The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

THE MAN IN THE WHITE SHARKSKIN SUIT

My Family's Exodus
from Old Cairo to the New World

LUCETTE LAGNADO

To my husband, Douglas Feiden,
and to the memory of Leon and Edith

And the Children of Israel wept and said: “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now, our life is parched, and there is nothing. We have nothing to anticipate but manna.”

—Numbers 11:4–6

It was then that I stood up in the theater and shouted: “Don't do it. It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”

—Delmore Schwartz,
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

CONTENTS

 

E
dith was seated outdoors at La Parisiana, Cairo's most popular café, enjoying a
café turque
with her mother, when she noticed the man in white. He was looking her way and smiling, and though he, too, was sitting down, she could tell he was extremely tall. He raised his glass and tipped it in her direction. She was so shy, she quickly turned her head, not daring to return his glance.

There was never room for the mildest flirtation in Edith's life. Her mother, Alexandra, was always by her side, policing her every move, so strict she didn't permit her daughter to have any dealings with men that even hinted at romance. At twenty, Edith had never had a suitor. She wasn't allowed to engage in the light, friendly banter that was encouraged between the sexes in wartime Cairo, a culture that managed to be both old-fashioned and libertine at the same time.

Early on, her mother had laid down the law.

Edith was expected to come straight home from work at the end of the day. She couldn't socialize with colleagues, especially male colleagues, and she was to shun any and all advances from the eminently
respectable bachelors who taught alongside her at the École Cattaoui. A teacher of children, Edith was treated like a child in her own home.

She was so meek, she never chafed at the restrictions. She was simply grateful to have a job at the distinguished private school that had hired her when she was barely fifteen, and whose main benefactors were Moise Cattaoui, a Jewish Pasha, and one of the wealthiest men in Egypt, along with his socially prominent wife, Madame Cattaoui Pasha, who was the queen's lady-in-waiting.

Of course, Alexandra had never reckoned with anyone like the man in white, and neither had her woefully naive daughter.

At forty-two, Leon was used to getting his way, especially with women. He had never been married and, like Edith, he lived at home with his mother. But the resemblance ended there. Unlike her, he suffered from no restrictions on his life whatsoever.

Cairo had a million diversions, and Leon took advantage of every one of them. He relished being single, venturing out every night and not returning until dawn. He ambled elegantly through the city in constant search of entertainment. Dining, dancing, and gambling were his great loves, and he wandered from restaurants to cafés to dance halls to casinos. It was 1943, the height of World War II, and the streets and the cinemas and the nightspots were crowded with British soldiers in their khaki uniforms and jaunty berets, which suited Leon fine because he didn't love anyone as much as he loved
les Anglais.

Wherever he went, he stood out, a towering figure in expensive, hand-tailored suits made of white sharkskin.

The soft shiny material was all the rage among Cairo's privileged classes.

He'd stop and catch his breath only on Friday night, the Jewish Sabbath, because he took religion as seriously as his games and pastimes. Early on, Leon had figured out a way for these seemingly contradictory sides of his nature, his love of God and his passion for pleasure, to coexist. He was a regular at temple on Friday night and Saturday morning, but come Saturday night, his exuberant, frivolous life resumed and continued uninterrupted throughout the week.

In contrast, most of Edith's evenings were spent quietly at home in Sakakini, a poor section of Cairo, with her mother and her younger
brother, Félix, as her sole companions. If she wanted to see a movie or go to a café, it was arm in arm with Alexandra. Dance halls, cabarets, nightclubs, were off-limits. There were no escapes and few pleasures for the young woman, except for the books she devoured.

She worked so hard at the École Cattaoui, she caught the eye of its famous patron. Madame Cattaoui Pasha, intrigued by her diligent, lovely recruit, offered her a job as librarian of the Bibliothèque Cattaoui. It was an extraordinary opportunity. The pasha's wife had a vision she wanted Mademoiselle Edith to realize: to build a school library that would house all the great French classics.

Still a teenager, operating on instinct since she had no formal training as a librarian, Edith went on a buying spree, purchasing hundreds of books. After months of feverish acquisitions—Flaubert, Proust, Balzac, Zola—she was able to report that the collection was almost complete.

