The New York Times
The Arrogant Years: One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklynby Lucette Lagnado
“[Lagnado writes] in crystalline yet melodious prose.”
—New York Times
Lucette Lagnado’s acclaimed, award-winning The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (“[a] crushing, brilliant book” —New York Times Book Review) told the powerfully moving story of her Jewish family’s exile from Egypt/em>/em>/p>/em>
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“[Lagnado writes] in crystalline yet melodious prose.”
—New York Times
Lucette Lagnado’s acclaimed, award-winning The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (“[a] crushing, brilliant book” —New York Times Book Review) told the powerfully moving story of her Jewish family’s exile from Egypt. In her extraordinary follow-up memoir, The Arrogant Years, Lagnado revisits her first years in America, and describes a difficult coming-of-age tragically interrupted by a bout with cancer at age 16. At once a poignant mother and daughter story and a magnificent snapshot of the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, The Arrogant Years is a stunning work of memory and resilience that ranges from Cairo to Brooklyn and beyond—the unforgettable true story of a remarkable young woman’s determination to push past the boundaries of her life and make her way in the wider world.
The New York Times
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The Washington Post
Investigative reporter Lagnado (The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, 2007, etc.) compares her mother's upbringing in Cairo to her own coming-of-age in Brooklyn.
The author is a gifted storyteller who spins ordinary family experiences into enchanting fairy tales, complete with magical backdrops (the streets of Cairo, New York, and Montreal), nasty villains and dashing heroes. For the most part, Lagnado's storybook style is both inviting and endearing. By the end, though, it wears thin. Many human experiences are too complex to be reduced to happy or sad, and Lagnado's determination to cast everyone she encounters as either friend or foe grows irksome. Her descriptions of places, particularly in Egypt, are vivid and evocative, but her perspective is simplistic and her adjectives are limited; people who intimidate her are "formidable," while those she likes are "friendly" and "down-to-earth." Often her tone is unsuited to the situation or event she is describing, rendering the narrative unintentionally funny. Her decision about whether to buy Pappagallo shoes before beginning college at Vassar and whether to withdraw from Vassar sound, in her telling, equally wrenching. Although she and her family suffered genuine tragedy, Lagnado writes as if every choice, no matter how trivial or mundane, were difficult, painful and heavy with significance. It's a delight to read about the author as an impish, spirited child; her eventual transformation into a somber, self-serious adult is an unwelcome surprise. A catatonic stroke victim by the last chapter, Lagnado's brave and brilliant mother emerges as the book's true hero.
Often heavy-handed, but also tender and heartfelt.
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The Arrogant YearsOne Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn
By Lucette Lagnado
EccoCopyright © 2011 Lucette Lagnado
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Secret of
the Pasha's Wife
Cairo was never as hopeful as at that moment when its
leading feminist, Hoda Shaarawi, stepped off a train
at the Ramses station on Malaka Nazli Street and
tore off her veil in a gesture of defiance. The year was 1923, King
Fouad was in power, and there was change in the airthis
ancient city was rapidly modernizing and nowhere was that more
apparent than in the women who were asserting their freedom and
independence for the first time ever in a Muslim culture. Hoda's
friends who came to greet her were stunned by her action, but then
they, too, yanked the veils from their faces and cast them aside in
solidarity and, voilà, a liberation movement was born among the
least liberated women in the world.
A few years later, a woman lifting her veil in Cairo once again
caused an enormous stir. This time, she was made of granitea
tall formidable statue called Egypt's Awakening that depicted a
peasant girl removing the veil from her face even as her hand rested on
the head of the Sphinx.
The message was clear: The land of the pharaohs was forging a
brand-new destiny for itself.
That sense of energy and inexorable social changeof barriers
being torn down and age-old traditions being upendedwas
felt throughout Cairo of the 1920s and 1930s, even in the popular
music. The crooner and matinee idol Mohamed Abdel Wahab
was attracting enormous audiences performing songs with a
distinctly Western influence. In a shocking departure from
traditional Middle Eastern music, Abdel Wahab included a piano and
even a saxophone in his orchestra. While King Fouad was firmly
in control, there was still open and vigorous political debate and
an outspoken opposition party. As yet another sign of how
liberal the culture had become, Jews and Muslims and Christians
mixed and mingled without paying much heed to religious
Jews, in particular, had never fared better in a society that in
many ways emblemized tolerance. They were rising to the top and
becoming not simply ministers but pashas and beys. In the pecking
order of titles conferred by the king, there were effendis, a
grand honor; beys, an even grander honor; and pashas, the grandest
honor of all. Influential Jews were now involved in shaping
every sector of society, from banking to agriculture, from
commerce to education.
