The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (4 page)

BOOK: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
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Once he had cemented a bond, he would whip out his notebook and carefully take down their orders:

Ten bottles of soda. Eight cans of sardines. A dozen bars of soap. Four large kegs of olive oil. Two sacks of flour.

To my Milanese cousin, it all seemed so slight and insignificant. Was it possible that his glamorous, aloof Oncle Leon, who was always leaving home for some alluring world beyond Malaka Nazli, was so small-time? That he made his living collecting a few piasters from the sale of a couple of jugs of olive oil and a dozen sardine tins?

Except that several hours and countless merchants later, Leon was still going strong, jotting down more orders, whereas Salomone was on the verge of collapse. He had entirely lost track of what Leon was doing, and had no idea of the sheer volume of his business, and wanted only to get out of the sun and go lie down in his dark, cool room in the back of Malaka Nazli.

Within a few years, Dad had graduated from the little grocers near Malaka Nazli to customers that included the largest concerns in Cairo, including Groppi's, the legendary Swiss patisserie that was a central meeting point for café society, and Spatis, the Greek soda manufacturer whose bottles of fizzy, lemony pop were all the rage in Egypt, and later still, Coca-Cola. He thrived on his reputation as a
négociant,
a broker, because he could locate any product, however trivial or obscure, and he was known as a man of his word.

He profited handsomely because he was so unencumbered, with almost none of the trappings of a big businessman—no capital, no overhead, no inventory or backlog, no warehouse, no discernible assets (or liabilities), no employees, and most important of all, no boss.

He didn't even maintain a line of credit with his suppliers; he operated on a system of hard cash and absolute honor. Whatever he bought, he paid for then and there. He disdained contracts and signed documents, and when he gave his word, it was enough; he had a special fondness for what he called “gentlemen's agreements.”

One of his clients was a purveyor of gourmet products, including spices, canned goods, and culinary supplies. My father would visit the firm on El Azhar Square, by the large mosque, at least once a week. As he swept through the office on his way to meet with the top managers and place his orders, he was careful not to overlook anyone, even lowly clerks. He'd reach into his pocket and fish out some bonbons and fling them on every desk along the way, as if he were throwing dice on a gambling table.

He filled a room; the entire staff would stop what they were doing and look up. And unlike most clients who dropped by and chatted familiarly in Arabic, Dad was fond of dropping Britishisms—offering a clipped “Good morning” or “How are you, old chap?” He'd pepper his conversation with “Jolly good,” and some of the staff would call out, “Captain,” and rise and offer a playful salute.

The company was essential to his business, yet here, too, while he was a sizable client who placed frequent orders, my father never kept an account as so many others did, which would have allowed him to enjoy a line of credit and order as much as he wanted. He preferred to buy only the items he needed—
sel du citron,
used in baking, for in
stance—and pay cash, removing wads of bills from his brown leather wallet.

He had no desire to incur debts, and besides, cash transactions left no paper trail. Nearly all what he did was off the books, and he conducted his business affairs the way he conducted his personal affairs—in strict secrecy, confiding in no one. It was what made him a superlative businessman, and it was the Aleppo way. How he turned a profit ranked among the mysteries of the universe—as elusive as the soft gleam of his jacket, as indefinable as his charm.

 

ON FRIDAY NIGHT, HE
stopped. He was a different person on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, arriving well before sundown with a large bouquet of roses for my grandmother and embracing his nephew before preparing for synagogue.

Zarifa would be in the kitchen, more cheerful than usual because this was the one night of the week she would have her son at the dinner table. She prepared the meats and chicken and rice that were her specialty, cooked in the style of Aleppo, with a hint of fruit. There was also stuffed eggplant—white, not black, because black brought bad luck. Every self-respecting Levantine household was obsessed with warding off the evil eye. On the Sabbath, you avoided dark clothing, dark thoughts, and dark foods. Even black olives were banned from the table to guarantee a good week.

Dressing for temple required the same attention to detail as dressing to go out on the town. Leon put on a white shirt made of the finest cotton and a white jacket. For jewelry, he liked a more sober tie clip adorned with a single pearl.

By sunset, the streets around Malaka Nazli welled up with men in elegant suits holding velvet or satin pouches as they walked. They were on their way to temple, and the satchels contained their prayer shawls and prayer books and skullcaps. In a way of life the world has now forgotten, this quintessentially Arab city was supremely accepting of its Jewish inhabitants. Muslims and Jews lived in close quarters—in the same streets, the same buildings—and usually very harmoniously. No one wore the skullcap outdoors, it is true, religion was a discreet
affair—yet it was obvious to anyone that these were Jews on their way to pray at one of the dozen synagogues that flourished around our Ghamra neighborhood.