Madame Cattaoui Pasha was so pleased, she gave the young woman a gift: a key to the library—enormous, brass, shiny, ornate. Edith's hand trembled as she accepted it. It was the single greatest honor she would ever receive. For Edith, it was as if she had been handed the Keys to the Kingdom.

Leon had no patience for the contemplative life, and the only books he pored through were his prayer books and his Bible, though his favorite reading material was probably
La Bourse Egyptienne,
the popular financial newspaper that tracked the Egyptian stock market.

He began each day by praying with fellow Jews. He did business with French Colonial merchants and Greek entrepreneurs. He gambled with wealthy Egyptians, including, on occasion, the king. And he socialized with the British officers stationed throughout Cairo. Always stylish and meticulously dressed, with an easy manner and a fluent command of English, Leon was one of the few outsiders they welcomed into their fold.

They even had an affectionate nickname for him: “Captain Phillips.” No one knew its origins, but it was quintessentially British, and it stuck because he wore it so well. All around Cairo Leon became known as “The Captain.” The French called him “Le Capitaine.”

Cairo came alive at night. The workday ended early because it was
so hot in the afternoon. People returned home from the office, took a long nap, and woke up refreshed and energized enough to go out again. The picture shows at the dozens of outdoor cinema houses didn't even start until nine. It was not uncommon to have dinner at eleven. No self-respecting belly dancer would even think of making an appearance until the stroke of midnight.

Throughout the city, popular eateries and dance halls set aside at least one table for King Farouk. It was off-limits to everyone else, with a discreet “reserved” sign, in case the portly young monarch decided to drop by. Farouk loved the nightlife and the women that came with it.

Leon and the king had that in common—along with a deep and abiding passion for poker.

One night, at a casino, Leon was invited to sit at the king's table and join a poker game under way.

On one round, Leon had a flush to Farouk's three kings. He reached for the pot, but the king grabbed his arm and stopped him.

He had four kings, Farouk declared, which beats a flush.

Leon frowned. He looked again at the cards in the monarch's hands, but he still saw only three kings.

Farouk burst out laughing and grabbed the chips at the center of the table like the greedy child he was.

“C'est moi le quatrième roi!” he exclaimed; Me—I am the fourth king!

Everyone at the table laughed along with him: The king was notoriously fond of such antics; he had played this card trick before.

Later, Leon would airily downplay the amount of money he had lost as bagatelle—small change. It had been a delightful evening, and the king had given him priceless material he could use to regale his British friends. They tended to cast a jaundiced eye on young Farouk, whose corruption in every sphere of life, even friendly poker games, was the stuff of legend.

But on this balmy spring afternoon at La Parisiana, Leon eyed Edith carefully, observing how she looked and dressed and carried herself. He liked to take his time and study a woman before making his move. Like Cary Grant, his idol, the actor to whom he bore more than a passing resemblance, he had high standards and definitive tastes. Only bru
nettes, and only brunette beauties, would do. Leon was even choosy about the film stars he watched. He could never be dragged, for instance, to a Katharine Hepburn movie—he found her so unappealing that he literally refused to see her movies. Edith brought to mind those
grandes beautés
—Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamarr—but her kindred soul, her twin, was Ava Gardner, who would soon dominate Cairo's cinema houses.

Now, La Gardner, that was different: “C'est une grande beauté,” he'd say.

Like the movie star, Edith had black wavy hair, a striking chiseled face, doleful eyes, and a regal bearing. She sat ramrod straight at the café table, her legs crossed, taking small, dainty sips of black coffee. She managed to be exotic without being overpowering. She was also deliciously young.

With a wave of his hand, Leon summoned the maître d' and gave him a note he'd dashed off on the back of the check. He instructed the waiter to slip it to that young woman over there—the pretty one sitting with her mother—and stand by her side as she read it. Leon tipped him generously.

The maître d' walked over to Edith's table, delicately placed the folded note in her hand, and bowed.

It consisted of only two lines:

“I find you very beautiful. Would it be possible for us to meet?”

Edith looked up and finally met his gaze. The man in white raised his drink her way once again. Though white jackets weren't uncommon in 1940s Cairo, he alone among the diners was wearing an entire suit of white. At last, she smiled.

