Lucette Lagnado's "The Arrogant Years" is an elegant and elegiac memoir about her family's life in Cairo and their resettlement in America. Lagnado, an award-winning investigative reporter, invests her writing with so much warmth, humor, and evocative detail that we find ourselves strolling with her down the streets of Cairo; dropping in on her family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; sitting with her in the woman's section of her synagogue, the Shield of Young David; and accompanying her on her odyssey from a sheltered young woman to an independent and, at times, conflicted adult.
The author's candor, appreciation of her multicultural heritage (Jewish, as well as Arabic and French), and understanding of how the past and the present are intertwined, all breathe life into this account of a youngster who is bright, curious, and always a bit dissatisfied. She alludes to the once Golden Age in Cairo, where Jews held prominent positions and lived with Muslims and Christians in harmony. In fact, Madame Alice Cattaui Pasha, a beautiful and compassionate woman, was one of the wealthiest, grandest, and most influential people in Cairo. The elegant Madame Cattaui, who was Jewish, was the king's confidante. She socialized with eminent men and women, hosted magnificent gatherings, and took time from her busy schedule to lend assistance to impoverished students.
Everything changed in 1956, when many Egyptian Jews started to flee the country to such far-flung locations as Australia and Brazil. In 1963, Lagnado's family traveled briefly to France and then took up residence in Brooklyn. Although they were members of a close-knit community, they were no longer prosperous. Edith, Lucette's mother, was a beautiful, sensitive, and highly intelligent woman who suffered a loss of self-esteem after giving up her adored teaching job in Egypt. Suddenly, she was trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage to a domineering older man, and she sorely missed the intellectual stimulation that she once enjoyed.
This story has a universal quality that expresses the yearning of many immigrants to feel safe and cared for. Lagnado beautifully articulates her strong desire to fit in with her peers, wear the right clothes, feel less lonely, and fulfill herself as an independent woman. Should she shed the trappings of Orthodox Judaism as she goes out into the world? How will she cope with her increasingly distant and ailing father, her melancholy mother, and an illness that hit her like a thunderbolt when she was still in her teens? This is a lyrical, honest, and moving memoir (with wonderful black and white photographs) that sheds light not only on Lucette's life, but also on the challenges that Jews have faced since time immemorial. Lagnado generously opens up her heart and shares her innermost thoughts, dreams, and heartaches with her readers. We are the richer for it.