The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

3.4 40
by Lucette Lagnado

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Lucette Lagnado's father, Leon, is a successful Egyptian businessman and boulevardier who, dressed in his signature white sharkskin suit, makes deals and trades at Shepherd's Hotel and at the dark bar of the Nile Hilton. After the fall of King Farouk and the rise of the Nasser dictatorship, Leon loses everything and his family is forced to flee, abandoning a life

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Lucette Lagnado's father, Leon, is a successful Egyptian businessman and boulevardier who, dressed in his signature white sharkskin suit, makes deals and trades at Shepherd's Hotel and at the dark bar of the Nile Hilton. After the fall of King Farouk and the rise of the Nasser dictatorship, Leon loses everything and his family is forced to flee, abandoning a life once marked by beauty and luxury to plunge into hardship and poverty, as they take flight for any country that would have them.

A vivid, heartbreaking, and powerful inversion of the American dream, Lucette Lagnado's unforgettable memoir is a sweeping story of family, faith, tradition, tragedy, and triumph set against the stunning backdrop of Cairo, Paris, and New York.

Winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and hailed by the New York Times Book Review as a "brilliant, crushing book" and the New Yorker as a memoir of ruin "told without melodrama by its youngest survivor," The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit recounts the exile of the author's Jewish Egyptian family from Cairo in 1963 and her father's heroic and tragic struggle to survive his "riches to rags" trajectory.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
In The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit Ms. Lagnado—an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal—gives us a deeply affecting portrait of her family and its journey from wartime Cairo to the New World. Like Andre Aciman in his now classic memoir, Out of Egypt (1994), she conjures a vanished world with elegiac ardor and uncommon grace, and like Mr. Aciman she calculates the emotional costs of exile with an unsentimental but forgiving eye. This is not simply the story of a well-to-do family’s loss of its home, its privileges and its identity. It is a story about how exile indelibly shapes people’s views of the world, a story about the mathematics of familial love and the wages of memory and time.
—The New York Times
Miami Herald
Lagnado, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, wrote eloquently about her family's exodus from Cairo to New York, exposing an untold story of almost a million Jewish refugees forced to leave their homes and striking a chord with readers across the world.
—Connie Ogle
The Washington Times
We have a writer who looks at old Egypt from a unique point of view that combines the insiderishness and deeply felt insights of the native with the hard-edged realism of the probing, intelligent outsider...It is the splendid achievement of "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" that it does not stop at being the loving evocation of a family that it indubitably is. Ms. Lagnado has also given us a timely and important reminder about the unwillingness of Arab nationalism to tolerate non-Arab communities.

This not only inflicted a deep wound on the ancient cities of Cairo and Alexandria, with tragic consequences for them and the people displaced from their midst, but it also has wider resonances for others in the region, notably the people of Israel and the Kurds. "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" is full of sentiment, information and wisdom, at once deeply affecting and profoundly disturbing.
—Martin Rubin
The Jewish Week
The strength of this memoir is in the writer's prose, at once graceful and powerful. Reporting on her father with the awe of a child and the wisdom of a grown-up, she manages to make the reader understand his charm and foibles and her love for him, and to feel his loss deeply. She also captures her extended family and the complexities of their lives and longings with depth and compassion. She joins memoirists Andre Aciman ("Out of Egypt") and Gini Alhadeff ("The Sun at Midday") in writing lyrical, personal books that are important documents of communities that have been extinguished.
—Sandee Brawarksy
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
...the reality of the Lagnados' fate is so far from the triumphalism that Americans have come to expect from immigrant narratives - is one of many reasons to read this crushing, brilliant book...In this book, she so effortlessly captures the characters in her family, and the Egyptian metropolis around them, that the reader may fail to notice the overwhelming research buttressing this story. But then you stumble upon a wonderfully vivid detail: the kind of stove used by her grandmother, what her mother was drinking when she met Leon, the exact menu of the elaborate meals served to a relative struck with pleurisy.
—Alana Newhouse
Kirkus Reviews
Bittersweet memoir unveils a nearly forgotten era of Jewish-Muslim affinity in the streets of Egypt's capital. "The Jews of Aleppo were a breed apart," writes Wall Street Journal reporter Lagnado of her father's origins, "intensely Jewish, intensely Arab." The author documents her almost fairy-tale upbringing in a Syrian family that fled to Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. Her father Leon was himself a contradiction, she recalls: a French speaker in the bosom of his family, fluent in street Arabic, yet charmingly conversant in English with the British officers with whom he socialized. While a devout attendee at morning prayers and Friday synagogue, he remained an energetic nocturnal boulevardier even after marriage to the much younger Edith. King Farouk's almost bizarrely cosmopolitan Cairo served as Leon's carefree adult playground throughout World War II and the following decade. The author, born in 1956 into a marriage strained to the breaking point, developed a bond with her father that enabled her to experience through his sad eyes the gradual dissolution of cultural harmony among Cairo's Arabs, Jews and leftover colonials. One of her cherished icons was Groppi's, an incomparable French patisserie in the heart of the city. But the 1956 Nasser coup was followed by war with the still-new State of Israel, and migration became the inevitable fate of Cairo's Jews. The Lagnados eventually departed for New York, where Leon, his world exploded, was finally forced to face the 20th century. Nostalgic but objectively tempered portrait of a family at the heart of social and cultural upheaval. Agent: Tracy Brown/Wendy Sherman Associates

