Charles Sligh slighcl at wfu.edu
Sun Oct 28 07:38:45 PDT 2007

Washington Times
Article published Oct 28, 2007
Investigating a family's exile from Egypt, life in America

October 28, 2007


By Lucette Lagnado

Ecco, $25.95, 340 pages, $25.95, illus.


There's just something about the lost world of cosmopolitan, polyglot,
multi-ethnic Egypt that ended with the overthrow of the king in 1952 that
fascinates us. Writers from abroad like Lawrence Durrell and Nadine Gordimer
became so fascinated with that vanishing time and place that they preserved it
in the memorable amber of their fiction, Durrell in the "Alexandria Quartet"
tetralogy of novels and Ms. Gordimer in some early short stories that are among
her finest.

More recently, Andre Aciman celebrated and mourned his lost realm in "Out of
Egypt," which reminded new generations of readers of its decadent, tarnished
but nonetheless compelling splendors.

But in Lucette Lagnado, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, we have a writer
who looks at old Egypt from a unique point of view that combines the
insiderishness and deeply felt insights of the native with the hard-edged
realism of the probing, intelligent outsider. Born four years after the
overthrow of King Farouk and just before the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez invasion
of 1956, Ms. Lagnado left her native land at the age of 6, first, briefly, for
France, and then for the United States, where her family settled in New York

Old enough to remember the sights, sounds, smells of a society that was rapidly
vanishing like bathwater down a drain, she brought with her to her new world a
deep attachment to her birthplace. And this connection was strengthened by her
closeness to her parents, who were too advanced in years ever to really leave
behind what would always remain to them home.

Ms. Lagnado, however, grew up in the United States, was educated at Vassar and
became American — an American journalist at that. So her book "The Man in the
White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Cairo to the New World" is at
once a moving tale of exile and an unflinching quest for understanding that
culminated in a return to Egypt in this new millennium proving once again the
truth of that old adage: You can't go home again.

The eponymous man in the white sharkskin suit, her father, Leon, never got the
chance to see a changed Cairo again. As the Lagnados' boat left Alexandria
harbor, taking them out of Egypt forever, her father cried out in Arabic,
Roagouna Masr, take me back to Cairo, but already the city where he so
passionately longed to return was no longer that cosmopolitan mecca where he
had been a noted boulevardier, man about town, sometime gambling partner of the

As captured by his fond daughter, acknowledged to be his favorite child, Leon
was a mass of contradictions, which he somehow managed to reconcile into a way
of life in which he was absolutely at ease. A devout Jew who praised God
constantly, he observed dietary laws and was a fanatic about attending
synagogue services. The nightclubbing, gambling and roaming that occupied his
nights and the secretive but lucrative business dealings that filled his days
all came to a stop on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays.

But on the remaining days, he was as much at his ease among British officers,
who dubbed him the "Captain" and treated him as one of their own, as among the
pashas and beys who constituted the country's upper crust. Leon even appears to
have had an affair with Um Kaltum, the iconic Egyptian singer who was
considered the voice of her country.

One of the best things about "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" is the
spotlight it shines on the ruthless way in which Nasserite Egypt rid itself of
the ancient communities — Greek, French, Italian, Jewish — that had been
settled in that nation for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. As
befits a good reporter, Ms. Lagnado lays it out starkly:

"As we boarded the boat, an inspector made us sign one last official document.

"It was known as 'un Aller sans Retour' — we were promising to leave and never
come back."

Yet where was the world's outrage at this racist action, as it so rightly
condemned the similar process in apartheid South Africa? Ms. Lagnado comments
that so soon after the Holocaust, the nations of the world were careful to give
refuge to these outcasts. But for me their silence in the face of such blatant
racism is shameful.

Ms. Lagnado writes of her return to Egypt with an understandable trace of

"We had signed papers declaring we were never coming back. The Egyptian
government, hungry for Western currency and Western tourism and Western
goodwill, had seemed anxious to reassure me that I was welcome to return and to
stay as long as I wanted — even move back, if I wished. They spoke charmingly
and with apparent sincerity, as if to suggest that our family's flight in the
spring of 1963 had been due to some absurd and terrible misunderstanding they
were now eager to clear up, if only I'd let them."

It is obvious to Ms. Lagnado — and through her to her readers — just how
impoverished in every sense of the term — financial, cultural, atmospheric —
Cairo has become without those well-entrenched communities that made it such an
ebullient multi-ethnic crossroads.

It is the splendid achievement of "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" that it
does not stop at being the loving evocation of a family that it indubitably is.
Ms. Lagnado has also given us a timely and important reminder about the
unwillingness of Arab nationalism to tolerate non-Arab communities.

This not only inflicted a deep wound on the ancient cities of Cairo and
Alexandria, with tragic consequences for them and the people displaced from
their midst, but it also has wider resonances for others in the region, notably
the people of Israel and the Kurds. "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" is
full of sentiment, information and wisdom, at once deeply affecting and
profoundly disturbing.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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