Jewish exiles, from Pakistan to Brooklyn

Israel/PalestineMiddle East
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(Photo: The East Hampton Star)

Lucette Lagnado narrates from a canon of memoir that is distinctly Arab and Jewish, and also, distinctly nostalgic. Her latest book, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn (2011) is reviewed by Hazel Kahan, a Jew whose family was exiled from Europe in 1937. Kahan parallels her parents’ experience of exile from Europe to Pakistan, with Lagnado’s journey, Egypt to Brooklyn. Both experiences of exile are shaped by internalized identities of colonialism. In this context exile is more than a removal from a physical place, it is a removal from a pluralistic identity that the new nation states did not inherit.

Kahan, like Lagnado, becomes in full something she was in-part, in her refuge. While in Europe, Kahan’s family is Jewish, otherized, but in Pakistan, Kahan became European, as Lagnado fatalistically is Arab in Brooklyn. Kahan, who now lives in New York, writes:

“While the Lagnado family suffered neglect and maltreatment at the hands of Egyptian and American doctors, in my story my parents were the doctors. It was their good fortune to land in a place where physicians were greatly valued, where being European mattered and being Jewish didn’t.”

The Arrogant Years is Lagnado’s second book on her coming of age, and the Egypt of her parents’ cosmopolitan retrospection. Focusing on her father Leon Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World (2007) is Lagnado’s first return to 1950s Cairo. In both books Lagnado revisits physical objects that survived in ways people did not, and Kahan’s take on displacement provides a unique universality to the exile of Arab Jews.

Excerpt of Kahan’s review at Long Island Books:

“Arriving in America, Lucette’s older siblings detached from their immigrant home to seek a place in secular, capacious America. Lucette gives us only a sketchy glimpse inside the family’s Brooklyn home, as if she was never fully there. Instead, we follow mother and daughter bonded in a world unto themselves as, holding hands, they dart all over New York, restless and uprooted, sharing a hearth of books, libraries, and schools. Deeply ambitious for her daughter, Edith is shattered when the French lycée in Manhattan rejects Lucette’s application.

Similarly driven to educate their children, my parents sent us to faraway boarding schools into cultures that were neither theirs nor ever entirely ours. Whether we wanted it or not, we became independent. The Lagnados resisted unpacking their Egyptian suitcases, leaving Cairo inside them, time-warped and intact. Growing up, I was forever packing and unpacking suitcases, shuffling from one temporary address to another. Our hearth was portable and virtual, its bricks and mortar constructed from letters, airline tickets, a network of friends, relatives, and strangers, held together by my parents’ stubborn vigilance. Perhaps a hearth means the most when the years are their least arrogant—as our parents approach the end of their lives. I know the sorrow at the heart of Lucette’s story.

Separation is the third theme of ‘The Arrogant Years,’ symbolized by the carved wooden divider, the mechitza, that separates the sexes in conservative Jewish synagogues. For Lucette the child, the divider was a provocation, a barrier for her to dismantle, ending the separation. My mind goes to the massive wall the Israelis have built to separate themselves from the Palestinians and the Palestinians from their lands and one another, and I realize that separation lies at the core of every refugee family—it is part and parcel of the broken hearth, dividing and blocking the flow of continuity.

Beyond the synagogue’s wooden barrier, separation runs throughout Lucette’s life: between affluent and poor Jewish neighbors in Brooklyn, between Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues, public and private schools, the separation from her siblings, between her and the other Vassar girls, the separation between her parents’ French and Arab cultures. In a nursing home at the end of their lives, her parents sit side by side in wheelchairs, not speaking to each other. Years later, Lucette visits her former synagogue, shuttered now, the divider merely a pile of sticks. With the barrier gone, she feels a loss of security and identity: She understands that the mechitza did more than separate men and women worshipers. Released from the barbed wired of the internment camps, my father, suddenly too free, was afraid.

Two among millions of Jewish refugee families—it’s what the Lagnado family and mine have in common that makes us unique.”

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