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

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

by Lucette Lagnado


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The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060822187
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/01/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 153,845
Product dimensions: 7.98(w) x 5.28(h) x 0.86(d)
Lexile: 1170L (what's this?)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Prologue: A Courtship in Cairo-Spring 1943     1
The Captain Cairo, 1942-1963
The Days and Nights of the Captain     13
The Season of Apricots     33
The Lost Uncle     49
The Last Days of Tarboosh     62
The Prisoner of Malaka Nazli Street     76
The Essence of a Name     86
Alexandra in the Promised Land     97
The Arabic Lesson     104
The Lament of the Rose Petal Vendors     121
The Cure for Cat Scratch Fever     127
The Wayward Daughter     141
Last Call at the Dark Bar     149
The Exile Paris, and Then New York, 1963-1982
The Jewel Within     163
The Missing Birthday     179
The English Lesson     187
The Wrath of Sylvia Kirschner     201
The Hebrew Lesson     219
The Ballad of the Tie Salesman     237
Waiting for Elijah     249
The Captain at War     265
The House of Prayer     277
Olives     291
The Guardian of the Orphans of Jerusalem     302
Psalms for My Father     310
Epilogue: Cairo, Finally, and Again-Spring 2005     318
Acknowledgments     333
Selected Bibliography     338

What People are Saying About This

Fareed Zakaria

“Beautifully written.... A great personalized telling of Egypt’s complicated history in the last half of the 20th century.”

Michiko Kakutani

“Like André Aciman...she conjures a vanished world with elegiac ardor and uncommon grace.”

Andre Aciman

“A stunning achievement.”

Marianne Pearl

“A subtle and eloquent description of fatherly love and a mesmerizing portrait of a man shattered by the immigration experience.”

Oscar Hijuelos

“Beautifully written . . . rich with history and insight. Wonderful.”

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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. 43 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.
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.
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
I loved this book. It was beautifully written, provocative and definitely worth reading. I would recommend this to anyone I know, especially those interested in Holocaust history. I learned a tremendous amount that I didn't know about Jewish people in Egypt during that time.
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.
suesbooks on LibraryThing 5 days ago
Well-written memoir of family's life in Egypt, and their treatment by resettlement agencies in the US when forced to leave their homeland
jwhenderson on LibraryThing 5 days ago
Lucette Lagnado's moving memoir is subtitled My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. It is a story of a remarkable father and his family movingly told with the feel of a novel as you share the experiences of this family who traveled half way around the world to settle in America. Lucette Lagnado, who is a senior special writer and investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, demonstrates both her skill as a writer and an investigator.The story begins with the marriage of her parents, Leon and Edith, in wartime Cairo. As the family establishes itself after the war, the position of the Jewish community gradually deteriorates until, in the early sixties, they flee to Paris en route to their eventual destination. The strength of both parents and the details of the family's difficult journey is a story that this reader found intensely moving. The thought of being "stateless", as they were once they left Egypt, is hard to imagine. That they overcame this and survived is a tribute to their courage. This is a memoir that I will not soon forget.
RichardWalter on LibraryThing 5 days ago
The ending is certainly emotional. A lot of the book discusses minutae of family life. Interesting growing up in America with similarities to other baby boomers.
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
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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