My dad had his pick, and depending on his mood, he would pray in this temple or that. He relished a small, simple, deeply intimate house of worship in an alleyway a couple of streets away known simply as “le Kottab,” or the Schoolhouse. Another favorite was
Ahavah ve ahabah,
the Congregation of Love and Friendship, where his favorite rabbi, a diminutive hunchback named Halfon Savdie, drew a lively crowd because of his eloquence and amiability. Dad adored Rabbi Halfon.

When services were over, the exquisitely dressed men once again crowded the streets, laughing and joking as they hurried home to their wives and children, anxious to sample the special Friday-night cooking whose smells filled the night air of Ghamra.

At home, Zarifa had set the dining room table with a white tablecloth, and after my father and Salomone were seated, she and the maid came in with the courses she had devoted much of her day to preparing, since it was necessary to cook both for Friday night and Saturday. Sabbath dinner was a quiet affair, with no cousins or guests or relatives.

My father poured a cup of homemade wine from a bottle. Everyone stood up as he recited the blessing on the ersatz wine, and afterward he and my cousin went to my grandmother and kissed her hand, then returned to their seats.

At last my grandmother smiled, delighted to have her tall, handsome son on one side of her, and her dashing grandson on the other. They no longer dined with kings, but she was in the company of two princes.

Come sunset on Saturday, the well-dressed men with velvet pouches under their arms could be seen returning from temple. The Sabbath was over, and each held a green sprig in their hands. It was a branch of myrtle, which emits a powerful, almost dizzying scent. They had been given the pungent herb at the close of the service, when the rabbi recited the Prayer of the Perfume. A new week was beginning, and the soul needed to be fortified.

What none of Leon's acquaintances could do was reconcile the man
at synagogue, who seemed so immersed in his prayers, and was relentless about observing every ritual, fasting every fast, and obeying every possible commandment, and the man who disappeared night after night for forbidden, sinful pursuits.

It was as if two people resided within one sharkskin suit, one who was pious and whose vestments resembled those of the priests at the Great Temple, all white and sparkling and pure, and the very different creature who led a secret, intensely thrilling life far beyond Malaka Nazli.

It was a life of pleasure, and one that Leon's mother disapproved of. She was insistent it had to end. Under Aleppo's code of honor, a man was granted enormous latitude as to when to marry; unlike a woman, he could be in his twenties, thirties, forties, and still make a dazzling match. But under that same code, he, too, had to choose a wife. There were no permanent dispensations, even for men like my father who had no desire whatsoever to settle down. He had ignored Zarifa in his youth, but her entreaties, though he'd never admit it, were beginning to wear him down.

 

ONE TERRIBLE MORNING IN
the summer of 1942, Rommel boasted on the air he would be at Groppi's by five that afternoon. Mussolini, meanwhile, sent word that Egyptian women should prepare their loveliest party dresses for the bash he planned to throw once the Nazis controlled Egypt. The Nazi general was less than an hour away from Alexandria, his seemingly unbeatable army ensconced in the town of El Alamein, and he was confident he would be able to vanquish Cairo in time to enjoy afternoon tea at Shepheard's and a pastry at the legendary patisserie. As if that would establish the Reich's supremacy.

Groppi's had as much symbolic value for Cairenes as Maxim's and the Hotel Meurice for Parisians, and the Nazis had made a great show of taking over both after invading Paris. The Germans had a fine-honed instinct for grabbing a city's most desirable properties and then settling in with great fanfare, and in Cairo, the café and pastry shop on Suleiman Pasha Square and its annex on Adli Pasha were unquestionably the places to see and be seen. Indeed, they were the favored meeting
ground of all the Reich's enemies—the French, the British, the Australians, the Greeks, and the Jews.

For Leon, if there was a paradise on earth, its name was Groppi. Part café and part patisserie, part bar and part trysting ground, the fabled establishment was never as glittering as when British officers stationed in Cairo decided to make it their personal haunt in the war years. The officers loved to escort their wives—or their mistresses, or their girlfriends—there for a spot of afternoon tea and dessert. And because the British were there, so was my father, and because they adored it, so did he.

Every Jewish household was panic-stricken at the prospect of the Nazis storming Egypt. “The Germans will arrive and cut our throats,” they said.

