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July 20, 2009

A Modern-Day Exodus

Lucette Lagnado's family included some of the the last Jews of Egypt. The reporter and memoirist mulls a life wedged between East and West.

Adam Rosen

The cacophony of his name notwithstanding, Yehezkel Sassoon isn't an entirely peculiar figure. Sassoon, the inaugural finance minister of Iraq—a political entity pared from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire—was Jewish. At the outbreak of WWI, Jews made up roughly one third of the Baghdad population. Iraq, Morocco, Syria, Egypt; while Ukranian peasants were catching cholera in the Lower East Side, these countries hosted some of the most successful Jews who ever lived.

The fraying end of this presently unimaginable world is the setting for The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, a memoir by Lucette Lagnado, an Egyptian-born investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Published in 2007, Sharkskin, which recounts the Lagnados' flight from a life of boulevardiering to one of any other laboring Brooklyn immigrant family, won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which, with a $100,000 payout, is quite a prize. Arabic language rights have just been sold to a small Egyptian publisher, and despite a pittance of an advance, Lagnado says, "it makes me wildly happy that the book will be in the language of my father, and sold to ordinary Egyptians."

Lucette Lagnado. Photo by Kathryn Szoka.
"I don't even know what the hell I am anymore, especially because of this book."

Lucette Lagnado. Photo by Kathryn Szoka.

"Sharkskin suit" refers to the finery favored by Lagnado's father, Leon, a man who hobnobbed with the king and bedded legendary Egyptian singer Om Kalsoum. Though as the Jews of the Levant went, so went Leon Lagnado. His family's 1963 departure from Egypt—or, as he saw it, civilization—came when he was already feeble, and augured his inexorable decline.

In the op-ed section of the Journal on Father's Day 2004, Lagnado published a requiem for her father's thwarted dreams. A literary agent contacted her, and after signing with the Ecco imprint, she took a year-long book leave to travel and pore over her family's past. Lagnado is again on book leave, having secured a sequel with Ecco that will pick up where Sharkskin left off, to be called The Arrogant Years. Gelf spoke by phone with the Upper East Side resident, who reflected on her (possibly) irrational love for Egypt, gaining acceptance into the famously closed Syrian-American Jewish community, and the vicissitudes of memoir-writing. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think people were surprised to learn that, not too long ago, significant numbers of Jews lived in countries such as Iraq and Egypt?

Lucette Lagnado: I think it's amazing, the ignorance and lack of knowledge. I figure my book's been out two years now, and everyone is always shocked or amazed. It's like this bizarre anomaly in history lessons, that nobody really knows the story of the Jews of the Levant. I could be political about it, but I don't want to be political; I think my book has worked, knock on wood, because I've been strictly apolitical. But it really does make one wonder why—why one flock of refugees has been absolutely, totally ignored. They're not in anybody's consciousness—the Jews don't talk about them, and the Arabs don't talk about them. That's what I mean by "erasure."

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think that is?

Lucette Lagnado: On one level, it was the refugees themselves—my family—[whose] idea was to go on, to make new lives for themselves wherever they went. What happened to the 80,000 Jews of Egypt? They're all emailing me. I get emails from Adelaide, Australia, and I wonder, how did Egyptian Jews get to Adelaide, for God's sake? But they went everywhere: Adelaide, Geneva, Rio, London, Manchester, Paris, anywhere you can think of. Some of them didn't survive, but their children did. You made a new identity for yourself, you learned the language wherever you were, and you laid low. And you didn't really talk about Egypt. You didn't really talk about it because nobody would understand, anyway. Even growing up in Brooklyn—there's a line in my book where I was told not to say that I was born in Egypt, but to say that I was French—Americans would imagine you to be sort of primitive, to come from a culture where you're between tents and a pyramid.

