The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (9 page)

y aunts rushed over to our house the instant they heard the news: Edith wanted a divorce. She was threatening to leave with the children, and Tante Marie, Tante Rebekah, and Tante Leila were beside themselves. It was simply unthinkable. This was a family that, in more than half a century in Egypt, had experienced madness, suicide, murder, adultery, apostasy, and the Holocaust. But divorce? Never.

Well, maybe not exactly “never.”

There were the failed marriages of Oncle Joseph's teenage daughters, unions that had both ended in disaster. But they came from Zamalek, one of the richest and most elegant parts of Cairo. Maybe they tolerated failed marriages amid the mansions of Zamalek, but here in Ghamra, it was almost unknown.

My aunts stood in the kitchen with my mom, trying to talk some sense into her, but also lending a sympathetic ear. Edith's mourning may have been muted, almost secretive, but her anger was outsize. She blamed Dad—stubbornly, obsessively, and irrationally—for the events surrounding Baby Alexandra's passing and her own brush with death.

“Chez nous, on n'a pas le divorce,” Tante Marie declared, while the others nodded gravely.

Leon's sisters were kind, caring women, even oddly modern in their own way, though it was true that Tante Rebekah's thick coils of hair suggested a woman of another century, the way she wrapped them so tightly around her head. They were confident they could navigate the old world of Aleppo that my father stood for, where a woman's desires counted almost for nothing, and the slightly more progressive world of a Cairene housewife in the 1950s.

To their credit, they didn't automatically take my father's side. That's what made them such wonderful women. They were deeply earnest and well-meaning, and my mother felt she could trust them. Though passionate about the need for families to stick together against the world—they had been brought up to value blood relations, above all—they also felt a genuine kinship with
La pauvre

Tante Rebekah with her husband, 1920s Cairo.

Their own households, curiously, in no way resembled ours. Rebekah, Marie, and Leila all had husbands who venerated them and were slavishly devoted. Even Henriette, who was married to Dad's older brother, Oncle Raphael, had put a stop to her husband's fondness for nightly poker games, insisting he stay at home with her and the children; she gave him no choice but to obey. Some women had such forceful personalities they were able to impose their will, even in the male-centric Levant.

It was fine among their Arab neighbors for a man to leave his wife behind and go out for his night of fun and games, to lead, in effect, two lives: they could still command respect at home as a father and husband, yet take off without a thought to be with their mistresses, or their friends, or both.

But not the Jews. Like the Europeans they befriended in the glittering social world of 1940s and 1950s Egypt, if they went out, they went as couples. If it was a night of dancing, the men danced with their wives. If they watched the famed belly dancers who performed around Cairo at the stroke of midnight, their wives sat beside them and laughed and applauded as heartily as they.

Of course, the Jews of Aleppo were a breed apart—intensely Jewish, intensely Arab. Wherever they lived, in Cairo or Paris, Geneva, São Paulo, or New York, their mentality was similar to that of their Muslim neighbors of old, and they seemed to float through the twentieth century oblivious to the social changes, and specifically to the evolving status of women. My father had left Aleppo as an infant, yet it was his defining identity.

Like other Syrian Jews, he played by an ancient set of rules, in which women were adornments—passive, inconsequential, devoid of any power.

Tante Marie, who was closer to my father than anyone else, was troubled by how her cherished older brother behaved toward his bride. She saw an arrogant, cold side of him she hadn't noticed before, or perhaps she had simply preferred not to notice it. She would watch him order Edith around. Later, at home, she complained to her children that he treated his wife not much better than the maid. Her own husband, in contrast, was extremely deferential. He felt privileged simply to have married into so grand a family.

That was the glue holding all these marriages together—that we were descendants of nobility, that we had once dined with kings.

The grandee past was all that mattered, and no one had perpetuated the myth of our illustrious pedigree better than my grandmother Zarifa.

Certainly, Leon approached the world from some godlike elevation, and this was partly due to his extraordinary height and bearing, the fact that he was a
bel homme
and knew it, but also because he had so thoroughly absorbed the fable of our family as told by his mother. He became a living, walking embodiment of all the legends she loved to recount—the private synagogue the family had owned, the thousands of devoted followers who came to pray and study there, the generations of rabbinical leaders and thinkers and scholars, all bearing our name, who had wielded influence and authority far beyond Aleppo.

It is hard for gods to come down to earth, let alone wake up and find themselves married to ordinary mortals. And that, of course, is what my lovely young mother had turned out to be. The delicate, exquisite porcelain figurine he had spotted years back at La Parisiana had shown herself to be a seething bundle of resentments. She had never accepted him as he was, a man who couldn't possibly be chained down to a single house, or a single woman, even for a single night.

Her rival proved more than she could handle: it was none other than Cairo herself, the city whose charms were so boundless that a young housewife, even a pretty and educated one, couldn't possibly compete.

My siblings became hapless witnesses to the constant clashes. The arguments could erupt at any time, early in the morning when Dad came home from synagogue, midday, as he sat down to have lunch at home, hoping to rest during the afternoon siesta, or even as night fell, and they were getting ready for bed, and a soft breeze was blowing. He was getting dressed because his evening was only beginning.

The scenes had been going on since the first year of the marriage, with occasional truces, when the children were infants and distracted her. Now, since the death of the baby, Edith was in a state of perpetual fury, and her bitterness and despair had finally reached his sisters' ears. There were no secrets in Ghamra, and they warned Leon that the threats seemed real this time: Edith was determined to end the marriage.

