The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus From Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado is a vividly written book, descriptive of the plight of the Egyptian Jews from Cairo during the 1940s through the early 1970s. Lagnado writes from the perspective of her childhood memories, memories of a loving daughter, one who adored her “boulevardier” father, Leon, who she felt gave her more attention than her mother, Edith.
Leon was much older than Edith, and expected Edith to wait on him hand and foot, leaving her more like a doormat. She was a wife who was not viewed as an equal in any aspect, and was a compliant, passive, demure, tragic figure in their lives. Edith hardly had time for herself. Lagnado’s father, Leon, was in his own mind, a legend in his own time, while living in Cairo, demanding respect and devotion wherever he went. The man who liked to be known as a “boulevardier” (repeated many times throughout the book, as if it was a title fitting a king, rather than that of a man who walked the streets of Cairo wheeling and dealing) felt he was a worldly man, although he never did travel the world (other than to flee with his family to Paris, before emigrating to the U.S). He didn’t actually work to earn a living, but gambled daily, and also played the stock market, and even kept that a secret from his wife, until he was hospitalized and she needed to access funds to pay rent, etc. Lagnado said that gambling was Leon’s passion, not really understanding it was much more than a passion, and it was an interference in his family life. He enjoyed his nickname “The Captain”, and dressed sharply in white sharkskin suits, staying out until dawn.
Leon considered himself a devout Jew, going to Synagogue early in the morning, afternoon and evening to pray. Yet, the patriarchal man who prayed, also strayed on his wife, often returning home in the middle of the night, after frequenting the gambling houses and bars, thriving within the fast, night life of Cairo. To him, religion, prayer, drinking, gambling, and other external pleasures outside the marriage could coexist. This behavior continued, even after they lost a daughter, and Edith was in mourning. Nothing could keep him home.
The first half of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit deals with their lives in Cairo and is well-written with its historical content. Lagnado writes with reverence for her father, but much of that adulation is from the point of view of a child, aged five through eleven. She doesn’t display the same sense of adoration for her mother.
The second half of the book deals with their emigration from Cairo to Paris, and eventually to their final destination in Brooklyn, New York. The family had to sell off all their furniture and belongings, and could only leave Cairo with a little over $200, due to Egypt law. We see Leon and the family go from riches to rags, immediately upon leaving Cairo. They were a family in transit, no country, and living off of the handouts of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in both Paris and Brooklyn. Leon sold ties, not earning much, and the “silk” ties he sold were not actually made of silk, and not made where the tags stated they were made. They were made in New York with phony labels, and not sewn in the exotic countries he claimed they were made in. He often took Lagnado with him when selling ties, introducing her as his granddaughter, not his daughter, in order to gain sympathy so he could sell a tie or two.
Lagnado writes of their difficult times in Brooklyn, and her father’s inability and/or refusal to assimilate into his new environment, causing stress on her mother and the rest of the family, who protested his attitude. Her father wanted to borrow $2000 to start a business, and was refused the loan. He complained to no end, and continually blamed his dire circumstances on everyone but where the blame belonged, on himself. There were medical issues, also.
Lagnado had been misdiagnosed with “cat scratch fever” in Cairo. This diagnosis lasted through the years. After moving to Brooklyn, and going to medical hospitals, she was finally diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease by one Dr. Lee, a specialist, and she was given a course of treatment. The family never failed to demean the hospital staff, the resident medical doctors, etc. Other than Lagnado, herself (she remains close friends to this day with Dr. Lee), the rest of the family never seemed grateful for the fact that Lagnado’s Hodgkins Disease had finally been diagnosed correctly and was given a treatment program (unlike the misdiagnosis in Cairo). It almost seemed as if they wanted to believe the doctors in Cairo. The family was, seemingly, in denial, unable to comprehend and cope with the situation.
The Lagnado family’s difficulty in assimilating, and Leon’s refusal to heed the HIAS’s instructions left me with no sympathy for them and their situation. They expected that everyone but themselves should pay for their wants and needs. They were a family in crisis who could not, or would not, help themselves. Their indecisiveness was often the root of their problems. They helped to create much of the chaos and emotional distress in their depressive lives.
When Lagnado returned to the old neighborhood in Cairo in 2005 for a sojourn, she realized how well off they actually would not have been, had they stayed, or if they had returned to live there, again. The same street today, now called Ramses Street is by no means the Malaka Nazli of her remembered childhood. Of course she initially wrote about their lives in Cairo from the perspective of a child, her formative years. And, she wrote from her father’s own stories. As an adult she viewed things differently, with the clarity of a grown woman.
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit was well-written, descriptive, vivid with word visuals, describing life in Cairo, and their lives in Brooklyn. Lagnado has a sense of time and place, and her research proved effective in conveying it to the reader. It is an excellent family historical accounting. Although the last half of the book left me feeling a bit empty towards the family and their circumstances, it was just as descriptive and well-written as the first half. Lagnado does illuminate the pages of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit with excellent word-paintings of the history of Jewish Cairo, of Jews in transit and stateless…Jews with no country, and Jewish immigration and assimilation.
I personally own and have read this book.