The Man in the White Shark­skin Suit: My Fam­i­ly’s Exo­dus From Old Cairo to the New World

By – November 9, 2011

The Man in the White Shark­skin Suit, Lucette Lagnado’s mem­oir, is at once an ele­gy to Cairo and an ele­gy to her father. Cairo in the 1940’s was hailed as the Paris of Africa, where wealthy mul­ti­cul­tur­al cit­i­zens min­gled in dance halls and French cafes, Jews and Arabs lived in har­mo­ny, where no self-respect­ing bel­ly-dancer would ever think of mak­ing an appear­ance until the stroke of mid­night,” and even Farouk, the spoiled boy king of Egypt, was known to make appear­ances skirt­ing off the pret­ti­est women. Leon, Lagnado’s father, was as much an embod­i­ment of the nightlife as any­thing else, suave, charis­mat­ic, a forty-year old bach­e­lor known as The Cap­tain” with a flair for expen­sive white shark­skin suits. His sin­gle life comes to an abrupt end when he pro­pos­es to Lagnado’s moth­er at their first meet­ing and a rocky mar­riage ensues. The sit­u­a­tion dete­ri­o­rates fur­ther when rev­o­lu­tion takes Egypt, and the fam­i­ly is forced to flee, first to Paris and then to Amer­i­ca. There, in Amer­i­ca, in a reverse of the immi­grant dream, Leon tru­ly fails, becom­ing a reli­gious recluse, spend­ing ten to twelve hours in the syn­a­gogue pray­ing into a tat­tered red prayer book. Despite the heart­break, what emerges from this haunt­ing mem­oir is a sin­gle scene of a dash­ing fig­ure dressed in white, scent­ed with cit­rus fla­vored after­shave, step­ping out into the bustling Cairo night. Like The Lost before it, The Man in the White Shark­skin Suit is a haunt­ing por­trait of a for­got­ten peo­ple, a for­got­ten place, and a for­got­ten time.

Michael Orbach is a free­lance writer and the edi­tor of 72nd Avenue, a Queens Col­lege publication.

Discussion Questions

1. Author Lagna­do ded­i­cates her book in part to the mem­o­ry of her par­ents yet does Leon emerge as a sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter at the end — in spite of his flaws — or are his tres­pass­es and lib­er­tine ways — not to men­tion his ill­treat­ment of his wife — sim­ply unfor­giv­able to any enlight­ened reader? 

2. Loulou seems wist­ful about the life she left behind, and she casts a sen­ti­men­tal eye on the rela­tions between Jews and Moslems in this cor­ner of the Arab world, cer­tain­ly as they co-exist­ed in her par­ents’ era; and even when she returns, while she notes the phys­i­cal decay in Egypt, she sees only love and sweet­ness in the Egyp­tians that she meets. Is this a cred­i­ble por­trait of Arab-Jew­ish rela­tions in post‑9/​11 world and also why is she not acknowl­edg­ing the bit­ter­ness and anger that her fam­i­ly almost sure­ly felt and con­tin­ued to feel after being pushed to leave Egypt? 

3. Lagna­do casts a cold eye on the Amer­i­can Dream. Is this a fair por­tray­al of the shat­tered hopes of an immi­grant fam­i­ly, and is it fair on Lagnado’s part to dis­miss what Amer­i­ca has giv­en her and her family. 

4. Lagna­do casts a ruth­less eye on the Amer­i­can health sys­tem, its hos­pi­tals and in par­tic­u­lar its nurs­ing homes. The Jew­ish Home and Hos­pi­tal is seen as a cru­el uncar­ing facil­i­ty that devotes more love on its fish than its patients; Mt. Sinai Med­ical Cen­ter in New York is seen as infe­ri­or to the Demer­dash Hos­pi­tal in Cairo. How do the author’s expe­ri­ences and her ordeal nav­i­gat­ing these facil­i­ties com­pare with yours?

The Begin­nings of The Man in the White Shark­skin Suit

By Lucette Lagnado

On the week my father died about a dozen years ago this month, I made my way to a small syn­a­gogue on the East Side I thought would pro­vide some com­fort – a Sephardic shul with a con­gre­ga­tion from Moroc­co, Tunisia, Yemen, and Alge­ria, with a sprin­kling of some Egypt­ian and Syr­i­an Jews. 

As I sat pray­ing, an old woman qui­et­ly approached me. She said that she had known my father as a young girl in WWII Cairo. Her moth­er would host a night­ly pok­er game at their home, and my Dad was a fre­quent vis­i­tor. She vivid­ly recalled watch­ing him from her bal­cony as he approached, tall and strik­ing and intense­ly ele­gant. He always wore white – white shark­skin,” she said. 

In the midst of these dark days, this woman offered me a hope­ful, light-filled image: My father strid­ing through the streets of Cairo in his suit of white sharkskin. 

Look­ing back, I believe the idea for this book about my dad began there, even as I was in the midst of mourn­ing his loss. I became friends with this woman, who is now in her 80s, and at first, I would ques­tion her obses­sive­ly about my dad in white shark­skin. Years before these details became cru­cial to the con­struc­tion of the book, I would grill her about the cut of his suits, what type of shirt he wore, what col­or tie, what col­or shoes (two-toned). 

Even­tu­al­ly the con­ver­sa­tion broad­ened to the world where men wore white shark­skin – the world of Old Cairo, a glam­orous, intense­ly cos­mopoli­tan city that was mul­ti­cul­tur­al in the true mean­ing of the term, a soci­ety in which Jews and Moslems and Euro­pean Chris­tians man­aged to co-exist with a har­mo­ny that some in post‑9/​11 Amer­i­ca may find hard to imagine. 

Recre­at­ing that van­ished world became one of my major goals as I began to work on . 

The Man In the White Shark­skin Suit

Anoth­er was to tell of exile and loss but through the eyes and in the voice of a child – the child that I was when we left Cairo. 

Loulou, my six-year-old nar­ra­tor, doesn’t exact­ly grasp the events that are rock­ing the Mid­dle East and mak­ing it inhos­pitable for her fam­i­ly, and so in the face of the changes that are trans­form­ing her world, she latch­es on to beloved objects and places. Instead of obsess­ing, as her par­ents do, over the loss of a King and a coun­try, Loulou ago­nizes over the loss of her cat Pous­pous and her home on Mala­ka Nazli Street, a grand sweep­ing boule­vard named after a queen. 

She fix­ates on sar­dine cans, dolls, the patis­serie where she goes every day with her dad, the pri­vate school she attends, and they, like her home on Mala­ka Nazli, acquire a cer­tain life of their own and haunt her on her jour­neys from Cairo to Paris to New York. 

She is espe­cial­ly enthralled with the ven­dors who come every morn­ing to the house with their wares.

Some days the bas­kets are filled with fresh figs or grape­leaves, oranges per­haps, or at times bas­kets of rose petals to make jam. 

The rose petal ven­dors have a par­tic­u­lar­ly stir­ring sing-song and that song will haunt Loulou wher­ev­er she goes; she will hear it in Paris and in New York and even occa­sion­al­ly while work­ing late at night at the offices of . 

The Wall Street Journal