I switched continents last week when I read The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Ecco, 2007), Lucette Lagnado’s epic memoir of her Jewish Egyptian family and their riches to rags exodus to the US.
Right from the beginning of the book, I was drawn into 1940s Cairo–cafe turque, pastries, dried apricots, posh department stores, and grand architecture. Lagnado’s family lived among Cairo’s elite. Her father was a businessman, but the kind of business he actually engaged in always seemed a bit fuzzy. Her mother stayed at home with her mother-in-law and nephew by marriage. Four children and an ousted king later, the family found they were no longer welcome in Egypt.
Worse still, when they left Egypt for the US, they were only allowed to bring out US$200 and all the clothes they could carry. Arriving in New York during the dead of winter, the Lagnado family was in for a rude awakening. Literally. Their relatives in the New York area neither met them at the airport nor visited them in their transient hotel while they awaited permanent accommodations.
No matter their struggles, the family didn’t give up. Lagnado’s parents, Edith and Leon, tried to remain faithful to their religion while their children, some more drastic than others, assimilated into American teenagers typical of the 1960s.
I’d heard about the Jews of Egypt, but always pictured the community more on the periphery of society. Like petty merchants who sell their ware from pushcarts along crumbling brick side streets. But according to Lagnado, the Jewish community in Egypt thrived and enjoyed equal status with their well-off Christian and Muslim brethren.