The Sag Harbor author and Wall Street Journal reporter on winning the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World,” the loss of a multi-cultural city and meeting ghosts from her past.
What exactly is the Sami Rohr Prize and why is it significant.
The Sami Rohr Prize was created by his son, George Rohr, as an 80th birthday gift for his dad. They established a literary prize and made it the largest in the Jewish literary world — $100,000. One day there was a call that I was one of five finalists. They were offered a couple hundred books, it’s a very interesting process. As a finalist, I had to meet before nine judges, not just for the book, but for myself. I have to be an ambassador of the Rohr prize. They want it to have an impact.
When they told me I had won, it was a strange night where I was sure I had imagined it or misunderstood them. Here my husband Doug [Feiden] and I are both reporters, he says, ‘You think you won?’ Then the next morning they announced it on the wire.
The ceremony was in Jerusalem and can best be compared to a big Jewish wedding. It was very lavish and in a British colonial hotel. There were hundreds of people there and I was handed a check for $100,000.
What do you think made the Rohr judges pick you as the winner?
First, they were looking for someone who showed promise in writing about the Jewish condition. I feel like I’ve changed the world in a way. There are now all sorts of books coming out about Jews from Arab countries. Secondly, 85,000 Jews in Egypt and one million European Christians were all thrown out or left the Middle East. What happened to them? My line is they or their descendents are all emailing me this year. Between my book, which became almost a touchstone for them and the Internet, they’ve formed chat groups and are rediscovering themselves.
Can you elaborate about some of the feedback you have gotten about the book since its release?
The responses have been literally beyond belief. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t find a letter or two in my email or a physical letter. The letters are from around the world and local. Last week I arrived at the Wall Street Journal and there was a pink envelope from my fourth grade elementary school teacher who is in a class picture in the book. She asked if she could meet me. I get letters from people who want to be my friend. It’s so odd, they don’t really know me.
Little by little, I realized ‘The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit’ has this cult following. I would like to say it’s wonderful. But I don’t get it. It’s bizarre. People continue to write me notes. People call me and they want to meet me and come to my readings. I did a reading this week, and someone said ‘I’d walk the ends of the earth to meet you.’
It’s been a year of meeting ghosts. Ghosts from my past. They come to every reading. The co-owner of the children’s shop where we couldn’t afford to buy the dress I wanted as a child in Brooklyn. A nun who was part of the order that my uncle belonged to who had converted and become a priest turned up at a reading in St. Paul. The 87-year-old son of our first landlord in America. He came to my reading and prepared these Middle Eastern cookies with his mother’s recipe that I remembered as a child and they were delicious.
I guess I wrote a nonfiction brook, but it’s been truer than I knew. I can almost piece it together. It’s the opposite of James Frey. It’s a truth you didn’t even know.
What is it about the story that has struck such a chord?
I have no idea. Analytically, I’ve brought back a culture that was unbelievably beautiful and full of multicultural aspects — the United States loves that. But in Mumbai just two weeks ago, they slaughtered Jews and westerners. In the book, I remember Cairo and this glamorous society and, by the way, Jews and Muslims and Christians inhabited it together. I think it’s a fascination.
One of the letters came from a retired Egyptian diplomat. He describes completely identifying with my book despite not being a Jew. He lived in the same area and mostly wanted to apologize for what has been done to the Jews of Egypt.
I wrote about a group of refugees who had gotten not an iota of attention. There were 90,000 Jews who left Arab countries and no one had given a damn about their story. They went to Israel, France, Africa, the United States. They went on with their lives and reinvented themselves. Then my book came along and it was a reminder there were two narratives of pain in Middle East — the Palestinian narrative, which is very painful, and another that is also very painful.
Do you think such a multi-cultural society as that which you recall from Cairo will ever be possible there again?
I’d like to think so. Fundamentally the souls and cultures of the Egyptian people were compatible. The Muslims of Egypt were very loving to Jews and Christians. The other side for me is witnessing Mumbai and thinking, ‘Lucette you fool, it will never be again.’
For a truly multi-cultural society you should have known Egypt. The good news is my book is being published in Arabic. First, I heard it was being translated into Hebrew by a good Israeli publishing company. Then my agent tells me we have an offer for an Egyptian edition in five figures — that’s $500. I was more excited about that than any other offer I had. My book will now be in Arabic in stores in the city where my father walked.”
“Al-Ahram newspaper, a very respected paper of Egypt, did a story on the Jews of Egypt and they ran my parents’ wedding picture. For my next trip, I’ll write to the editor and say ‘I want to meet you.’ Someone out there reading the paper must have known my parents. This is a lost world — a world interrupted. One of the people who contacted me said, ‘We never had a chance to say goodbye.’ I’m seeing an on-line rebuilding of a community — and now my book will be in Arabic.”
What have you done with your Rohr Prize winnings?
“I haven’t spent a penny of it. I feel it’s a really precious fund. There’s an intimation of trouble on the horizon. I just put it in a savings account. I look like a genius.”
Lucette Lagnado reads from her memoir at Romany Kramoris Gallery (41 Main Street, Sag Harbor) this Saturday, December 20 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. In honor of the theme, there will be a belly dancer and Middle Eastern refreshments.
Lagnado’s book has also been optioned by filmmaker Anthony Bregman, producer of the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”