Published in 2007, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World is
a memoir by Lucette Lagnado. Set in the 1940s through the 1970s, the book tells the story of the Jewish Lagnado family (of which Lucette is the youngest child) as persecution forces them to leave their life of comfort in Cairo and flee to New York. The book won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature—a $100,000 prize—making it the largest cash award ever to be given to a Jewish book.
As a child, Lucette Lagnado (called LouLou) adores her father, Leon. He is a boulevardier
, a man about town, who is frequently seen in his signature white sharkskin suit. Spending his days in the Shepherd’s Hotel or the Nile Hilton, he earns his living by playing the stock market and gambling; so far, the lifestyle had paid off. His family lives in wealth and comfort, and he enjoys the Cairo nightlife where he's nicknamed "The Captain." Staying out until dawn, he drinks and womanizes.
Leon is also a devout Jew, and in his mind, the world of gambling, drinking, and womanizing need not be mutually exclusive to the world of the synagogue, where he prays in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. In contrast with the post 9/11 world, Lagnado writes that in those days, Jews and Muslims coexisted in relative harmony, something she remembers nostalgically.
When Leon is at home, which is rarely, he expects to be treated as the patriarch of the family. His much-younger wife, Edith, must wait on him hand and foot. Even when one of their daughters passes away, he doesn't change his behavior. He continues going out at night, leaving Edith at home in mourning. Leon's indifference to his wife does not extend to his children, however. LouLou lavishes her father with the adoration of a child because he pays more attention to her than Edith does. During an episode where he is housebound due to a broken leg, he spends his time teaching and playing with LouLou and her cat PousPous.
Good health is a frequent theme in the book, largely because LouLou does not have it. She's been diagnosed with "cat scratch fever" by the doctors in Cairo, and the family devotes much time to searching and praying for a cure. They become superstitious about the things that bring good or ill health, never fully shedding these ideas.
However, it's the 1950s, and things are changing in Egypt. Gamal Abdel Nasser has helped lead a successful campaign to overthrow the monarchy; King Farouk's reign has fallen. Now serving as President, Nasser enacts sweeping reforms in the country under the new Constitution of Egypt. Industry is nationalized, and Jewish neighborhoods are disbanded as foreign influence is purged. Almost overnight, the Lagnado family loses everything; they reluctantly decide to leave their home for whatever country will take them in.
Due to Egyptian law, the family of six would only be allowed to emigrate with $200. They sell all their belongings and pack what remains into twenty-six suitcases. By hiding jewels and gold coins in marmalade tins in their luggage, they circumvent the law, yet upon traveling first to Paris and then to New York, they still live in poverty. Handouts from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are their main income. At one point, Edith is offered a job that would greatly help provide for the family, but she declines because of the Jewish tradition that women do not work outside the home.
Ever the hustler, Leon beings selling counterfeit silk ties on the streets of Brooklyn. He brings LouLou along to gain sympathy, calling her his granddaughter. These efforts bring little money, however, so he applies for a $2,000 loan to open a candy store. The loan is refused; Leon complains endlessly. He becomes reclusive, often spending nine or ten hours at a time in the synagogue. The family refuses to assimilate into their new home. Lagnado writes particularly harshly about Silvia Kirschner, the social worker assigned to the family to help them adapt to American life.
There is a bright spot, however. LouLou's "cat scratch fever" is finally diagnosed as Hodgkins Disease, and she is placed on a successful treatment program. As LouLou endures the painful treatments, her suffering affects her family members, who in turn are demeaning to the hospital staff. In the book, Lagnado writes critically about American hospitals and nursing homes, portraying them as places where the pet fish in the waiting rooms are cared for better than the patients.
In 2005, Lagnado returns to Cairo to visit the family's old neighborhood on Malaka Nazli Street. With an adult's perspective, she finds it much changed. The community is dilapidated and rundown; she suspects that the family would've still experienced poverty even had it stayed. However, she is still struck by the kindness of the Egyptian people.