At Fouad's court, a womana Jewish woman, at thatnow
held more power than the queen herself and had emerged as a
favorite of the Muslim king, one of his most faithful and trusted
Madame Alice Suarez Cattaui Pasha was officially la grande
dame d' honneurchief lady-in-waiting to the court. But everyone
knew she was much more than that. Even while assisting Queen
Nazli, Madame Cattaui had become the confidante of the king, so
that she was in the unusual position of enjoying the ear of both of
King Fouad depended on this elegant older woman for her
guidance and judgment. He let her decide which visiting dignitaries
he or Nazli should receive on a particular day as well as
those minor aristocrats who could be safely ignored. When there
were dinners at the palace, she was in charge of the complex seating
arrangements. Because she effectively controlled access to the
king, deciding who sat near him and who didn't, the pasha's wife
wielded unprecedented power in Egypt.
While the poor queen, who had a very testy relationship with
Fouad, was said to be virtually a prisoner of the palace, her chief
lady-in-waiting was attending glittering soirees all over Cairo.
Madame Cattaui was seen around town at ballets and galas and
premieres. Foreign diplomats and their wives knew to call on her
and woo her because she was the gatekeeper to the throne and
could help them wangle an invitation to the palace.
Fouad himself sent her effusive notes of gratitude in French. It
was the language of the aristocracy, and truth be told, the ruler of
Egypt, so European in his tastes and manners, and fluent in Italian
as well as French, could barely speak a word of Arabic.
Of course, it wasn't her skills alone that had originally propelled
her into this position. Alice Cattaui was born into the Suarez family,
one of the wealthiest in Egypt. Her husband, the pasha, was an
engineer by training who had made his own vast fortune running the
country's lucrative sugar-refining concern, Kom Ombo. Yussef
Cattaui Pasha was a founding board member of Banque Misr, the first
Egyptian bank in a country where all the financial institutions were
foreign owned. He was also president of the Jewish community, a
mission he took to heart as did his wife, because ministering to
Cairene Jews who were destitute was part of the Cattaui heritage, and
essential to the family's sense of noblesse oblige.
The neo-Gothic "Villa Cattaui" wasn't the largest mansion in
Garden City, but it was certainly the most exotic. In this dreamlike
corner of Cairo favored by the British, it stood out for its turrets
and vaulted arches and stained-glass windows, but what made it
unique was a library that housed more than sixty thousand volumes,
handpicked by their bibliophile owner. The library was the pasha's
great love, and he had designed it to be the most sumptuous part of
the villa. It had its own wing with rows and rows of intricately
designed wooden cases; behind glass were sets of leather-bound
volumes Yussef Cattaui had acquired throughout his liferare first
editions of any and all subjects that interested him.
The pasha and his wife both entertained frequently. Madame
Cattaui was a striking figure, small with impeccable posture. Her
clothes were bought in Paris (though she did, of course, have
favored couturieres in Cairo), and she was rarely seen without her
multiple strands of pearls and the special Queen Nazli pin
encrusted with emeralds and diamonds and rubies that she wore like
a badge of honor. The brooch signified she had unfettered access
to all the royal palaces.
At home at Villa Cattaui, cooks and nannies and governesses
and housekeepers were there to attend to every need. When the
Cattauis' two grown sons, Aslan and René, got married, they had
their wives move in with them. Each brother took over a floor of
the mansion. That was the way you lived in Cairo, whether you
were in the humblest or the most elegant part of town. It was a
culture where familiesaffluent, poor, or that small percentage that
was middle classstayed together. It wasn't unusual for multiple
generations to reside under one roof, though the roof was rarely as
luxurious as the one at 8 Ibrahim Pasha Street.
The pasha's wife was in perpetual motion. The court, the
galas, the state dinners, the pressures of attending to a difficult
and headstrong queen while fulfilling her duties to the king would
have been exhausting for most human beings, but Madame
Cattaui seemed unstoppable as she raced across Cairo on one royal
mission or another.
Friday afternoon was set aside for high tea, when she received
important women passing throughthe princesses and other
members of European nobility who were visiting Egypt and craved an
audience with Queen Nazli.
Afterward, it was quiet at the Cattaui residence, as it was in
different parts of the city. Cairo was so respectful of its Jewish
population that even la bourse, the stock market, shut down in
observance of the Sabbath, as did many banks.
