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."

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Article by Adam Rosen

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