In January I joined a non-fiction book club which meets every other month. I enjoyed the January book and our March book was announced as "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World." In the "off" month I read it twice, pretty much catching the story line of the book the first time and then as discussion day drew near I read it a second time. It was this second time when I felt it was probably the most instructive book I had ever read, talking to me about a time in history that I knew nothing about, pertaining to a group of people I had no idea existed, and a book demanding me to go much, much deeper in my own understanding of what I had experienced when I lived in the Near East.
The story, as written by Lucette Lagnado (the "Man" of the book's youngest daughter), was structured as a child's view of her own family and history in several settings. First of all she sensitively writes of her parents' backgrounds - her father's family being Jews who had settled many years earlier in Aleppo, Syria and were greatly influenced by the Arab culture, and her mother's, again Jewish but coming from an entirely different cultural setting based in Alexandria, Egypt. Lagnado draws fascinating word pictures for us that lay groundwork for all that happens when the difficulties, both personal and political, begin. The marriage of her parents joins two people who have been raised in disparate communities and it is easy to assume that trouble is surely ahead. A second and major part of the book is how this family, which grows eventually to have two sons and two daughters, tries to adapt to the political changes that culminate in another major forced exile of Jewish people, this time out of Egypt and the other middle-east countries that took place after the second World War. Her own family had to leave Cairo with next to nothing and no where to live. The last setting is when given a choice of living in either Israel or the United States, the family opts for America. Along with others who make that same choice, she shows how life was for her own and other modern day immigrants.
At the time Lagnado wrote the book in 2007, she was a senior special writer and investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal. What is amazing is that since she was such a young child in those early years she writes about, she could not write from personal experience but had to research to get the accuracy and truth of what happened in her own family. It must have been a monumental project; it certainly wasn't like sitting back and reflecting on one's own life experiences.
Most of us in the book group were astounded at how little we knew of this next Jewish exile. We broadly knew of the creation of the nation of Israel and that there was some difficulty in resettling groups of people. But that was the period of time when we were in junior high school, high school, college, or starting our families -- and our eyes were not really focused on the details of the problems in that part of the world. Most of us did not have relatives that were involved so we had no family stories to make us aware of what was going on.
When I finished reading the book, I wanted to know some more specific details concerning certain things that Lagnado brought up in her book, one of which was that her father considered himself both an Arab and a Jew, something I just couldn't get my mind around. How could that be? I had to first remind myself that all Arabs are not Muslims, but still.....
For me, I always consider myself lucky when something I read in a book sends me off on a hunt for more information. Sometimes it happens in a novel, but it is one of the reasons why I love non-fiction books. And it helps when the author is a really, really good writer. Lucette Lagnado has other books she has written, and you can bet that I will be searching out and reading them too.