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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 aslightly 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.

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Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
mayaTD More than 1 year ago
My heart went out to this family for all that they went through as refugees from egypt who never really made roots in america.It was a sad account.However i was not that impressed with the writing skills of ms Lagnado.I kept having the feeling that she wanted to glorify her father and that her accounts were not so accurate.For example,they lived in a rented apartment in egypt and owned practically nothing,yet she contradicts herself regarding that matter in the book,and appears to be over glorifying what they left behind.
judyjudyjudyredhook More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended for my book club. I found the writing very ordinary. The author changes person throughout the book. Her father is Leon, Father, Dad, my father; her mother is Edith, Mother, Mom, my mother. I began the book with high hopes. The presmise is new, Jews from Egypt treated badly. However, after about fifty pages, it became repetitive and banal.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this book held my is a book about the incredible lives and resiliance of a family forced to leave all that was dear to them--each member of the family beautifully chronicled. Ms. Lagnardo is a wonderful (non-fiction) story teller--I read it for my book club (best choice) and recommend it to everyone including my Mom... (The photos were a great addition and added so much to the narrative).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Engrossing. Lagnado's depiction of old Cairo is mesmerizing and so evocative. Her depiction of her parents as immigrants in a strange land - Brooklyn -- is so authentic and absolutely familiar to any reader who has also emigrated to this country as a very young child.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was really by chance that I picked this book up off the shelf. I was drawn to the family photos on the front cover and sat down to start immediately with Chapter One. I finished the book in three days and was so moved by the writing that I had to email Ms. Lagnado to share with her my thoughts and how her book moved me. The tone of the book, while not bubbly or happy, was very comforting to me. Right from the start, you are taken on this journey into Ms. Lagnado's parents' lives, and through her words, you sense the beauty of Cairo. She offers such fantastic memories of what Malaka Nazli represented for her, the tradition of her family, journey to America and settling down in Brooklyn as new immigrants but bringing some of the old world tradition, and most of all, the bond between her and her father, Leon. And for a reader to feel all this love, the love of their tradition, love of their home, and love between father and daughter, is a very moving experience. This is one of those rare books that I will treasure, and read and re-read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I can't remember the last time a story affcted me so deeply. Perhaps because the father-daughter relationship so closely resembled my own experience with a father who recently died. the tears came pouring down. Since the reader becomes so intimately involved with the members of Ms.Lagnado's family, one wonders how they are all doing today - a postscript would have been welcome. I would aslo have liked an explanation of her acceptance to Vaasar considering the family's limited finances. I can only surmise that with her obvious intelligence and abilities, a scholarship is the answer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a very enjoyable and informative story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book.  It reminded me of how difficult it is to be an immigrant in America--and to think about what my own immigrant ancestors must have gone through to create the life that I now benefit from in America.  It was a slice of history -- the Jews from Cairo--that I knew nothing about.  It was also a beautiful tribute by a daughter to her somewhat difficult father; full of understanding and acceptance of what he was instead of anger over what he wasn't.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing book.
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cozylibrarian More than 1 year ago
Loved it! Learned so much about Egyptian history around WWII.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was extremely readible and informative. I liked it so much that I just ordered her next book, The Arrogant Years.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TeechTX More than 1 year ago
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is one side of the autobiographical coin that has Lagnado's The Arrogant Years as its reverse side. I recommend reading both books, and in the order written. This book is a much less mature and sophisticated reminiscence than its successor. It is not as well written even though it is quite engaging. 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 betwen them. 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 and of women's lives in this era.
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