Lucette Lagnado's parents started their lives together in late '40s Cairo.
Her father was Jewish, a charmer who hobnobbed with the city's social elite. Her mother, Edith, was also Jewish — a brilliant, bookish, beautiful girl who read all of Proust before she was 15, became chief librarian of a Jewish school in Cairo, and was a protege of the wife of an Egyptian dignitary, or pasha.
But Edith was more or less forced to marry Lagnado's father, Leon, when she was just 20 and he was in his 40s. Their new family faced a series of calamities — rabies, broken bones, typhoid fever, the death of an infant — before the 1952 revolution sent Jews fleeing from Egypt.
Lagnado's new memoir, The Arrogant Years, follows her family's exodus from Egypt and their efforts to make a new life in the promised land: New York.
Lagnado, an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, tells NPR's Scott Simon that the Cairo of her parents' generation was very different from what it is today.
"Once upon a time, there was an Arab culture that was flourishing and open and cosmopolitan; where people spoke several languages, where Jews and Christians and Muslims worked together, and socialized together, and went to school together. And come the end of the week, they would go to pray in their respective houses of worship," she says. "I don't want to idealize Egypt too much, but it really was a very extraordinary, very special society, once upon a time."
Arriving In The 'Land Of Freedom'
The title of Lagnado's book is borrowed from a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, in which he reflects on his heroine being institutionalized. Fitzgerald writes, "She had lost two of the great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl."
"That's a key theme of my book, which tells parallel stories of my mom and me," Lagnado says. "My mother, Edith — very lovely and I guess to some degree arrogant in her youth — loses it all, experiences a major fall. And I guess so do I. But in my case, it's a different kind of fall; it's a terrible illness that beset me at the age of 16. It was Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes, which sort of struck me like a sledgehammer at this age when a young girl is arrogant."
Lagnado's family was already settled in Brooklyn when she received her diagnosis, and the illness was one of many hardships the family faced in New York. Lagnado remembers all the things her parents found confounding about America.
"It was magically a land of freedom of religion, but so many people around us really weren't practicing their faith," Lagnado says. "It was theoretically a country where you valued family, except they saw families all around them breaking down, and that's what they feared the most, you see. They feared that we were all going to be lost. Already within a month of us coming to New York, my older sister, Suzette — the rebel, wild one — moved out to get her own apartment. Well, OK, that's not a big deal in an American family, but in my family it was seen as catastrophic."
Finding A Home At The Brooklyn Public Library
At 20, Edith had been celebrated and happy, but when she married Leon, she was forced to give up her key to the pasha's wife's library and, to a certain extent, leave the bookishness of her youth behind — until she got a job at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and once again found herself surrounded by books.
Lagnado writes of her mother's experience at the library, where the staff was mostly made up of foreigners:
She felt at home among these exiles — expatriates and emigres and loners every bit as lost and diminished as she was in America. They banded together in a crowded corner of the third floor of the Grand Army Plaza and there, amid carts bulging with books in every language on earth and rickety steel shelves crammed with the thick reference columns of the Library of Congress and the stacks of beige catalog cards that Mom and other clerks typed up throughout the day, they rebuilt the hearth.
"She was only a clerk — minimum wage no doubt," Lagnado says, "and yet I think in her mind she thought she might as well be running the library. She really loved that job so much."
Lagnado's family story seems to roll out in response to the trauma of leaving Egypt. But what if they'd been able to stay in Cairo? Would the subsequent years have been easier to bear?
"That's always been the fantasy, hasn't it? The fantasy that drove me, if only we could have stayed," Lagnado says. "Once upon a time, 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt in the '30s and '40s. When there was all this persecution going on in Europe, they were fine. They were becoming pashas, and the Jews and the Muslims and the cops were animated by the same value for family, for closeness.
"I think if they had been able to stay somehow," she says, "their story and my story would have been very, very different."