Sunday night, there was a festive meal at home with the family
and selected friends. Everyone dined on plates rimmed with gold,
featuring the distinctive Cattaui monogram. Guests couldn't help
noticing the grand piano in the main drawing room, which was
covered with pictures of the European aristocrats who had met
with the pasha's wife.
Madame Cattaui was completely at ease in Cairo's high society
and indeed dominated it. But she was equally committed to her
work in a very different part of Cairo, the older neighborhoods
where the Jewish communal institutions were situated. She took
a special interest in the schools the Cattaui family had founded
and were still bankrolling; her work there was as important as her
duties toward the king and the queen.
It was only a short car ride from Garden City to the heart of
Daher and Abbassiyah, yet it was a journey few residents of the
leafy villas made, at least not regularly, and that is why the pasha's
wife stood out.
She was a constant visitor to L'École Cattaui, the little Jewish
private school in Sakakini the family had founded, and which
prided itself on giving the finest and most rigorous education in
all of Cairo. She'd also go regularlyevery Tuesday in factto
the Sebil, the massive communal Jewish school that catered to
children who lacked means.
The students at the Sebil lived for Tuesdays and the glimpse
they caught of the striking woman in silk and pearls. While she
was clearly a grande dame, she had a gentle air about her. If
children looked thin, or came to school in threadbare clothing, she
would go over to them and then gently quiz their teachers. Were
they in need? Could she possibly help?
Le Sebil guaranteed a free lunch to all its students. There were
many stories of children going hungry, whose parents couldn't
afford to give them so much as a sandwich to take to class. The
school made sure they ate, though it was deeply humble fare. Come
noon, in the large dining hall, hundreds of pupils sat at long tables
with wooden benches, and the kitchen staff would arrive carrying
big steaming pots with the day's offeringsa bowl of string beans
with rice, or stewed potatoes, perhaps some lentil soup.
That was the menu day after dayexcept Tuesday. On a typical
Tuesday morning, there'd already be a buzz about lunch. If the
children heard that meat was on the menu, they'd loudly exclaim,
"Madame Cattaui is coming."
The pasha's wife would arrive, usually with one other society
woman in tow. The two would stand in the large cafeteria, carefully
inspecting what was served. The school took extra pains to
prepare a special meal those days the VIP visitors were expected.
They were the ladies of Tuesday, and they made it a point never
to sit down. The children would see them walking up and down
the long tables making sure there was enough to eat and that the
dishes were clean. If a child wasn't eating, Madame Cattaui would
coax him to finish his meal.
Once lunch was over, the children would sing the traditional
after meal hymn. But there were times a child had lost a parent
or close relative. They were encouraged to recite the Kaddish, the
Hebrew prayer for the dead. The children noticed the pasha's wife
listening intently as they prayed, and it was as if she were praying
She'd return days later and head for the courtyard. Needy children
were pulled aside by their teachersthe students who wore
torn shoes and dirty clothes and whose families lived in the ancient
Haret-el-Yahood, the Jewish ghetto.
Madame Cattaui proceeded to give out des sandalettessmall,
inexpensive leather sandals. She also distributed packets of clothing,
usually the aprons children were required to wear as a
uniformalong with notebooks and pens and any other necessities
their parents couldn't afford to buy them.
There was a solemn, ceremonial quality to the affair; it was
supposed to be discreet, but everyone at school could see what was
going on in the courtyard and follow how she handed out the allotment
of sandalettes, and which children were luckyor unlucky
enough to receive them.
When she wasn't on official duty, Alice Cattaui was a
different person. The opulent clothes and couture hats and
jewels came off and were replaced by simple black dresses; that is
what she preferred to wear at home alone, or to the market to buy
vegetables and groceries.
Now that was a task that could have been handled by the
servants, yet the pasha's wife insisted on doing it herself.
She raised her childrenthen her grandchildrenwith a
message of stoicism, self-discipline, and tough love.
"Never give in to despair," she told her granddaughter Nimet
again and again.
To her family, her behavior could be mystifying. She looked
like a woman in mourning, even on festive occasions. And that is
exactly what she wasa woman observing the death of a loved
one, except in this case the loved one had died decades earlier.
The rule at Villa Cattaui was never to talk about Indji, the only
daughter of the pasha and his wife. She was rarely mentioned by
name, yet she seemed to be everywhere, lurking in every corner
of 8 Ibrahim Pasha Street, so that the lives of all of its inhabitants
were affected by her, even the grandchildren who had never
Born in 1888, the oldest of the three Cattaui children, Indji was
doted on from the start. The photographs and portraits around the
house and in the albums attested to her privileged statusdozens
and dozens of images of a beautiful child taken from the time she
was an infant, and always, or almost always, dressed in white.
