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

HarperCollins  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.

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 themselves
many 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?

Read Lucette Lagnado's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

An Arrogant Revolution

Mourning My Arab Spring

Lost and Found in Brooklyn




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