As Suzette watched in a corner, our aunts calmed Edith down by repeating what women have told each other through the ages. They offered, in effect, a Levantine version of “boys will be boys,” telling her
les hommes sont comme ça
and appealing to her common sense. Edith,
remember the wonderful family you have. Edith,
keep in mind the primary victims of any separation, and besides, what is the harm in a man going out for some rounds of poker every night? Let him live, they'd say: a man has to live. You know, Edith
he is devoted to his family, and you are the only woman he loves.

My aunts were too delicate, too sensitive, to remind her that she really didn't have a choice. Cairo in the 1950s didn't look kindly on a woman without a man. Though Edith had been talented enough to land a prestigious job at fifteen as a schoolteacher, it was far from clear if she could work again in these turbulent postrevolutionary times, or that the pay would be enough to support her and the children—that is, if my father even let her keep my brothers and sister. Even in the best of times, tradition, religion, culture, and the law were all on the man's side. But now, with Jews losing their businesses and their jobs because of the ruthless new regime, and the constant sense of danger as the Jewish community unraveled and more and more families left Egypt, a woman alone wouldn't have a chance of surviving.

Besides, my mother still had far too vivid memories of her own fatherless upbringing, when Alexandra couldn't even scrape together enough to feed them, the months and years when she went hungry because they were literally too poor to eat. That is what divorce meant for a woman with no means and why she was, in effect, a prisoner of Malaka Nazli and had been since the age of twenty.

My father, for his part, cast a cool glance on the growing turbulence at home. He knew that he was in a position of strength, and no matter how much Edith wanted it, she would never be able to go through with a divorce. That could only come from him, and he had no desire to get out of the marriage, and no one else he wanted to marry. He had the beautiful children he always wanted, including the sons who would carry on his name. He had fulfilled his obligations. As long as he was home Friday night for the Sabbath dinner—and he always was—then he felt free to go about as he wished the rest of the week.

Through all of Edith's outbursts, it never occurred to my father to take the one step that would have instantly quieted her and reduced tensions: to change his lifestyle, to refrain from going out, or merely to come home a little earlier. Even if he'd wanted to, even for the sake of a fragile and illusory peace, the promise of harmony at home, it would have been impossible.

My father's life at night, his wanderings in white across a darkened Cairo, were as essential to him as oxygen.


my oldest brother learned to be a buffer between my warring parents. At first, the simple fact that César was the firstborn son, his place secure in a family that valued male children above all others, made him my mother's natural defender and protector. Dad could no longer express annoyance with her because she had produced the desired heir. The fact that César was a quiet, sweet-tempered child made it that much easier for him to assume the role of peacekeeper. He also projected uncanny maturity and understanding. Both my parents felt they could trust him—and each seemed convinced he loved them more.

“Il faut toujours consulter César,” my mother began to say, and—voilà—a legend was born:

If you need counsel, even on the thorniest problems, go immediately to see César.

Dad began taking my brother along to work and business meetings. He was only a little boy, seven or eight years old, but my father figured it was never too early to start grooming him to be a businessman and entrepreneur, and lectured him on the need to look and dress impeccably when seeing clients.

Meanwhile, my mother took to confiding in my brother because she valued his quiet insights. To both my parents, he was far more soothing company than Suzette, who was, from the start, such a wayward child. My sister reacted to the troubles at home by behaving ever more fretfully and becoming more rebellious. Early on, my mother had made the mistake of telling her the story of how Leon had reacted to her birth, forever turning daughter against father.

Unlike Suzette, my brother seemed to grow calmer with each of my parents' outbursts. Yet no one was more startled than he when my parents told him they were going on a trip to the Abbassiyah district, and that he was coming along. As he sat in the taxi between Mom and Dad, the ten- or twenty-minute ride to the neighborhood on the far side of Malaka Nazli seemed endless and somewhat scary, since my brother had no idea where he was being taken, and why. He noticed that my parents weren't speaking to each other, that they only addressed him. Mom seemed especially nervous, and she was holding his hand tightly. Dad was cooler and more detached, gazing quietly out the window as the scenery changed from the lively elegance of our boulevard to the poorer, bustling streets of an older Cairo, crowded with open-air stalls where traders and merchants peddled cheap wares.

Occasionally my father would reach into his pocket and offer him a bonbon, which made my brother oddly more anxious, since he wondered what kind of journey they were undertaking; if it was simply a family outing, then why didn't they include Suzette and Isaac, who had stayed behind on Malaka Nazli?

At last, the taxi came to a stop in front of a small building where Cairo's Jewish community maintained some offices. César, still holding both my parents' hands, followed them into the office of a tall, forbidding-looking man who wore a dark skullcap on his head, and whom Mom immediately addressed as “Hacham,” the honorific for rabbi. He invited them all to sit down around his desk.

“Quel gentil petit garçon,” the rabbi said, praising César as a sweet child. Both my parents smiled graciously, but Mom was clearly on edge.

This was as far as the small talk went. The rabbi immediately began to quiz my parents on the state of their marriage. What was so wrong? Why had life together become so impossible? All the while he spoke, he kept peering at my brother, sitting quietly in the seat between Mom and Dad.

The rabbi noticed that unlike other children he'd observed in similar situations, César had a remarkable ability to sit absolutely still.

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