The Arro­gant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn

By – October 31, 2011

This new mem­oir by the author of The Man in the White Shark­skin Suit con­tains a reminder that once upon a time in old Cairo it was pos­si­ble to be Jew­ish and a pasha … Jew­ish and an aris­to­crat, Jew­ish and a friend to min­is­ters and kings.”

Such a time was fat­ed to end when Gamal Abdel Nass­er and his gang of anti-Semi­tes assumed pow­er in Egypt dur­ing the 1960s and prompt­ed a new Jew­ish exo­dus from Egypt, which encom­passed the Jew­ish pop­u­lace from the hum­blest shop­keep­ers to the once polit­i­cal­ly impor­tant, high­ly cul­tured and wealthy Cat­taui family.

While many depart­ing Jews head­ed for Israel and Europe after Nasser’s ascent, some elect­ed to emi­grate to Amer­i­ca, and it becomes appar­ent that Leon Lagnado’s deci­sion to move his fam­i­ly to New York led to his own decline and his family’s dif­fi­cult strug­gle to suc­ceed in their new world.

It is their sto­ry that is told in this mem­oir, which begins with a light-heart­ed descrip­tion of the author’s reli­gious life as a rebel­lious child in Cairo’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and con­tin­ues to describe and exam­ine the years that fol­lowed, her arro­gant years, splashed with mis­ery at Vas­sar, but suc­cess at Colum­bia, and enriched by the Don­nell library, but spat­tered by social mis­ad­ven­tures, all cul­mi­nat­ing in her strug­gle to sur­vive the rav­ages of cancer.

Reach­ing adult­hood in a new land was not with­out its chal­lenges for Lucette and her adored moth­er. The tale she tells is one of des­per­a­tion mixed with some tri­umph, and accep­tance of the inevitable.

Writ­ing with humor and affec­tion, Lagna­do pro­vides a mas­ter­ful inter­lac­ing of her life sto­ry with the his­to­ry and sub­se­quent dis­place­ment of Cairo’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Of those whose lives touched hers, many fared well in the lands to which they had escaped, as she lat­er learns and discloses.

With this mem­oir, Lagna­do has tran­scend­ed the pas­sage of time, bring­ing her van­ished world back to life and cre­at­ing an indeli­ble fam­i­ly pic­ture, with her moth­er tow­er­ing over all, and lin­ger­ing in the mind.

Claire Rudin is a retired direc­tor of the New York City school library sys­tem and for­mer librar­i­an at the Holo­caust Resource Cen­ter and Archives in Queens, NY. She is the author of The School Librar­i­an’s Source­book and Chil­dren’s Books About the Holocaust.

Discussion Questions

1. Egypt’s Gold­en Era: Lucette Lagna­do opens the Egypt sec­tion of her book with a descrip­tion of Cairo in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when she says the dif­fer­ent eth­nic and reli­gious groups lived in har­mo­ny and Jews held very high posi­tions in this Mus­lim soci­ety. Is it still pos­si­ble to imag­ine in our Post‑9/​11 uni­verse a world where Jews and Mus­lims and Chris­tians would live, and thrive, togeth­er in the same cul­ture. What was it about King Fouad’s Egypt that made that pos­si­ble, that hasn’t been the case in decades?

2. A Woman in Egypt: Lagnado’s moth­er, Edith, stands out because she pur­sues her edu­ca­tions, reads avid­ly, and gets a job as a teacher and librar­i­an in 1930s Cairo. Yet she aban­dons her job when she becomes engaged to be mar­ried. How com­mon was that in the world beyond Cairo – wasn’t it the same dilem­ma women faced even in Amer­i­ca until fair­ly recent­ly? How did the women’s move­ment of the 1970s change that? Is it chang­ing back — with more and more young women elect­ing to give up careers when they mar­ry and have a family?

3. What are Arro­gant Years”? What is the mean­ing of arro­gant years”? Is it only the purview of young women to have arro­gant years,” that time when they are at their pret­ti­est and most self-con­fi­dent – can the idea also apply to men?

4. The Sig­nif­i­cance of the Women’s Sec­tion: Lagnado’s nar­ra­tive opens in a small syn­a­gogue of her child­hood where women sit sequestered from the men — and Lagna­do describes her­self as both lov­ing the sec­tion and want­i­ng to break out of it. Dis­cuss impor­tance of the notion of dividers through­out this book; at the end does she feel dif­fer­ent­ly about it?

5. The Divider As A Sym­bol Of The World Before The Women’s Move­ment And What Has Hap­pened Since: Late in the book, Lagna­do remarks that the last sev­er­al decades were ones in which women gen­er­al­ly— women who weren’t Jew­ish, women who weren’t obser­vant — broke down bar­ri­ers and, in a sense, went to sit with the men. But she seems bit­ter­sweet about this — dis­cuss her ambiva­lence toward some of the achieve­ments of the fem­i­nist move­ment. What was it about the world of the women’s sec­tion that the author came to miss so much, and what rel­e­vance does it hold for women com­ing of age nowa­days — is the long­ing for com­mu­ni­ty and close­ness mak­ing a comeback?

6. Rebuild­ing the Hearth: The theme of fam­i­ly and home are cen­tral to this book even as Lagna­do depicts the unrav­el­ing of a fam­i­ly in Amer­i­ca. Dis­cuss the pres­sures that fam­i­lies face in this coun­try and what makes chil­dren leave to live thou­sands of miles apart from their loved ones. Are there any signs this is changing?

7. The Care of the Elder­ly: A sub­text of this book is how wretched­ly the elder­ly fare in mod­ern Amer­i­can soci­ety. Often left to fend for them­selves­many can’t cope and end up in insti­tu­tions. Is Lagna­do fair to the med­ical and nurs­ing home sys­tem that has evolved the last sev­er­al decades to care for the elderly?

8. The Mys­tery of the Pasha’s Wife: The nar­ra­tive is car­ried by a mys­tery that haunts Lagna­do — who was the Pasha’s wife who had haunt­ed her moth­er (and who haunts Lagna­do her­self) and what was the mean­ing of the key? Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of the rela­tion­ship between Mrs. Cat­taui Pasha and young Edith.

9. Super­sti­tion and the Evil Eye”: Lagna­do is also haunt­ed by the sense that her fam­i­ly is cursed, that long ago a hex was put on them and that each mem­ber has suf­fered as a result. Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of these super­sti­tious beliefs – do they have any place or rel­e­vance in mod­ern-day Amer­i­ca? Do you think peo­ple are still superstitious?

10. Ill­ness and its After­math: The notion of seque­lae”— of the psy­cho­log­i­cal after-effects of a major ill­ness — also dri­ves the book. Does Lagna­do ever over­come her bout with Hodgkin’s at 16? Is there ever any clo­sure, any sense that she has got­ten beyond it, or is the read­er left feel­ing she is still suf­fer­ing the after-effects?