At the House of the Mother, Farida Sabagh had been telling the men for days to stay calm. Cairo was after all the land of prophets and mystics, she reminded them all—the birthplace of Moses, the home of Maimonides, the city where Jeremiah, the mournful prophet, and Elijah, the immortal one, were known to have sojourned. They would never abandon us, Madame Sabagh proclaimed, raising her arms toward the sky in prayer.

“Dieu est grand,” my father cried out, eyeing his new hand of cards.

As a gambler, Leon believed that luck could change, and that the British were due for some good luck. But as a close observer of the war, he feared that Rommel, the German “Desert Fox,” was unstoppable, and that only a miracle could save Egypt. As a devout Jew, he believed with perfect faith in the possibility of such a miracle.

The men continued playing, reassured by the notion that holy men of centuries past were watching over them. All the Jews of Cairo felt vulnerable, especially those who had already escaped from Hitler's clutches in Europe and were now frantically making plans to flee again.

In her kitchen on Malaka Nazli, my grandmother wept softly over her Primus. Zarifa always cried when she was afraid. She had a daughter in Nazi territory and now the entire family was at risk, for there was no doubt what would become of the Jews were the Germans to prevail at El Alamein.

It quickly became clear that Rommel wouldn't get to savor even one morsel of Groppi's fine pastries. He suffered the worst defeat at El Alamein that the German army had known to date, and was forced into a humiliating retreat, his army in tatters, his tanks destroyed, and his legendary pride shattered. Cairo breathed normally again, and Cairo's
haute societé—
British officers, Frenchmen, Australians, and of course, Jews—converged on Groppi's to celebrate, confident for the first time the war would go their way. At the afternoon tea dance my father joyfully attended, the orchestra played on and on.

While the Nazis had been routed from Egypt, and were suffering one humiliating defeat after another in North Africa, the rest of the world was still at war. Refugees continued to pour into Cairo, seeking haven. Everyone was making fast decisions, as if there was no time to waste. There was also the fact that in Egypt, at least, the Jews had stayed miraculously safe.

As Cairo's was one of the few Jewish communities to be left whole, it was now possible to envision a future, to think of marriage and children. In the spring of 1943, several months after England's stunning show at El Alamein, and as it routed the Nazis out of Africa, my father brought home a young woman with a regal bearing and the wide, frightened eyes of a doll. No one was more surprised than Zarifa when he announced his engagement to twenty-year-old Edith.

A
lexandra and Edith made their way to Malaka Nazli for the first crucial family get-together. Mother and daughter tried their best to get their bearings in this house where the matriarch dressed and behaved like an old Arab woman, so that even in the heart of Cairo, it was as if they had wandered into another culture, another era. Lending them moral support was a man they worshipfully called Oncle Edouard, though he was in fact Alexandra's stepson, and Edith's half brother. Edouard was older, richer, and formidable looking—the closest Edith had to a father figure since her own father had abandoned them. He also cared deeply about her and came prepared to do what only a man could do, offer his protection and negotiate any financial details of the impending union.

In truth there wasn't much to negotiate: Edith had nothing, no financial assets whatever.

My mother didn't have a clue, of course, about Leon's lifestyle. She didn't know of his habit of leaving Malaka Nazli early each morning and not returning till after midnight, and the whirlwind courtship and
family get-together didn't give her the opportunity to learn. The moment they walked in, Zarifa praised her son's fiancée for her beauty, calling her “heloua, heloua”—lovely, lovely—and patting her gently on the head. She disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with platter after platter of elegant handmade pastries and cookies, fruits and nuts, more pastries, and large carafes of freshly squeezed lemonade.

The wedding would take place almost immediately.

Of course, the ceremony would be at the Gates of Heaven, the large synagogue downtown. It was the only temple that could possibly accommodate all the aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces on Leon's side.

Edith shyly showed off her engagement ring, and her future mother-in-law bent down to peer at it, almost as if she were at the famous old souk in Aleppo inspecting a lemon or an apricot, and pronounced it satisfactory.

Watching on the sidelines was Salomone. He didn't say a word beyond the initial introductions, but he was struck by Edith's youth and vulnerability—she couldn't have been much older than him, yet there she was, marrying his uncle. Salomone would have to give up the spacious master bedroom he had enjoyed in the back. It was the room Edith and Leon would be occupying after their honeymoon.

When the newlyweds returned from Ras-el-Bar, the seaside resort whose charming bamboo huts overlooked the Mediterranean, my father seemed to have turned over a new leaf and to have abandoned most of his old habits. He still left early in the morning to go to synagogue and then to work, but instead of staying out all hours as before, he made it a point to come home for lunch and again at dinnertime.

