Jehan Sadat: Going Her Solitary Way

Posted: September 06, 1987

When Jehan Sadat was a child in Egypt, her British-born mother nightly led her into the dark garden behind their home. All around them on the Nile island of Roda, other mothers sat by their daughters' bedsides, keeping vigil until they fell asleep, then lighting candles should they awaken later and be frightened. But Gladys Charles Cotrell Raouf, herself a woman of formidable courage, would not suffer such softness in her little girl. And so each evening she sent Jehan into the black and made her find her way around the garden three times. By doing this, she hoped, Jehan would never fear being alone.

A harsh lesson perhaps but, as time would prove, not overly so. Since then, Jehan Sadat has been in far darker and lonelier places, the worst of them being widowhood. On the morning of Oct. 6, 1981, as she and her grandchildren sat on a glassed-in balcony watching the Egyptian army's annual review at Nasr City, a grenade hit the stands less than a hundred feet below, then a burst of submachine gun fire. Among the overturned chairs and sprawled bodies shrouded by smoke lay the visionary president of the republic, Anwar Sadat - for more than 30 years her light, suddenly out.

At 54, she is no less an elegant and handsome woman today than then, with deep henna hair against almost pearl-like skin. Her chin has retained its stately first-lady tilt, her figure its familiar maternal sturdiness. Yet beneath it all now is a sadness that, from time to time, wells in the eyes and chokes the voice. "It is very hard sometimes," she says of the last six years without him. "Such a wonderful love story we were." She lays a finger along a lower lid, like a dam, until the glistening subsides. A smile, maybe a bit too stouthearted and firmly set, appears. "But my mother, I think, she prepare me well. I can find my way alone."

Jehan Sadat's way has taken her far from the life she once had as the most powerful political wife in the Middle East, both loved and loathed for the tooth-and-nail fight she waged for the rights of oft-subordinated Muslim women. It has taken her also out of Egypt, part-time at least, to an unextravagant house in Great Falls, Va., where she spends six months of every year. And now to hotel suites like this one at the Latham, where she is holding court for reporters to promote her new autobiography, A Woman of Egypt (Simon & Schuster).

How much she misses her homeland, she concedes at one point during an interview. "Coming (to America) was very good idea - for a time," she says, her heavily accented English richer for its imperfections. "But only for a time. How much longer I will be doing this back and forth, I myself do not know. I cannot forever be so much away from my country."

A few years ago, Jehan Sadat believed that she had little choice. Following her husband's assassination by Islamic fundamentalists outraged at his efforts to forge a peace with Israel, a campaign to discredit both Sadats as West-leaning and corrupt percolated through Egypt. Every morning she awoke to newspapers filled with "rumors and lies, rumor and lies, until I think I cannot stand this anymore."

She did not fear her own murder. "It is known that the fundamentalists do not kill women," she says with an acid laugh. "That is one good thing that can be said for them." Yet she felt herself dying in a different way. Even after the traditional year-long mourning period had ended, she remained dressed in black, holed up inside their home, watching videos and listening to tapes of his voice, to trick herself into believing that he was still there. Once a woman of unflagging energy, she pulled out of the charitable organizations she had shepherded - the massive women's vocational cooperative in Talla, the network of orphans' villages, the Wafa' wal Amal training centers for the disabled. "I had no heart for any of it."

Though she fought it, Oct. 6 continually replayed in her mind. The way Sadat turned in his seat and looked up to her in the stands with what she remembers as the most serene smile she'd ever seen on his face . . . then the screaming of jets through the air, the bullets and the cries. Her own grandchildren, who witnessed the slaughter, persisted in playing a game they called "Parade." While one shouted, "Boom! Boom!" the others covered their heads and fell to the floor.

"Finally, I said, 'That's enough,' " she says. "I needed terribly peace for myself."

She needed, as well, money. The Egyptian government offered her only a small pension and - rumored suitcases of gold to the contrary - she contends that Sadat died poor, having always passed along whatever extra he received, even his Nobel Peace Prize award, to charity. So in 1984, when University of South Carolina President James Holderman offered her a position teaching a course on women in developing countries, she took it gratefully. Other universities subsequently invited her to their podiums, and lecture requests flooded in. Thus began the antipodal East-West commute.

As hoped, she has made a nice piece of change in America - though that, ironically, has kindled some of the same sort of controversy she wanted to escape in Egypt. Last year, after a student filed suit for disclosure of her salary at South Carolina, the university announced that it had paid her $300,000 for three semesters' work. News stories also noted that she was getting $75,000 to conduct a class once a week at a small Virginia school. Last semester, she did not teach but made the final, tough sprint toward finishing her book. "I was so late," she sighs. "Simon & Schuster, they nag me all the time." According to other reports, the publisher also paid her several hundred thousand dollars.

Still, her Virginia home is no presidential palace. Two officers once under Sadat's command now stand guard there, and visitors include the likes of Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Barbara Walters. But she mows the lawn herself and shovels the snow. Seeing this, friends ask her whether she feels the loss of pomp and power that once were hers, and without hesitation she tells them no.

"My husband's loss, that was the greatest loss of all. Everything else becomes smaller than this, so very much smaller."


