Lucette Lagnado: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
Anne de Groot
history, different ethnic and religious groups have inhabited Egypt; some for brief
periods, others for centuries. The country has attracted influxes of new residents
because of its rich history, business opportunities and climate. The
Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is about the Jewish Lagnado family that resided
in Cairo until the sixties.
story is told by Loulou, the youngest kid in the family of six. The title
refers to her father Leon, who always used to dress in a white sharkskin suit.
The story starts long before Loulou was born, even before her parents met. She recounts
her mother’s family history; a rich family from Alexandria that disowned her
mother after marrying her father, and her father’s family, who came from Aleppo
in Syria and were very influential there.
mother grew up rather poor in the Sakakini district of Cairo, whereas her father
made good money – although how he made it is never clear – and he enjoyed the
Cairo upper class life. According to Loulou, her father actually dated musical
legend Om Kolthoum once upon a time and he used to play card games with King
Farouk in one of Cairo’s many casinos. One of the strangest incidents in the
book is perhaps where Loulou’s grandfather sells her uncle, a baby at the time,
at the souk because they don’t have enough money to feed all of their children.
starts in Cairo and gives a vivid description of what the town was like under
the rule of King Farouk. However, after the creation of Israel and the Egyptian
revolution in 1952, life became more difficult for Jews in Egypt. Most of them
packed up and left but Leon was so in love with Cairo that he refused to
leave. Eventually, after Loulou’s oldest sister is arrested; they see no other
way than to leave the country and their beloved apartment on Queen Nazli Street
(now Ramsis Street). Travelling via Paris, the family eventually ends up in New
York where they find it hard to assimilate. Their oriental mindset is worlds
away from the New York mindset of the sixties. The family is now poor, and struggles
to survive in the harsh, unwelcoming Western world.
gives very rare insight into a Jewish Egyptian’s experience in such
definitive times. While the story flows well, some parts are a little boring
such as the New York City part. Leon is a wonderful persona, and the author
excels at capturing his feelings of pain and anguish over leaving the good life
in Cairo for the cold world of Brooklyn.
Whereas the first part in Egypt is
very interesting for all Cairo history lovers, the second part in New York
gives insight into the struggles that immigrants faced. It also directly points
out the differences between the East and West and why they are so difficult to
combine; the conversations between Leon and the social worker are especially interesting.
We learn his point of view and how she interprets his opinions in return. It
might have been set in the sixties but it is highly relevant for today’s times.
Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is an absolute must read if you want to know more about Cairo’s
forgotten history. The book reads fairly easy and keeps captivating until the