He'd flick on the large wooden radio. He seemed content to while away the evening reading the paper and listening to the broadcast of Om Kalsoum singing at a downtown club, a reminder of the life he had left behind.

My grandmother immediately lauded her new daughter-in-law as lovely and refined. Zarifa appreciated the fact that Edith was learned—teaching was a very prestigious occupation—yet in truth, education mattered little to the elderly Syrian woman who could barely sign her own name. What counted were Edith's attributes as a wife, whether she
was a capable mate for Leon and would—
Inshallah
—bear him many children.

It was obvious within weeks of moving in that Edith lacked many of the necessary qualities, except youth and beauty.

To my grandmother's dismay, Edith showed little interest in the affairs of the house, and even less interest in cooking. She seemed nervous and uneasy in the one room that consumed and preoccupied Zarifa—the ancient little kitchen. My mother tiptoed curiously by the Primus, with its small sputtering sounds and heady scent of petrol, approaching it as if it were a foreign object. Alexandra, Edith's mother, was a different breed entirely than her new mother-in-law, and it wasn't only that she spoke French and Italian and disdained Arabic. She had an aristocratic outlook and demeanor, the product of a privileged upbringing in a wealthy Alexandrian Jewish family, and she had raised Edith to regard housework as beneath them even when there was no longer a hint of privilege in their lives. She encouraged her daughter to read books or go to the cinema, not waste her time in the kitchen.

After her father had left them, Edith had assumed most household duties and tried to care for all three of them—Alexandra, her brother, Félix, and herself. Yet she had inherited Alexandra's disdain for “women's work.” Besides, Edith assumed that since she had married into a family of wealth and stature, servants would do all the work.

This was the mind-set, fanciful and disastrous, that my twenty-year-old mother brought to her marriage to my forty-two-year-old father. If not for the maid and Zarifa's intense personal involvement in the affairs of the house, the beds would be left undone, the cupboards would be bare, the floors would accumulate dust, the Primus burner would remain shut, and no guests would join the family because there would be little to serve them.

Edith wasn't lazy or incompetent; she was simply terrified of the autocratic old woman who was the true ruler of Malaka Nazli. She was only too willing to cede control of the kitchen to her mother-in-law. She preferred to stay in the quiet master bedroom devouring her latest novel, and she missed her job at the École Cattaoui, which she'd given up—regretfully—because no self-respecting bride in 1940s Cairo continued working when she had a husband who could support her.

Zarifa issued her verdict about my mother: she is not a good homemaker. It was like a death sentence in a community where a woman is judged first and foremost by her appearance, and second, by how she runs her house. News of my mother's shortcomings spread beyond Malaka Nazli, to the homes of Zarifa's daughters and daughters-in-law.

The family was curious and by nature gregarious. They would drop in—my father's sisters, Leila, Marie, Rebekah, and his older brothers, Raphael and Shalom. The only ones who didn't come were Joseph, the oldest, and the richest, who lived in a mansion in Zamalek and was estranged from the family, and Salomon, the priest, who lived in Jerusalem and wasn't welcome on Malaka Nazli in any event.

All were somewhat puzzled by their brother's choice of bride—Edith was very pretty, certainly, but so slight and unassuming. After all these years, they had expected someone more prepossessing, not this poor humble girl from Sakakini.

Maybe they could tell she was no match for the Captain. In a society where men ruled, a woman had to have a strong character to hold her own in a marriage. It was clear to everyone that for all her attributes—her beauty, her charm, her education, her sense of humor—my mother would never be able to stand up to Leon.

Edith, for her part, liked most of her in-laws, particularly Rebekah, who had a good heart and seemed anxious to make her feel welcome, and Oncle Shalom, the poorest member of the family, who limped terribly in his elevated shoes, but made up for his infirmity by being exceedingly kind. But she was surprised by the women's custom of wearing robes or dressing gowns when they sat down at the dinner table. She was too shy to ask them why—was this some sort of quaint Syrian tradition brought over from Old Aleppo? She didn't feel comfortable imitating them. She wore a dress at dinner, whether there were guests at the table or not.

Then, there was the food itself. Lavish meals were served at Malaka Nazli almost every day, and every single dish seemed to be cooked with fruit, mostly apricots. It was all so different from the foods Edith was used to eating, made with onions and leeks, drenched in lemon, and fragrant with garlic. The tastes and smells from Zarifa's kitchen added
to Edith's sense of herself as a stranger who had wandered into a foreign country named Malaka Nazli.

 

MY GRANDMOTHER ZARIFA BELIEVED
that certain foods possessed magical powers.

