Egyptian Girlhood Interrupted?

In ‘Arrogant Years,’ Lucette Lagnado explores her and her mother’s different, and at times disappointing, paths.

09/20/2011
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Lucette Lagnado’s mother Edith grew up in a humble stone house in an alleyway in Cairo’s main Jewish neighborhood in the 1920s and ‘30s. The strikingly beautiful Edith was known as the Belle of the Alleyway. Late every afternoon, Edith and her mother Alexandra, who had been abandoned by her husband, would sit on their balcony, drinking Turkish coffee, enjoying the breeze of the Sahara, and then perhaps take a stroll, arm-in-arm.

At age 15, Edith began teaching at the communal Jewish day school and was soon taken under the wing of the school’s benefactress, an elegant Jewish woman who was the confidante of King Fouad. Edith and Madame Alice Cattaui, wife of the pasha, shared a love of books, and the older woman entrusted Edith to establish a library at the school and ultimately gave her the key to the pasha’s impressive private library. But when Alexandra arranged for Edith to marry Leon Lagnado, the man in the now famous white sharkskin suit — the subject of Lucette Lagnado’s first memoir — the young woman had to leave the position she had achieved and loved.

Lagnado’s new memoir, “The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn” (Ecco), looks back at her mother’s life and at Edith’s relationship with Alexandra, as well as her own coming of age and her relationship with Edith. These are mothers who fuel their daughters’ ambition and then hover like eagles to protect them, but with their own wings clipped.

This affecting work is not a sequel to the best-selling “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” as the two books start and end in similar places and times, but a proof text of her own experience. Lagnado writes with great affection and compassion for her mother, and she describes displacement and the urgency of memory. Readers who were drawn to the emotional complexity of “Sharkskin” will again be moved.

Comparing the process of writing the two books, Lagnado says in an interview, “This one was born of more pain.” At times, she says, writing of the hardships her mother endured broke her heart again and again, and it was difficult to write. “At a really deep level,” she adds, “I had to write my dad’s book in order to write this one.”

In the 1960s, the Lagnados were forced to leave Egypt and went to Paris and later to New York, eventually settling in a Brooklyn community of exiles from Syria and Egypt. While many immigrants managed to build from rags to riches, the Lagnados struggled in their new homeland, unable to regain their moorings. They lost their confidence, their sense of belonging, and they worried about losing their children — Lucette, or Loulou as she was known, is the youngest of four siblings — to assimilation. One bright period in Edith’s life in New York begins when she decides to try to work again, against the wishes of her husband, and takes on a cataloguing job at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Lagnado opens this book in the women’s section of the Shield of Young David Synagogue in Brooklyn. Every Shabbat, the young Lucette walks hand in hand with her mother to synagogue around the corner from their home. The spirited daughter of refugees is more interested in what was going on beyond the mechitza, in the men’s section and envied the men’s seemingly special relationships with God. Enlisting a few friends, she schemes to get rid of the strict divider. She sees herself as an avenger of the women’s section and in time would try to avenge all of the losses and hardship in her parents’ lives.

The book’s title is drawn from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night,” when he writes of “the great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl.” As Lagnado explains, “that period in a young girl’s life when she feels — and is — on top of the world.” For both mother and daughter, their arrogant years were cut short, and they lost that strong sense of self. For Edith, it was the period of time when she was teaching in Cairo and enjoying the attention of the pasha’s wife; she had to give that all up, sadly, when she — and the marriage didn’t turn out as she had hoped. As for Lucette, a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease in her teens took away much of her confidence.

She writes with great candor about her own illness, and the subsequent difficulties she faced. She later leaves Brooklyn to attend Vassar College — one of many steps in leaving the community — and never feels quite at home there.

Lagnado has a gift for narrative, remembering to share details like the bamboo chairs in Cairo’s 1920s outdoor cinema, and the just-squeezed lemonade mixed with fresh mint that Edith would make in Brooklyn to break the Tisha B’Av fast. Ever the investigative reporter, she tracks down the descendants of the pasha’s wife, and also interviews Ahmed Fouad II, the son of the late King Farouk.

Along with everything else to be recommended about this memoir, it is also a portrait of awe-inspiring caregiving by a loving daughter. After her mother suffers a series of strokes and is admitted to a nursing home, Lucette grows fed up with the inattentiveness of the staff and brings her mother home to her own Manhattan apartment. Lagnado had reported on health care for a decade and won many distinguished awards for her coverage on hospitals and nursing homes, with an emphasis on the elderly and the poor. She and her husband, along with health aides, created a “hospital-free zone” and cared for Edith at home for the last years of her life.

Lagnado has written for major newspapers and is now a cultural and investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal. “Sharkskin” was the first winner of the Sami Rohr Prize. Where one might expect to find a sense of triumph about her accomplishments outside of the close-knit Brooklyn community, she instead speaks of her own loss and being unmoored, always questioning whether she’d be happier had she stayed.

“I’m not so sure it’s so great to break out of the women’s section,” she says. “I really miss that world of my childhood.” She longs for the food, the people and that sense of belonging to a caring community. With a long sigh, she admits to a recurring fantasy of returning to Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway. 

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