Bittersweet memoir unveils a nearly forgotten era of Jewish-Muslim affinity in the streets of Egypt’s capital.
“The Jews of Aleppo were a breed apart,” writes Wall Street Journal reporter Lagnado of her father’s origins, “intensely Jewish, intensely Arab.” The author documents her almost fairy-tale upbringing in a Syrian family that fled to Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. Her father Leon was himself a contradiction, she recalls: a French speaker in the bosom of his family, fluent in street Arabic, yet charmingly conversant in English with the British officers with whom he socialized. While a devout attendee at morning prayers and Friday synagogue, he remained an energetic nocturnal boulevardier even after marriage to the much younger Edith. King Farouk’s almost bizarrely cosmopolitan Cairo served as Leon’s carefree adult playground throughout World War II and the following decade. The author, born in 1956 into a marriage strained to the breaking point, developed a bond with her father that enabled her to experience through his sad eyes the gradual dissolution of cultural harmony among Cairo’s Arabs, Jews and leftover colonials. One of her cherished icons was Groppi’s, an incomparable French patisserie in the heart of the city. But the 1956 Nasser coup was followed by war with the still-new State of Israel, and migration became the inevitable fate of Cairo’s Jews. The Lagnados eventually departed for New York, where Leon, his world exploded, was finally forced to face the 20th century.
Nostalgic but objectively tempered portrait of a family at the heart of social and cultural upheaval.