Bananas and raw eggs were at the top of her list, along with almonds, sour cherries, olives, and, above all,
mesh-mesh,
ripe, luscious apricots. Zarifa would slip them into virtually any dish that was simmering on her Primus, and she was such a gifted cook that every course she prepared, from simple grilled meats to elaborate stews and roasts, emitted a mysterious, vaguely fruity aroma.

Anyone who came to dine at Malaka Nazli could count on a transcendent experience. What was in there? they'd wonder, amazed at their sense of absolute well-being.

They'd press their diminutive hostess, but she only smiled and refused to answer. But over coffee, she would drop a hint or two about a charmed and distant past.

“Once upon a time, we dined with kings,” my grandmother would exclaim in Arabic. Her soft voice rose as she stirred her coffee with a rapid encircling gesture, using the small gold spoon that no one else was allowed to touch.

In the summer there was news that brought a smile to the old matriarch: Edith was expecting. At last, Leon would have an heir.

But there was also tension at Malaka Nazli. The joy and excitement over the baby was overshadowed by a sudden turn in the marriage. Without warning, my father had gone back to his routine of going out night after night and never telling anyone—not even his new wife—where he was going. His old lifestyle resumed.

They had barely been married a few weeks, yet it was as if nothing had changed.

He moved out of the master bedroom he shared with Edith and reclaimed his old room, steps away from the front door. My mother was bewildered. She had a young woman's pride: Hadn't she been the
only
woman able to snare the elusive boulevardier? It didn't help that she was now pregnant, frightened and anxious about giving birth. Worst of
all was that she had no one to confide in, certainly not in her mother-in-law. Even Alexandra, who'd had her own disastrous experiences with a husband, had encouraged this union, seeing an opportunity for her daughter to marry a man of means and stature, and disregarding the
obvious danger signs—the large age difference, the immense cultural chasm between an older, worldly gentleman and a meek, inexperienced young woman.

281-Malaka Nazli.

And while there was Salomone, she could hardly speak to him about her marital woes. Thrown together in close quarters, they were genuinely compatible. Both were intellectual, and Salomone shared Edith's passion for books. She was comfortable conversing in Italian, which was a relief to the young man, who missed the language and ways of his native country. Yet she couldn't tell him what was paining her.

In a way, she didn't have to: there were no secrets on Malaka Nazli.

Salomone had watched the entire drama unfold—the hopeful engagement, the refined young fiancée, so different from the other women in the Syrian clan, the promising start of the marriage, followed almost immediately by my father's return to his old ways, and my mother's despair about being abandoned night after night.

Leon never took my mother along when he left, and he never answered her questions as to where he was going.

With her Proustian imagination, her knowledge of the seamier side of life that came only through literature, Edith feared the worst. The bon vivant qualities that had attracted her took on a darker cast. Surely my father had a mistress, she thought, or more than one. What else does a man do, far from his family, at 1:00 a.m., in Cairo?

Her vast readings couldn't provide her with the insight a more worldly woman would have had, and because she was fundamentally timid, in no way a match for this man who was answerable to no one, she found herself trapped in an unhappy union only months after it had been consummated.

There was no point in complaining to Zarifa. No self-respecting Aleppo matriarch would ever take the side of a daughter-in-law against her own son, at least not publicly.

In fact, though she defended Leon, my grandmother was deeply saddened by the turn of events. She, more than anyone, had hoped that her son's restless nature would be quieted once he was married. Yet even a beautiful, desirable young wife and the prospect of a child
seemed not to have altered my father's ways in the least, and he insisted on coming and going as he pleased from Malaka Nazli.

 

NINETEEN FORTY-FOUR BEGAN WITH
some promise. The showdown at El Alamein two years earlier had proved a watershed, halting the German army's relentless advance into North Africa.

“The Battle of Egypt,” as Churchill affectionately dubbed it, marked a turning point in the Allies' fortunes. In one fell swoop, the British had dashed Germany's dreams of seizing Cairo and controlling Egypt and the Suez Canal.

A jubilant Churchill, who visited Cairo several times during the war, declared, “Before Alamein, we never had a victory, and after Alamein, we never had a defeat.” Egypt, the land of miraculous unfoldings, had brought the Allies luck.

But the war wasn't over, and the war against the Jews had only intensified. It was always jarring to speak to the refugees who passed through Cairo. They were so breathless, on their way to the southernmost reaches of Africa, because anyone who had managed to flee Europe couldn't get far enough away and felt they had to keep running to the ends of the earth.

BOOK: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
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