As she grew up, the outfits became ever more intricate and
luxuriant. One year, Indji posed in an Oriental costume, standing
next to a Chinese vase. A year later, she was pictured in a knee
length white dress, high-topped black shoes, and a wide-brimmed
hat, smiling mischievously.
Then came the portraits of Indji in her arrogant years. As she
grew up, her dresses became longer and more opulent and even as
a teenager, she still wore only white. In one photograph, she sat
on a throne like chair, her hair swept up in a pompadour. In 1905,
Indji Cattaui as a young girl in Cairo,
dressed as always in white.
As she turned eighteen, a French artist was commissioned to paint
her portrait. She posed standing against a ledge wearing a flowing
gown made entirely of white lace and muslin, holding in her
hand a single rose. She looked like the classic Edwardian beauty,
delicate and dreamy.
Excerpted from The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado Copyright © 2011 by Lucette Lagnado. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Born in Cairo, Lucette Lagnado and her family were forced to flee Egypt as refugees when she was a small child, eventually coming to New York. She is the author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, for which she received the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2008, and is the coauthor of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz, which has been translated into nearly a dozen foreign languages. Joining the Wall Street Journal in 1996, she has received numerous awards and is currently a senior special writer and investigative reporter. She and her husband, Douglas Feiden, reside in Sag Harbor and New York City.
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Interesting reading, well written. Very enjoyable if you are interested in different times and cultures.
Almost inconceivable that Lagnado could surpass "Man in the White Sharkskin Suit," but she does exactly that in this haunting and heartbreaking companion memoir. Every single chapter -- no, make that every single page -- seems to grab the reader by the throat, or at least by the lapels, and cast its spell with some of the language's most magical and mesmerizing prose. You don't have to be Sephardic, you don't have to be Jewish, you don't even have to be a fan of "The Avengers" and Emma Peel in her black leather jumpsuit (although it helps) to love this captivating and hypnotic saga of a family that once upon a time in Egypt dined with Kings, created libraries for Pashas -- and then became pariahs and outcasts and wounded birds and broken refugees washed up on the shores of the New World. And yes, I'm a biased critic -- I'm the husband of the author, a (fairly minor) character in her new book, and one who had the supreme pleasure of hearing every single chapter of "The Arrogant Years" read aloud during its creation in Manhattan, Montreal, Sag Harbor, Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris, London, Geneva and Milan. -- Douglas Feiden, New York City
This is not one story but several. Ms. Lagnado has not only revealed a rich (but largely neglected) history of Egyptian Jews; she has provided a personal, sometimes painful examination of the changing roles of women as that society experienced serial exoduses. To her credit, the narrative is almost free of nostalgia, but it's difficult to finish this book without grieving the losses.
Great sequel to "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit."
Good to read the Arrogant Years after the Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. I don't think many people realize how horrible Nassar was to the Egyptian Jews, literally forcing them out of the only home they knew and how many had terrible times trying to assimilate into the American culture once they were allowed to emigrate.
I found this book to be very informative. It would be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about Jews living in Cairo in the early 20th Century. What I found fascinating is that up until the State of Israel was established, the Jews in Egypt lived with the Moslems and the Copts in harmony. As a matter of fact, the Jews, although practicing their own religion seemed to live more in a Moslem tradition. When this family moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, they really felt like fish out of water. Reading about Lucette's growing up, and about her family was interesting and sometimes frustrating.
The Arrogant Years is the other side of the autobiographical coin minted in Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. I recommend reading both, and in the order written. The Arrogant Years is a much more mature and sophisticated reminiscence than its predecessor. It is better written. Where The Man in the Sharkskin Suit focuses on Lucette's father and their relationship, to the detriment of her mother, The Arrogant Years focuses on her mother and their relationship, to the detriment of her father. A reader who wants a more complete picture of Lagnado's life and family, needs to read both and then try to knit them together -- there are gaps and contradictions. That said, the books are moving and informative, each well worth reading for its picture of the less well-known diaspora of the Levantine Jews.
Love memoirs, the most favorite of all to read, and I read probably 100 per year on average. Oh my this book was a joy to read because of the description and writing. Such a beautiful book. It explains history of the Jewish people who had to leave Egypt during Nasser's rule. And the times that the author lived in. You might as well get ready because it is so moving and poignant, you will not be able to put it down. An exceptional work of art.