On the other side, the Arab countries themselves, they sure didn't want to remind the world that they had had Jews in their midst. That would contradict their venom about Jews in Israel, anyway. And number two, they sort of wanted to erase the past. So nobody talked about it. Frankly, I've spoken before some of the most gilded, educated, knowledgeable audiences in the world, where people are professionals and have extraordinary jobs, and they didn't know. They didn't know that once upon a time there was this world, and it wasn't primitive in the least. It was the opposite. It was a more cosmopolitan culture than downtown New York.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel any affinity toward Egypt?

Lucette Lagnado: I'm crazy about it. Cairo is the city of my father; Egypt is my country. It really, really is. I suppose I have a dual-identity…I'm American, Brooklyn-bred, whatever. But I'm not. I was born in Cairo, and it was the city that shaped my father, my parents, my upbringing, my soul. So I go back, and I'm treated wonderfully, magnificently. I did a signing at this very cool bookstore in Cairo, and all these cosmopolitan expat-types, straight out of the pages of my book, came out to hear me, and they were marvelous and embracing. So there's that experience. And I go always back, obsessively, to the apartment [Lagnado grew up in], which is terribly run down now.

Gelf Magazine: There's no difficulty in reconciling your present enjoyment of the country with the circumstances that forced you to leave it?

Lucette Lagnado: Fair question. Absolutely: You would think that I would be angry, or bitter, whatever. "We had to leave this country, they were terrible, and my poor father never got over it" would be one way to look at it. Somehow, maybe illogically, this has never been the way I've looked at it. Because, in my upbringing, my father never berated the Egyptians for forcing us to leave. He mostly mourned his life in America, his inability to make his way here, what he thought was the inferior quality of life here compared to the life he had lived in Egypt. He never "made it" here, and I would argue that he was pretty much destroyed here. To answer your question, do I feel resentful when I go? I honestly don't. I suppose I could, or I should, but I don't. I really love going back.

Gelf Magazine: If Israel—and the attendant political fallout from its creation—wasn't in the picture, do you still see your family living in Egypt?

Lucette Lagnado: I suppose the answer is, yes, if there was no Israel, the Jews would've remained in Egypt, and we would've all gone our way happily ever after, I suppose. But the reverse to that is, there was an Israel created, and one of the terrible tragedies is that the Arab countries mistook their Jewish populations, and forgot they sort of liked us and we got along famously for decades and decades. They mixed up Israeli with Jew. My parents didn't have an Israeli identity—they were Egyptian Jews. But we all had to leave anyway.
Coming full circle—and again I don't wish to bring up politics, but I will say this—for the record, we've been aware for upwards of 50 to 60 years of one group of refugees that was created as a result of the establishment of Israel. And properly so. We should know about the Palestinians. But what's extraordinary to me is that we have known nothing about an equally-sized, equally-pained group of refugees that was a result of the creation of Israel. So my feeling is, as a trained investigative reporter, is that there are two stories here, not one, that there are two narratives, not one. And it has been grossly unfair to have one story and not the other story. And that's about as far as I'll go.

Gelf Magazine: Do you consider yourself Arab?

Lucette Lagnado: I don't even know what the hell I am anymore, especially because of this book. I had an amazing encounter in Cairo: An Egyptian English-language newspaper had a headline that said, "The Immigrant Comes Home." And I was interviewed by this lovely Egyptian woman, who said, "You are Egyptian. You are as Egyptian as I am." Well, you know, I was born there, I'm an American citizen, I didn't have Egyptian citizenship, but that doesn't not make me Egyptian. I guess I'm both; my book is both, and I hope my next book is both, the sensibility always Cairo-New York, New York-Cairo, one as much as the other, if that makes sense.

Gelf Magazine: The largest group of Levantine Jews in New York City is of Syrian descent, and are known for the deep insularity of their Brooklyn community. Is there any sort of pan-Arab Jewish solidarity, or do you feel as just as much an outsider to this community as, say, an Ashkenazi Jew?