"He never tell me he love me." Jehan Sadat, focused somewhere in the royal blue-and-white print of her skirt, begins to laugh. "I have such affections and feelings - as many women, I bet - and I needed to hear it from him. But Sadat, he was like many of the Middle East men, I would say, keeping this inside. He would tell me, 'Jehan, you know and you understand and you feel it. Why do you want me to say it?' And I would tell him, 'Well, because I want to hear it.' Oh, how I used to tease him. He was a very quiet man; he didn't speak too much. And I'm just the opposite. I loved to talk, to make something full of life for him. He was a strange combination - very courageous, very tough, very strong but also very shy.

"So he would not say it. But before we were married, he wrote me a poem that was all about love. He wrote it. So, yes, I felt it always."

She felt it first when she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl and he twice her age, a former Egyptian army officer with a long record of subversiveness against the British regime, freshly released from prison, penniless and a soon-to-be-divorced father of two. Their meeting came by chance, at the home of one of Jehan's aunts along the Red Sea. Caught in the tide of nationalism sweeping Egypt in the 1940s, Jehan had heard of Sadat and, seeing him finally, he seemed to her "the heroic image of my dreams. I could not imagine what he thought of me," though she would find out soon enough.

Her parents - Safwat Raouf, a light-skinned civil servant of the middle class, and in particular Gladys, a former Sheffield music teacher - were at no loss for reasons to reject Sadat's marriage proposals. He was too dark, too poor, too old and, worst of all, too dangerous. After months of wrangling, Jehan wore down their defenses on all but the last of these. Sadat, they told her, would have to promise never to become involved in politics again. He swore to it, if reluctantly, and on May 29, 1949, they were married. She went back to school. He went into the construction business - and did very badly at it.

He didn't break his promise at first, only bent it a bit by accepting an offer to be reinstated in the army. Although she would soon suspect that he was somehow connected with the increasing unrest in the country, she had no proof. When eventually he was revealed as one of the inner-circle revolutionaries behind the 1952 coup that finally drove the British and King Farouk from Egypt and established Gamal Abdel Nasser as head of the republic two years later, she heard it on the radio, like everyone else.

At 19, she found herself suddenly a woman of power, sought out by women who had none. By the hundreds, they came to her homeless, jobless, with hungry babies and no options. Jehan Sadat would spend the next three decades creating those options, beginning with the Talla cooperative, where women could learn trades to support themselves.

With the death of Nasser in 1970 and the succession of Sadat, her ambitions increased with her position. She pushed - and pushed through - reforms of repressive divorce laws, and instituted birth-control projects. Her arguments with her husband, who hardly considered women's rights a priority, were the stuff of legend, erupting once in the middle of a 60 Minutes interview. "I must confess, I nagged him," she says.

The seemingly Westernized ways of the first lady provoked conservative factions. Her refusal to wear a veil, her willingness to be photographed in public, her insistence on walking at her husband's side, not behind him - those offenses paled next to her feminist programs, which they insisted violated Islamic law. "They are wrong," she says angrily. "So wrong. Nowhere is it stated that women are less than men."

Whatever the hostility directed at her, however, it was negligible compared with that growing against her husband. "Always I was frightened for his life," she says. "But especially after he went to Israel (in 1977), I knew he would be killed. He knew it also. The fundamentalists, no doubt, they kill him."

In 1985, they also came perilously close to killing off the modernized ''personal status" laws that she had helped forge in 1979 to protect women's rights in marriage and divorce. Contending that they were not in accordance with the Islamic Shar'ia, the Egyptian Supreme Court struck them down. Massive protests by women's groups brought their reintroduction into the legislature, where they were reinstated.

Other reforms have fared less well. This summer, a law setting aside a certain number of seats in the parliament for women was overturned.

"The struggle," as she puts its plainly, "never ends."

In the next week or two, Jehan Sadat will leave for Egypt - a summer hiatus delayed by her book. Three of her four children still live there, most of her 10 grandchildren, too. "When I am there, no single day passes without seeing them," she says. "In the morning, there are telephone calls from them (her daughters), even though they are coming in a while. Their husbands say sometimes, 'Before you go to sleep, you call your mother. When you wake up, you call your mother. What do you say? What happened during the night?' Well, we have a lot to talk about. We laugh about their husbands."

Her house in Giza fills, as well, with old colleagues, many of them women who've kept her projects alive. "Now I am sorry to say I have left everything," she says. "That role for me in Egypt is finished, in a way. But I still believe these organizations are like my children, something I made

from nothing. If I can hear that these children are still functioning and growing and helping, then I am happy."

Something else awaits in the house in Giza, and no one but Jehan Sadat has seen it - yet. Hanging in a locked closet is a resplendent military uniform, with bullet holes in the shoulder and leather belt and a slash in the right sleeve. Beside it, a stained undershirt and, on the shelf, a blood-smeared army hat. Elsewhere in the home are files containing Sadat's collected papers, videotapes, audio cassettes - the stuff of a museum that, so far, exists only as his widow's vision.

"I don't want like Kennedy Center or Johnson Library. I want something much more modest. I believe that my government will do this thing to honor him someday, plus that I will also help in this, and I believe many others will help. But it's not yet the time. I have patience to wait for the right time, although I wish to see it before I pass away. I want to tell a new generation what Sadat had done, to tell not only our country or the Middle East but the whole world, as an example for peace."

Jehan Sadat holds onto the word. "I wish I can feel it," she sighs. "I wish I can live in peace. But sometimes things come to my mind that I have gone through and they make me, ah, so blue. I try to be optimistic, always having the faith. So I put these thoughts aside. Everything will change, will it not? Everything will be for the better."

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