By Juliana Maio
During her recent talk at UCLA, Lucette Lagnado, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, expressed nostalgia for a lost world as she discussed her memoirs about her family's life in Egypt and subsequent exile in America.
In her first memoir, The Man with the White Sharkskin Suit, Ms. Lagnado wrote a poignant account of her father, Leon, a successful Jewish businessman and bon vivant, who thrived in Cairo during and after World War II, only to find himself a broken and destitute man in Brooklyn after he and his family had to flee from Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt in 1963—a time when Egyptian Jews were considered a fifth column and anti-Semitism was the order of the day.
Ms. Lagnado's second and equally poignant memoir, The Arrogant Years, centers on her mother, Edith, a pretty and bookish woman from a poor family in Cairo, who at the age of twenty found herself forcibly engaged to Leon, 22 years her senior. He demanded that she quit her coveted job as a librarian (for no respectable woman worked in Egypt), marking the beginning of a life marred with calamity and despair.
While Ms. Lagnado's memoirs constitute beautiful and elegant elegies for her parents, they are also unabashed love letters to the city of Cairo and its colorful way of life during the times of King Farouk. In fact, Ms. Lagnado declared in her lecture that "all the action in her books is in Egypt even when it takes place elsewhere." So strong was this nostalgia that it gripped her father and mother until their death. Though the author was only six years old when she and her family left Egypt, she is deeply impacted as well by a time and place that will never be again.
The Cairo of Ms. Lagnado''s parents' generation was very different from what it is today, she bemoaned. She spoke of a time when Cairo was the most cosmopolitan city in the world, with a nightlife that would have rivaled those of Paris and New York combined. "It was a multi-cultural society where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in harmony, working and socializing together," she said. "And come the end of the week, they would go to pray in their respective houses of worship. It was a time of considerable openness in politics and society." Indeed, Egypt during the '30s and '40s was a unique haven for the 80,000 Jews that lived and prospered there while their kinsmen in Europe were being persecuted. (Although the majority of the Jewish population had been there for two or three generations, some indigenous families went back much further.) In the days of the Lagnados, not only did Egyptian Jews dominate many businesses, but they also held important posts in government and were advisors to the king. Many became pashas. But that was once upon a time...
Soon after Nasser's military coup in 1952 and the crisis in the Suez Canal that exacerbated the growing antipathy toward Jews after the formation of Israel, Jewish families began to be systematically expelled from the country. Their comfortable life in Egypt came to a sudden end, and the Jewish community dispersed to the four corners of the earth, breaking up families and wrecking lives. Whether it was in Israel, England, France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Australia, Canada, or for the Lagnados, Brooklyn, N.Y.—whatever country would take them, the Jews of Egypt had to rebuild their lives from scratch, leaving whatever riches they had behind, except perhaps for a lucky few. Of the 80,000 Jews that once called Egypt home, now a mere 100 remain, mostly elderly, and except for a couple of synagogues, all vestiges of their vibrant lives have vanished.
"Il faut reconstruire le foyer, we must rebuild the hearth," Ms. Lagnado's mother would plead incessantly. It wasn't just the dispersal of her extended family that she lamented, but the threat of the disintegration of her own immediate brood. Egyptian Jews were fiercely committed to the same family values as the Muslims, and for the Lagnados, America represented a real danger to the closeness of that family unit. "It was the recurrent nightmare of America, as my parents experienced it," the author writes in The Arrogant Years. "A place where children left, and home, instead of being central, became meaningless."
Sure enough, the eldest Lagnado daughter moved out of the house soon after their arrival in Brooklyn, and the other children would quickly follow suit. This was the catastrophe of America.
At the end of her lecture, Ms. Lagnado addressed a flurry of questions. "Why did you move to the U.S. and not Israel?" someone asked. The author explained that her family somehow had been able to obtain papers for the States, but then she added: "It was the wrong choice. People in Israel have a strong sense of family values." Right then I understood the deeper nature of Ms. Lagnado's nostalgia—it wasn't just for a time and place that seemed almost idyllic for its way of life and tolerant society, it was for the ever tight family bond that once upon a time existed, when family members spoke ten times a day when they were not knocking on one another's doors-unannounced of course.
Finally, someone from the audience stood up and said that she too, was born in Egypt and that she was incredibly moved by Ms. Lagnado's memoirs. "Your family's story is my story," she said. I nodded, for it was my story too, though my family's path took us to Paris until I was seventeen years old before immigrating to California, where my father's brothers had ended up after their exodus from Egypt. And like Ms. Lagnado, I too demolished barriers and became a professional woman, and like she did, I felt compelled later on to make that journey back to Cairo and ask the same questions: Who were my parents? Who were the Jews of Egypt? The more I learned, the more nostalgic I became about the Cairo that Ms. Lagnado so eloquently described, a place I left when I was only three. After the lecture I walked away, feeling a deep sadness inside. It wasn't Cairo that I missed. It was that fierce bond that once glued my family together—but that was before we came to America and my brother, my sister and I became so damn independent, now living thousands of miles apart from each other.
Juliana Maio is an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles. She is the author of the forthcoming novel, City of the Sun, a tale of love and politics in World War II Cairo.