Lucette Lagnado, author of thenewly-published The man in the white sharkskin suit, tells Jessie Graham of Nextbook that there is a place in history and literature for more than one memoir on the Arabic-Jewish narrative.
Q: I would imagine it would be a bit difficult to approach this memoir with André Aciman’s Out of Egypt already out there as the definitive memoir about Jews in Egypt.
For eight or nine years I wanted to write this book, and every time I would tell people, they would say, “But you know, there’s André Aciman.” It made me crazy. First of all, I love André. But then I think about the lost worlds of the Jews of Eastern Europe and Europe. How many writers did it take to recreate the little shtetls? We start with I.B. Singer and then we go on into the modern, new generation. And yet, we had equally magical, quirky, special, soulful, extraordinary worlds in the Middle East. The Jews of Iraq. The Jews of Iran. The Jews of Algeria. The Jews of Morocco. The Jews of Tunisia. We were this unbelievably cultured place. Why can’t we produce a body of literature? And why haven’t we?
Q:Was it in part because the European narrative of exile and the Holocaust came first? Perhaps there was no room for another narrative?
We’ve all been consumed by the Holocaust, by the evisceration, disappearance, and destruction of the communities of Europe. In the same way, we should be concerned and consumed by the Palestinian refugee narrative, where there was and is a lot of suffering. But the idea that there was, as you put it, no room for another one. I actually found myself talking to a colleague when I dared to use the term “cultural holocaust” for the exile of Jews from the Middle East. She is a Jewish reporter, Orthodox. She said to me, “Well, forgive me, but you weren’t wiped out, you weren’t slaughtered.” And I said, “No we weren’t. But communities were wiped out culturally.” To me that’s a tragedy. My first book was about the Holocaust. I was totally consumed. But until recently, the Arab-Jewish refugees weren’t a story. It wasn’t even a graceful term, “Arabic Jews.” To me it was an extraordinary accomplishment when recently I stood in front of my synagogue and said, “I was a refugee from Egypt.” It’s sort of like saying, “I’m an alcoholic.”
From the first days I came to America, my mother whispered, “Don’t say you’re from Egypt.” Egypt was this backward, primitive country. I had to be the Parisian schoolgirl. I could play the part, “My name is Lucette. I’m from France.” I didn’t out and out say I was born in France. I would say I’m from France, and that was technically true.
The social worker that managed your family’s case here saw your father as very backward.
They wanted to make sure that you’re assimilated. And then you get a man like my father, and he doesn’t want to assimilate. So I have these single-spaced notes by the social worker from the New York Association for New Americans and she records him telling her, “We are Arab, madam. We are Arab, madam.” My father loved Muslims. He loved Egyptians. He felt at one with them.
That’s quite a contrast to Aciman’s family. His family was Sephardic and they were always trying to distinguish themselves from the Arabs in their midst—to distinguish even between Syrian and Egyptian Jews. Your family didn’t seem to have such an identity crisis in Egypt.
Synagogue in downtown Cairo, 2006
They’re totally different. My parents were really religious. He may have been a boulevardier, a womanizer, a sinner, a pleasure seeker, and a gambler, but come morning, he was in shul. Aciman’s family was secular.
You were able to go back to Cairo in 2005, with the permission of the Egyptian government. One of the things that surprised you was that after all this time, you felt at home there.
I am an angst-ridden person, and I felt angst-free in Egypt—it seems bizarre. I would look at the Nile, and how calm it was, and I thought the people were awfully nice. If I had my own way, I’d sit with everybody and say, “Now wait a minute, wait! It worked 60 years ago, you know? We got along fine. Why, why can’t we redo that?”
What did older Egyptians say about the Jews who had left?
They never talked about missing Jews, but they all had memories. It was almost like in Germany, where I did reporting for my other book, where they say, “I knew a Jewish family.” In Egypt it was at a more human level. I spoke with our former neighbor. The old woman said, “I liked your mother. She was very sweet to children.” That was the nicest part about it. We weren’t Yehudi. We were simply neighbors and then we had to leave. They were probably bewildered, as bewildered as anybody.