This is how Leon and Edith's courtship began. It was like a scene from a movie with a perfect ensemble cast: a beautiful, shy ingénue, her overly protective mother, an affable and energetic restaurant maître d', and an aging roué who suddenly fancied himself in love.

Edith immediately passed the folded piece of paper to her mother, who frowned as she peered across the restaurant. Alexandra was only slightly older than Leon and passionately devoted to her daughter. Pretty, bookish Edith was a delicate flower that must be shielded at all cost.

If Alexandra let down her guard for a moment, if she didn't impose
strict rules, legions of men were sure to hurt and betray the young woman.

The way that Alexandra had been hurt and betrayed by Edith's father.

Years earlier, he had left her to fend for herself in a culture noticeably hostile to women alone. There were few recourses for an abandoned wife—no alimony or child support payments. There she was, a mother of two small children with no resources. The family had nearly starved. Alexandra could survive perfectly well on cigarettes and coffee, but young Edith and her brother, Félix, were constantly hungry.

It was a miracle that Edith managed to finish school and snare a coveted teaching post at the École Cattaoui. For years, her salary supported all of them. Alexandra had never worked, and from an early age, Félix seemed unable to maintain a steady job and more interested in the fast bucks that came from petty cons. Because of Edith's diligence, the family now had more to eat than they'd had in years, and occasional indulgences, like afternoons at La Parisiana.

All that, and more, passed through Alexandra's head as she warily surveyed her daughter's prospective suitor.

With a curt nod, she motioned to Leon to join them. He carried himself with an almost military bearing as he strode over to their table. When he reached her and her mother, Edith was struck by his eyes, their intense shade of green.

She thought that he was one of the most handsome men she had ever seen.

Leon ordered a beer for himself and another
café turque
for Alexandra and one for Edith; the strong, sweet coffee was the only beverage the two women consumed.

There was small talk. Leon was adept at it, and Edith, given the chance, could be quite animated and charming—but Alexandra wanted it kept to a minimum. Relations between men and women were a business transaction, and beautiful young daughters were a valuable commodity.

Alexandra wasn't a practical person and never had been. But on that afternoon, she made the most pragmatic decision of her life: she resolved to set an exceedingly high price for Edith. She wasn't going to
allow her child to become a passing fancy for this rich and elegant man. If he was serious—and that meant marriage—she would consider bending her seemingly unbending rule about dating, and allow her daughter to see him socially.

Leon had devoted himself in the last several years to marrying off each of his five sisters, so he knew the going rates for women. He had personally financed dowries for them, enabling them to find suitable mates—the pretty ones as well as the plain ones. All were given away in style, with lavish ceremonies and receptions paid for by him.

But there was a market for eligible men as well, and they, too, could command a high price. To date, no one had been able to meet Leon's price. He had remained resolutely single all these years, no matter how many eager matchmakers approached him, or how many prominent fathers tried to lure him with their attractive daughters and handsome fortunes, or how often his own mother pleaded with him to find a girl and settle down.

He had never even been tempted—until now.

The terms of the courtship were drawn up that afternoon, amid the intensely chic crowd—British officers in uniform, elegant ladies out for a day of shopping and enjoying a cool, refreshing
boisson
before heading back to their villas in Zamalek or Garden City or Maadi. There were different languages spoken at every table—French and English of course, but also Greek, Italian, Dutch, Armenian, interspersed with the occasional Arabic. It wasn't unusual for people to use two or three languages in the same conversation—even in the same sentence—because this was Cairo, and it was the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

Everyone was in a sparkling mood, especially Edith, who wasn't used to this kind of attention. She sat back and let her mother do most of the talking. But when Leon would question her directly, she'd light up and answer yes, she enjoyed teaching very much—especially little boys, they were such fun,
trés espiègle,
so mischievous. She adored the library. And what did he do? A businessman? Import-export?
La bourse?
Leon's answers were vague and intangible and impressive. Meeting this man excited Edith as much as being handed the key to the pasha's library—as if a new and magical world was finally within her
grasp, a world of money and stature and position, as dazzling and luxuriant as white sharkskin.

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