AMAZON=0743249755 It’s All True.%%” He’s a screenwriter and playwright and has contributed to many print publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker.