Jehan Sadat

GLORIA EMERSON January 1 1980

Jehan Sadat

GLORIA EMERSON January 1 1980


An exclusive interview BY GLORIA EMERSON

a woman making history

President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt is walking with his wife, Jehan, on a Saturday afternoon but it is not a casual stroll, not the dawdling of an overworked couple needing sweeter air than Cairo can provide. They are at the official residence on the Nile, just outside the capital city (which the ident does not much like), called the Barage Resthouse. It is a large but not imposing place with green shutters; and on the grounds are a much-babied banyan tree, one hundred and fifty years old, and a child's swing.

The President, who often appears in military dress in public, has put on running shoes, jogging pants, a loose shirt, an old hat. The security man thinks the President should not be photographed in such an outfit; it is a question of dignity, after all. But the President does not care. He is clearly preoccupied, marching up and down the long pink terra-cotta walk, making it seem something of a parade ground where it would not do to slouch or be slack.

Jehan Sadat, who is beautiful and totally lacking the coquetry or self-absorption such beauty often brings, keeps up with her husband in her red high heels. It suits her to go so fast. She has not had time to change her clothes; and, in the tailored green dress, carrying the proper First Lady handbag which matches those city shoes, she does not quite look like a revolutionary, a woman making history of her own. “The divine disturber of the peace,” as one man called her, is forty-six now, a crusader challenging the most fixed rules of the Arab world, defying the oldest beliefs, calling for change and insisting on it. None of this can be guessed gawking at her as she rushes back and forth with her husband.

Neither of them cares now what the camera will do. She does not try to smooth her short brown hair, fix her lipstick or angle her body to make it seem thinner—her body is generous and it becomes her; women in Egypt do not long for tiny hips. The Sadats hardly seem to see Arthur Elgort, Vogue's photographer, who is dancing and clicking around them, at a respectful distance. But the next day Jehan Sadat said she hoped they had not gone too fast for him.

The walking and the talking were indeed very fast. President and his wife spoke so urgently to each other it appeared to be less a conversation than an exchange of communiqués before they were once more required to part and take up different duties. He looked strained that Saturday. He is a world figure now, a striking and heroic man who went to Jerusalem in 1977 to begin a pact of peace between Egypt and Israel, the two nations that have gone to battle five times in one generation. It is not certain now if his huge risks will lead to all that he had wished. The triumph of the 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty has faded: the Palestinians seem no closer to having a homeland of their own—an idea he supports—and the Arab world is punishing Egypt with a political and economic boycott.

Perhaps the Sadats were speaking of this, for their faces were often grave. Then, suddenly, Jehan Sadat looked up at the banyan tree, saw that someone on a ladder had shaped a bow high on top of it, laughed and told the President to look up too. She is quick to laugh, to smile, but often there is a suggestion of sadness on her face. You could not call it despair and she does not yield to depression.

Watching Jehan Sadat on the move that Saturday reminded me of other Arab women I have seen: veiled, hooded, concealed, made to seem so small and cringing, walking behind their husbands even in London streets. And those women in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi—submissive, separated, secretive—who do not survive if they do not obey and obey.

Jehan Sadat, of course, walks behind no man and does not think the women of Islam need be shrouded to show they are decent or pious. It is not unusual for any First Lady to talk about the poor or the need for more housing, to visit hospitals or say that children are the foundation of a nation. We are all used to that kind of talk. But this woman, a devout Moslem, does not accept the Islamic tenet, “Heaven lies at the feet of mothers”; nor does she accept the supremacy of the Arab male. Married just before she was sixteen years old, she wants women now to wait until they are at least twenty, and then to have smaller families. She has proposed that men who have fathered large families volunteer to be sterilized. She talks about contraception. She speaks to the disabled and the deformed with none of the fake solicitude that often masks discomfort. None of this would be startling in the West, but Islam is not New York or Paris.

No other woman in the Arab world has the audacity of her voice or her visions. She is widely liked, perhaps loved, sometimes mocked by alarmed men, and often criticized for not being a traditional wife, a more soothing Mother of the Nation.

That Saturday was not a slow one for Jehan Sadat; almost no days are. In the morning she had talked to the women leading 120 Americans to Egypt on a goodwill tour, then led all of them through the buildings she cares most about in her country: the Wafa Wal Amal Rehabilitation Center which she so much wanted to exist and which now requires sixty million dollars to be completed. She then joined the President for lunch with the former British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, now Leader of the Opposition, and his wife. Then the walk, the drive back to Cairo, appointments, meetings, and her own work—a Master's thesis on the effects of the poems of Shelley on Arabic literature.

Wives of heads of state are often careful about giving opinions: it might cost their husbands votes. Mrs. Sadat is not so cautious. Lamenting the growing conservatism among students at the University of Cairo—last year she complained girls were covering their heads and wearing long, concealing dresses—she was asked, this past October, if the new strength of Islamic fundamentalists could be traced to the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and his insistence that Iranians denounce and despise Western ways and modern attitudes.

“Unfortunately he is giving such a bad image about Islam,” she said. “It's not the real Islam to be such a fanatic like Khomeini. I don't find something new in what he is saying. On the contrary, I find he is very backward. This is not Islam. At all. I hate to go to what do you say—cabarets, nightclubs. I don't like parties. I don't like jewels. But I also don't like to pray all the daytime and just do nothing except to say this is wrong and this is wrong. He's very excessive.

“I am Moslem,” she added. “I believe. But at the same time I hate to be very religious. I prefer to do my best, to do my duty, to think about God”—her voice grew stronger—“but not to pray all during the day, because God respects work. It is exactly like prayer, maybe more. I live my life correctly.”

The Ayatollah's stern judgments on the dress, decorum and attitudes of women displease Mrs. Sadat for she feels these strictures might keep women inferior and fearful.

“Long sleeves, it's all right. I usually put on long sleeves but I hate to put something on the head. I don't like it at all. Sometimes people talk to me about this“—she meant her disregard of certain conventions—”and I tell them I don't believe in this. I believe in much deeper than that Islam. Your work and your attitude but not your appearance! Of course the appearance must be respectful but not to the extent of putting on veil and long clothes—not that!”

If her English sometimes curls and wobbles, the meaning of what she says is very clear. In her forties, with three married daughters, Mrs. Sadat felt it her duty, and a privilege, to go to the University of Cairo to earn a degree, her first. She is a diligent student and now a teacher, giving two classes a week at the University in Arabic literature of the pre-Islamic period.

The daughter of an Egyptian doctor who worked for the government and an Englishwoman named Gladys who once taught history—they met in Sheffield where she lived and he studied—Mrs. Sadat was not raised to be subservient or helpless. From the age of four until she was twelve, she was a pupil in a Christian Missionary Girls' School run by an Englishwoman who was a friend of her mother's. Remembering the extreme strictness of the school, which had an Egyptian faculty but an English colonial code of discipline and duty, even now makes her joke a little. As a Moslem, she did not wish to attend church but the pressure on her was so constant her father felt obliged to visit the school to insist her own religion be respected. Later, she went to a secondary school in Cairo.

Jehan was still a schoolgirl when she first met Anwar el-Sadat, a former Army officer who had just been released from prison where he was held for thirty-one months, eighteen of them in solitary confinement, for conspiring to end British occupation of Egypt. A self-made man, who knew very well the pain of peasant families in Egypt, the young Sadat wanted independence for his country and it was this passion, and what he had endured, that moved her. She was visiting a married cousin in Suez when he appeared.

“It was late at night during Ramadan, when we fast and have only two meals, one at sunset and late at night,” Mrs. Sadat said. “I was eating mango and, suddenly, he was in front of me. I went running away because it was not nice to see me like that and I was wondering about this man. . . .” The next day, they went to the beach.

Mrs. Sadat's mother was displeased with this unsuitable young man, but the marriage took place in May 1949.

“My mother was against it, of course— first of all, his color—this was always something for English people,” Mrs. Sadat said, referring to her husband's dark skin. “I respected Anwar Sadat because he was so dedicated—this is the main thing that attracted me. He wasn't a rich man, he wasn't goodlooking, he wasn't from a very high family. It was his personality.”

Her mother overcame her misgivings and after the death of her own husband lived with them for twelve years. She died last year. Mrs. Sadat speaks of her parents with great affection and gratitude—the father who never favored his two sons over his two daughters and taught all of them to be self-reliant and how, as she puts it, “to have our own personalities.”

“My mother had such great spirit. She taught me how to love my country. She loved her own country until the last moment. She never changed. And she wouldn't eat our food. She wouldn't even try to taste our food. She was very fanatic! She brought me up to love my country.”

In 1976, Jehan Sadat was interviewed by Morley Safer on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes and millions of Americans—who perceived all Arabs as either terrorists or bloated sheiks, belly dancers or members of a harem—were treated to the sight of President and Mrs. Sadat disagreeing, although affectionately, with each other. It was over family planning. Mrs. Sadat, always distressed by Egypt's rising population and the unsolvable problems this poses, said that family planning was not working. In self-defense the President tried to explain the limits of his office. “What can I do for this family planning when I have the villagers [who] . . . think this is against religion? . . . It can't be done by law at all, at all.”

“Why?” said Mrs. Sadat. She also said: “All the money of our country, just preparing for war. If we could spend it here inside the country, we could do a lot for our people. I promised them, and I will do something for them.” The President, who said that most days he didn't see his wife until late at night, remarked rather poignantly that he envied Jehan Sadat her freedom, feeling himself to be a prisoner.

“If you remember this program and how he was shouting at me at this time! Anyway, of course I understand what he was saying but now in a speech just last month he talked about family planning which is something new for him,” she said. “But he has so many problems.”

The figures have a ghastly clarity. The population of Egypt is now 40.5 million. If the birth rate continues to rise, it could exceed 66 million in the year 2000. The Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics in Cairo estimates that the population increase for 1978 was 1,075,000 but in 1979 it rose by 1,200,000. More than five million people now live in Cairo, a city stretched insanely beyond its means, exhausted, chaotic, filthy, and still strangely wonderful.

“It is a complicated problem,” Mrs. Sadat said. “It is a kind of the-more-children-the-more-income in the rural areas, for children work. And then, the way they think, the men in rural areas believe the more children the more of a man he appears to be. They still believe it. They are uneducated people. On the other side, women believe the more children the more security for her because the husband will not marry another woman.”

She explained a civil rights law which recently passed Parliament designed to discourage a man from remarrying, a measure supported by Mrs. Sadat and other feminists.

“We can't say a man cannot marry again— it is in our holy book, the Koran—but now the flat or the house will stay with the married woman who is mother of the children and this has made men furious,” she said.

Although in some interviews Mrs. Sadat has insisted that in times of huge crises her husband has not needed her because his own courage and convictions sustained him, it is apparent that she is a trusted and needed person in his life. When he became President in 1970, on the death of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser—who led the officers' coup against King Farouk— Anwar Sadat did not pursue the same austere socialist direction and ended Egypt's dependence on Soviet advisors and military aid in 1972. He was anxious to restore relations with the United States. But in 1973, believing that Israel and the world held the nation of Egypt in contempt, he ordered Egyptian forces to overrun an Israeli defense line, thought invincible, along the Suez Canal. The three-week war was perceived as a wonderful victory by many Egyptians. But that war made it clear that still another cease-fire would mean little, and peace had to be achieved. Despite the counsel of his own advisors, and despite the rage of other Arab countries, President Sadat went to Jerusalem. Some observers believe this historic journey was made possible only because the Egyptians believed they had at least gained a victory over Israel, and could now consider compromise.

“Ah, it was something unforgettable,” Mrs. Sadat said. “I was here because my second daughter was expecting and she gave birth the same day—yes, the peace baby! Really it was very hard for me because I was torn in so many ways. I was worried about my husband, I must say. But before he left, I was talking to him and I told him: 'You go, and when you come back, if our people will not agree with you then you will resign—but you must go and come back.'” After thirty years of war with Israel, the people of Egypt rejoiced when Sadat returned. Sixteen months later, the Camp David peace treaty was signed in Washington, DC, by President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in the presence of President Jimmy Carter, who had done so much to make it possible. Mrs. Sadat was there to see it, and speaks of weeping with happiness. In October, she was not eager to comment on the danger to that promised peace by the Israeli expansion of settlements in the West Bank. It was I who mumbled that Menachem Begin was a puzzling man, a difficult man to understand. “He is very nice when you know him closer, he is such a very nice man. Not easy, that is something true, but at the same time he is doing his best for his country,” Mrs. Sadat said. Others are not so persuaded but, at any rate, the conversation made it apparent that she does not issue her own pronouncements on foreign policy. That is left to the President.

It was in 1967, the year of the Six-Day-War, when Israeli forces reached the Suez Canal and took the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, that Jehan Sadat saw for herself what war costs and what it destroys. And it was in this year that she also began to think about the disabled and realized there were no existing provisions for their rehabilitation and no possibility of hope for their leading decent, useful lives. She was seeing, and speaking, to men burned by napalm, blinded, amputated, and paralyzed. Other women, also volunteers in the Red Crescent, Egypt's equivalent of the Red Cross, were helping.

“It was very hard. I was walking and walking, without stopping, from early in the morning, 7:00 A.M., until 8:00 P.M. at night,” she said. “I was just talking, talking to everybody—and after I finish I meet with the women who are responsible for all the different volunteer groups, to see what are the difficulties, what do they need.” She wrote a series of newspaper articles asking the public to visit the wounded, bringing not candy or small gifts but more crucial articles. Go to the hospitals and ask what they need, she wrote. It was unusual, to say the least, for a woman whose husband was then speaker of the National Assembly to be quite so intense and quite so committed.

Jehan Sadat is even more intense and more committed to the Wafa Wal Amal Rehabilitation Center whose name in Arabic means “faith and hope.” If she succeeds, it will be the finest project of her life, a monument to her hard work, an example to other Arab countries where no such rehabilitation center yet exists. She now hopes to have seven hundred hospital beds and one thousand places for the handicapped who need training, prosthetics, a chance to learn a trade. It is no use, she points out, teaching a man to walk again if he is going to starve after he leaves. So there are vocational workshops, and will be more.

A good friend and respected advisor is Dr. Howard Rusk, founder and director of the Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University, considered to be among the best in the world. The Institute has been of assistance to more than 110 countries; it has taught advanced techniques to more than two thousand physicians, psychologists and other health specialists and helped supply 1.5 million limbs and braces.

“She's one of the most wonderful women I have ever known,” Dr. Rusk said in New York. “In rehabilitation, you have to have it here and here.” He tapped his head and his heart. “She has both.”

On a tour of the Center last fall, Mrs. Sadat showed a delegation of Americans how much could be accomplished even with the most seriously handicapped. The group, which called itself the Boehm Journey of Peace to Egypt and contributed $245,000 to the Center, watched children in wheelchairs show their dexterity and ease in getting about, saw a boy missing both arms jump over a rope to prove he had been taught balance, and inspected vocational workshops. The medical rehabilitation at the center is directed by a young physician, Dr. Zeinab elBindary, who is a woman.

“Eighty percent will learn a trade,” said Mrs. Sadat of future patients. In the playground at Wafa Wal Amal, she knew the names of most of the children, who clearly saw her not as an awesome figure but as a friend.

Her own children—Loubna, Noha, Jehan, and a son, Gamal—have their own lives but frequently see their parents. The daughters are married but often come, with their children, to see their mother on Fridays, the Moslem day of rest. The youngest, Gamal, who just finished at the University, is a chemical engineer, an amateur pilot, and deep-sea diver, happiest in water. He goes from the Barage Resthouse back to the Giza residence on the Nile in his own boat, a polite young man very much at ease, delighted to take aboard two American visitors and tell them his impressions of California.

Questions about the lives of her children that go deeper than their degrees or their interests are not encouraged, and Mrs. Sadat does not like to ask the children to pose for photographs. The three grandchildren give her deep pleasure: there are toys and rockers and swings for them in each Sadat household. She is more interested in talking about some of Egypt's problems and some of the solutions. There is the town of Tala, in the Delta, for example, and its community of women which she has organized privately, outside of the government, to make handicrafts which are sold in Cairo.

“I didn't have anything except a very old building, and then twenty-five women with twenty-five sewing machines,” she said. “I told them unless we are perfect in our work nobody will look at us. Let us start depending on ourselves. Really I was a little bit severe,maybe. But for the benefit of them, for them. And now—” she begins to laugh—“even sometimes they say, 'Oh, you didn't shout this time; what is wrong with you, Mrs. Sadat?' ” She speaks of a societal development there, the handicrafts industry, a plastics factory, small gardens, family planning, carpentry, and a new enlightenment, she says. Finally a visitor can no longer put off asking what gives Jehan Sadat some degree of private pleasure?

“It is Shelley. Reading Shelley—it's maybe the only moments in which I feel very happy,” she said. “I love poems. Yes, I write some under a different name. Much later I will use my own, maybe.”