Lucette Lagnado: I didn't know how the book was going to play with those guys. I have a line in there—and I was obsessing that somebody would focus on it and dismiss the whole book—where my mother actually tells me as a little girl, "Loulou, never marry a Syrian." I thought they'd read that and hate me, but they didn't. They were slower than the Ashkenazi community in embracing me and Sharkskin. But when they reached out to me, it was incredible. I think it remains the single most amazing event I ever had, at the Sephardic Jewish Center on Ocean Parkway, where there was a banner on the building about my book. I went in, and there were 500 people or more, and a Syrian band and a singer, and they had an entire banquet table with every single Syrian pastry imaginable, labeled—as if I really needed the label—and I was embraced and treated like a rock star. There were men who I call the "textile brokers from Brooklyn," who maybe didn't read a lot of books. But they read this book.

Gelf Magazine: Uncharacteristically of the rest of the book, your comment on Sylvia Kirschner, your HIAS social worker, comes off as particularly severe. Why is this? It would seem that now, full-on New Yorker as you are, you'd be more willing to empathize with her decidedly contemporary values.

Lucette Lagnado: You would think, wouldn't you? And you would be wrong. In these lectures of mine, I always encounter what I call "ghosts." Ghosts from the past, ghosts from the book. There's always somebody, no matter where, some weird person I didn't expect. The best example is the grandson of our first landlord in Brooklyn. So did the baby in [one of the book photos]—he showed up to one of my lectures, a six-foot-tall rabbi with a beard! I've always thought, one day, some relative or descendant of poor Sylvia Kirschner will come to one of my lectures and will stand up and denounce me and say, "You were mercilessly and unfairly cruel to my mother (or grandmother)." But do I think I was overly harsh? No. We suffered because of her. I think she totally meant well, and as a supposedly modern woman I've become, do I appreciate her more and her views for women to be independent and men not to be so patriarchal? In theory I do, but in reality, I guess I'm my father's daughter. I didn't think she was very kind.

"The way to tell this tragedy was to tell it through one person, through my father, and his decline, and his inability to cope after Cairo."
Gelf Magazine: Was there that much more pressure, since this was the book you'd been meaning to write, to make sure things came out perfectly?

Lucette Lagnado: I suppose there would've been pressure anyway, but the point is that I didn't care; I didn't want to do any other books, I wanted to do this book. So when I got the opportunity to do it, I did nothing else. I worked all the time, and spent all of my money. I got a little advance, which was used up very quickly, because the book required extensive traveling. But it didn't matter, because the whole goal was to re-create this lost culture of mine. A culture where, once upon a time, you had this country in the Middle East, the heart of the Arab world, and you had Jews, and Muslims, and Christians coexisting rather wonderfully well. From all I've been able to tell, a truly magical society. And its sort-of erasure from the face of the earth was a tragedy, I've always felt. But the way to tell that tragedy was to tell it through one person, through my father, and his decline, and his inability to cope after Cairo. And that was really the framework of the book, the decline and fall of a family.

Gelf Magazine: Within the past few years, there's been quite a bit of handwringing surrounding the "memoir" genre. Did this affect your writing?

Lucette Lagnado: I set out with a rather difficult task. I'm an investigative reporter by training; I have meticulous standards as an investigative reporter for the Journal. You've got to double-check, and quadruple-check, and have documentary sources for any assertion you make in a story. I came to Sharkskin with that kind of experience. So the question became—because I didn't stop being an investigative reporter overnight—how do you bring those standards to this sort of undertaking? And there's no right answer. At a major level, I was the investigative reporter on my own past.
I can say this categorically: I spared no expense. I ran through my savings accounts to research anyone who had known my father and family. At the end of the day, there was still, obviously, a doubt. Ultimately, though, a lot of the book, at least the Egypt stuff, where it involves me directly, was really my perceptions as a child, because that was the strongest way to tell the story. It's told really in the feelings of a little girl named Loulou, who's almost like a separate person from me, even though she's me. The exile is seen through her terms. She misses her cat, Pouspous. She misses her school. She misses going to the pastry shop. So that's how I tried to reconcile the difficulties inherent in the memoir, and the fact that I was an investigative reporter for the Journal. I did whatever was in my power to report the past.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.







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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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