Earlier this week, Lucette Lagnado wrote about an arrogant revolution and about mourning her Arab Spring. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
This past weekend I was lost — and found — in Brooklyn.
My Sunday began with an appearance on a panel about the Arab Spring at the chic, hipsterish Brooklyn Book Festival. It was an animated discussion, and my fellow panel-members were amiable, but I felt lonely, very much in the minority as I spoke out against the brutal attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The attempted storming of the embassy last week was a turning point as far as I was concerned, a time to start asking tough questions about the revolution and whether it had gone seriously off-track, to demand to know what happened to the early goals of democracy and peace on Tahrir Square.
The consensus, though, was that revolutions took time to play out – one member suggested 100 years.
And I thought there was such a desperate need for change – immediate reforms.
One thoughtful panel member from Cairo did suggest that many Egyptians were shocked by the attack, that it was unexpected; I was heartened to hear at least that there was a sense of shame about it in Egypt.
I walked out feeling oddly blue, melancholy. Here I was in Brooklyn, where I grew up, and yet I was struck by that feeling of not belonging that returns to haunt me every once in a while.
As I wandered the streets of Brooklyn Heights with its multi-million dollar mansions and elegant residents, and then of nearby Park Slope which is, if possible, looking even sleeker these days, I realized that this fashionable Brooklyn had nothing to do with the Brooklyn of my childhood, the borough where my family and I had once sought refuge, where we had found a haven among equally impoverished refugees from the Levant.
I also knew the only possible way to cope with my funk was to go immediately to that Brooklyn.
* * * *
I have always thought it was odd that with this Brooklyn renaissance, the fact that some of the borough’s most God forsaken areas have become de rigueur, my little enclave of Bensonhurst has remained decidedly un-chic.
I return every few months and find it to be pretty much the same as it was in my childhood – staid and lacking in the coolness factor.
Some more immigrant groups have moved in, to be sure, I see a lot of Russians, and even some Hassids – but not a single hipster. Not one.
Nor any of the young professional families that favor organic food co-ops.
No, those quiet somewhat dreary blocks are pretty much the way they were when I was a kid, longing to escape and wishing there was more excitement.
My trips to Bensonhurst always have a ritual quality to them, like a religious pilgrimage. I must go to this block, I tell myself, I must pay my respects to that building.
The ritual includes taking my (very obliging) husband to key markers of my childhood and pointing them out all over again.
“This was our first apartment in America,” I’ll say, “This was where Key Food, my first American supermarket was situated.”
The high point of all such trips is a visit to 67th street, the block of the Magen David Synagogue (“The Shield of David” in my book), once the center of Syrian Jewish life in New York, and its frail little neighbor, the building that housed my shul.
Magen David is still there, but it is a mortuary now. I have been told there are occasional services, possibly even for the high holidays, but it is central function is clear, and has been clear for years – it is where the community comes to honor its dead.
No matter how many times I hear that, it still shocks me, still makes me sad. As for the little annex, the one that I refer to as the Shield of Young David in my memoir, it has gone through a thousand incarnations since it was sold in the 1970s. These days, it appears to be a religious school.
On this Sunday afternoon, I make a discovery that actually helps me combat my Brooklyn Heights blues. There in the front of the building of my old shul are children – young Orthodox children scampering about, running around the courtyard.
“They are playing in the courtyard, the way you did as a child,” my husband points out.
It has taken years, decades, yet I realize that against the odds, hope has come back to this small corner of Brooklyn that continues to haunt my imagination as nowhere else on earth.
Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World.
Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
I have been gripped by fear since January, watching the uprisings, not knowing how these movements would all shake out, unable to get my arms around them. Lately, fear has been replaced by sadness and melancholy. I feel as if a chapter is ending for me – the chapter of my personal Arab Spring.
In the last couple of years since my memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, came out, I savored the opportunity to reach distant audiences, but looking back, nothing stirred me as much as my book’s popularity in Egypt.
When I first heard my book was selling briskly in Cairo, I was amazed. Why would a memoir by an Egyptian-Jew about her exiled family resonate in Egypt? Why would Egyptian Moslems or Christians even care about my story?
On a visit to Cairo and the popular Diwan bookshop, a sparkling oasis of Arabic and foreign language books complete with a coffee bar, I spoke to the owner and learned that Sharkskin was in effect a bestseller.
Its owner invited me to do a reading. I still recall the joyous, loving crowd circling around me – elegant women not in veils, debonair gentlemen who seemed to have stepped out of my father’s 1940s Cairo.
Looking out at the crowd I had my own Sally Fields-at-the-Oscars moment: They like me, they really like me, I thought.
After my lecture, young woman, a reporter, came over and said, “You are as Egyptian as I am.”
When my book was published in Arabic, I returned for another reading. This time I stood side by side with my Egyptian publisher at Diwan. I would read a passage, he would read the same passage in Arabic. I have never felt so proud – I was being read in the language of my father.
I continued to hear from Egyptians when I returned to the U.S. They managed to find me through email or Facebook, and they seemed very anxious to tell me how they felt about my book – how much they’d loved it. Many addressed me by my childhood nickname, “Loulou.” I corresponded with several of them, moved by how eager they were to befriend me. I thought of moving back to Egypt – perhaps renting an apartment for several months. That is what I mean by experiencing my own Arab Spring – a time when I felt reconciled with my own past.
I had stumbled quite by accident into an Egypt that was terribly nostalgic, that was turning to the past as one way to escape the tribulations of life. There was a longing to learn about the monarchy, and there was also a hunger to learn about Jews.
Once upon a time, Jews were all around, fully integrated members of Egyptian society. They went to school with Muslim children and later as adults they worked side by side with them, and often they socialized together. Then, suddenly they were gone – a community of 80,000 began leaving in droves, until there were only a handful of Jews left. An entire generation of Egyptians grew up without knowing Jews – only hearing about them through their parents or relatives.
Then Sharkskin came along, and Egyptians began to rediscover Jews.
Some were too young to have known any – they actually wrote to tell me that – and yet had heard stories from relatives who still remembered the days when Egypt was a cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-ethnic society.
Those first months of the revolution, the emails and letters stopped. I felt badly – I’d always been so excited to receive them. But they’ve resumed of late, and in my Facebookpage, many of the people who reach out to me are Egyptian.
Yet it is not the same. Egypt suddenly seems like a forbidding society. There have been too many disturbing incidents, chaos reigns, as does hostility toward Jews.
And that is what I mean by the end of my Arab Spring – a sense that I really can’t go home again.
Lucette Lagnado will be blogging here all week.