The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2007-01-01
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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In vivid and graceful prose, Lucette Lagnado re-creates the majesty and cosmopolitan glamour of Cairo in the years between World War II and Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to power. Her father, Leon, was a boulevardier who conducted business on the elegant terrace of Shepheard's Hotel, and later, in the cozy, dark bar of the Nile Hilton, dressed in his signature white sharkskin suit. But with the fall of King Farouk and Nasser's nationalization of Egyptian industry, Leon and his family lose everything. As streets are renamed, neighborhoods of their fellow Jews disbanded, and the city purged of all foreign influence, the Lagnados, too, must make their escape. With all of their belongings packed into twenty-six suitcases, their jewels and gold coins hidden in sealed tins of marmalade, Leon and his family depart for any land that will take them. The poverty and hardships they encounter in their flight from Cairo to Paris to New York are strikingly juxta-posed against the beauty and comforts of the lives they left behind.


The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World

Chapter One

The Days and Nights of the Captain

On the first Thursday night of every month, Cairo grew completely still as every man, from the pashas in their palaces to the fellahin in their hovels, huddled by the radio and motioned to their wives and children not to disturb them. It was the night when Om Kalsoum, the Nightingale of the Nile, the greatest singer Egypt had ever known, broadcast live from a theater in the Ezbekeya section, her voice so transcendent and evocative that her fans could picture exactly how she looked as she came out onto the stage, enveloped in the lush white lace dress that softened and transformed her features.

This daughter of a village sheik had a cult following—porters and potentates, the intellectual elite and the illiterate masses, the beggars and the king—especially the king. But the most passionate audience for her songs about lost love and unrequited love and love forsaken weren't starry-eyed housewives but their husbands and brothers and grown sons.

To them, she was simply al-Sitt, the Lady.

She'd begin promptly at nine, fluttering her white voile handkerchief this way and that. Since each of her songs could last half an hour or more, her concerts went on well past midnight. "In the Name of Love," "What Is Left for Me?" "Tomorrow, I Leave," or her poignant classic "Ana Fintezarak"—"I Am Waiting for You"—they had heard these songs a thousand times, yet they still found them enrapturing, especially the verses that she would repeat over and over, each time with a slightly different inflection, a varied tempo, a changed mood.

It was the only night my father didn't leave the house or even his chair. He'd sit as close as possible to the radio, unable to pull himself away.

In the years before he met Edith, my father led the life of a consummate bachelor. He was rarely home, and when he left the apartment on Malaka Nazli Street he shared with his mother, Zarifa, and his young nephew, Salomone, it was not to return till dawn. His womanizing was the stuff of legend, as much a part of his mystique as his white suits, and there were countless other women before my mother, including, some whispered, the Diva.

Except for Friday nights, he didn't even bother to stay for supper. If he came back at all after work, it was to go immediately to his room and dress for the evening ahead, an elaborate ritual that he seemed to enjoy almost as much as what the night held in store.

He was meticulous and more than a little vain. He had assembled a wardrobe made by Cairo's finest tailors in every possible fabric—linen, Egyptian cotton, English tweed, vicuna, along with shirts made of silk imported from India. There were also the sharkskin suits and jackets he favored above all others, especially to wear at night. These were carefully hung in a corner of the closet, and if the local macwengi, or presser, dared to bring back a pair of trousers without the crease or fold exactly so, Leon would berate him and make him redo the job.

He always wore a diamond ring, and for the evening, he would add a tie clip in the shape of a horseshoe. White gold, encrusted with several diamonds, the clip was his good-luck talisman, and like all men who enjoy the shuffle of a deck of cards and the spin of the roulette wheel, my father was a firm believer in lucky charms.

His final act was to dab the eau de cologne Arlette on his hands and neck and temple. It was a popular, locally made aftershave with a fresh citrusy scent that conjured the Mediterranean. Long after he'd left, the house still bore what the Egyptians would call, in their characteristic mixture of French and Arabic, le zeft du citron—the waft of lemon.

As he went out, Salomone, my teenage cousin from Milan, would poke his head from behind the novel he was reading to bid him good night, a tad enviously perhaps, and Zarifa would kiss both his cheeks lovingly but with some reproach in her magnificent blue eyes.

My grandmother came from Aleppo, the ancient city in Syria whose culture was far more rigid and conservative than Cairo's. She was troubled by her son's nightly forays and the fact he was still unattached and showed no desire whatsoever to settle down. Even now, in his forties, his restlessness continued to get the better of him. Until Edith, he never brought a woman home to Malaka Nazli, as that would mean she was the chosen one, and he had no desire to choose.

My father was a study in motion, taking long, brisk military strides early each morning to get from the house to his synagogue, then on to his business meetings, his cafés, and in the evening, his poker game and his dancing and his women. Because he tried to stay out of the house as much as possible, how convenient that his bedroom was at the front, facing Malaka Nazli, the wide, graceful boulevard named in honor of Queen Nazli, Farouk's mother. Because his room was only a couple of feet away from the door, he could slip in and out as he pleased.

Years later, I would hear that the lustrous lady of song, the devoutly Muslim Om Kalsoum, who was raised in a remote village where her dad had been the imam, had been my father's mistress. It was one of the many stories that persisted about my dad's prowess with women before and likely after he was married.

What I heard not simply about his womanizing but about every sphere of his life had a mythic quality, so outsize as to seem apocryphal. There was the fanatical devotion to religion and the hedonistic streak that compelled him to venture out in search of all that Cairo had to offer. There was the . . .

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World
. Copyright © by Lucette Lagnado. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette M. Lagnado
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