The Arrogant Years: One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn by Lucette Lagnado
[Lagnado writes] in crystalline yet melodious prose. New York Times
Lucette Lagnados 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 familys 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 beyondthe unforgettable true story of a remarkable young womans determination to push past the boundaries of her life and make her way in the wider world.
Lucette Lagnado is the coauthor of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. She is a senior special writer and investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She resides with her husband, Douglas Feiden, in Sag Harbor and New York City.
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The Arrogant Years
One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn By Lucette Lagnado
The 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 differences. 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 advisers. 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 Egypt's monarchs. 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 with them. 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 known her. 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.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to take this entrancing literary ride…. The Arrogant Years is a lovely book, sad and hilarious by turn, written with love of life, and an enormous affection for language. You will love it too.”
“In the radiant presence of Lucette Lagnado herselfand in The Arrogant Years, her moving and unsparingly revelatory second memoir… we have honesty as purity of style, and lucidity as burning emotion, and history as an enduring hymn to resilience.”
Arrogant Years 3.8 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
Interesting reading, well written. Very enjoyable if you are interested in different times and cultures.
More than 1 year ago
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
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
Great sequel to "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit."
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
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.
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