A WOMAN OF EGYPT By Jehan Sadat Simon and Schuster. 478 pp. $19.95
JEHAN SADAT is generally admired in the West as the partner-wife of the visionary Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and as a leader in the world-wide struggle for women's rights. Because she was the first wife of an Islamic leader to appear in news photographs, to travel alone outside her country and to take up public causes, we tend to think of her as a woman at odds with her heritage. That is not how she sees herself or how she wants to be seen.
In this autobiography Jehan Sedat insists that she is, first and last, in the words of her title "a woman of Egypt" and a true daughter of Islam. Her development, as she traces it, is fascinating to follow. Daughter of a British mother and a middle-class Egyptian civil servant, she grew up in the tradition of the Sunni or moderate Moslems. She found delight and solace in their daily and seasonal religious rites and writes of these in almost incantational prose.
From her father's sisters she learned that "there was no end of stories about Moslem heroines" -- of the Prophet's wives, for example -- of business-woman Khadija, the first convert, and the beloved Aiska who rode her own camel into battle at Mohammed's side. There were also modern Egyptian heroines like Huda Sh'arawi, who initiated education for women in the 1920s. Jehan never tired of hearing that Huda was the first Egyptian woman to publicly remove the veil, insisting that its use was a foreign custom imported from Turkey -- and how Huda led women to stand up against British domination.
Jehan is not sure, however, where her strong sense of self came from, though it is clear that it shaped her life. "I was considered the leader of the children . . . Perhaps it was the way I felt about myself, as if I knew that my life would be special. I often dreamed that people were paying me great respect . . ." Oddly enough, she learned from her mother's love of England and tales of English fearlessness, "loyalty, sacrifice and duty to one's homeland." She became fiercely devoted to the cause of Egyptian independence.
IN EARLY adolescence she was swept up in the wave of nationalism and revolutionary fervor directed against the continued British dominance of Egypt after World War II. In 1948, when she was only 15, she met Capt. Anwar el-Sadat, a revolutionary who had been the object of her hero-worship from afar. They fell in love. From her family's point of view, nothing could have been more unsuitable. He was 15 years older, divorced, of a different class, dark-skinned, just out of a British jail, dismissed from the army and penniless. It is the measure of Jehan's determination and Sadat's persuasiveness that they were married a year later. In a few short years, he became one of the new rulers of Egypt. At the time she was just 19.
Originally Jehan Sadat intended to write a short book about her husband and their life together, but the book grew to include both the history of modern Egypt from the time of the 1952 revolution and an explanation of the culture and its currents. This makes for some rambling and repetition, but the accounts of the revolution itself, the wars with Israel, the encounters with other Arab leaders, Sadat's historic journey to Jerusalem, the peace made with Israel and Sadat's assassination -- all have strong narrative impact.
It is worth noting that no American first lady, with the possible exception of Mrs. Roosevelt in wartime, has had the power and influence enjoyed by Jehan Sadat as first lady. "If Anwar could influence people as president, I hoped I as his wife could do as well." Her personal popularity was high -- because she herself organized hospitals and nursed the wounded during the wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973 she was hailed by the volatile street crowds as "Mother of the Martyrs" and "Mother of the Heroes." She marshalled the resources of both government and the private sector for a myriad of welfare projects. She ran for office herself and was elected to one of the powerful provincial councils with the help of the women's vote which she had stimulated.
In addition to her work in the domestic area, she was also involved in foreign policy. A woman of beauty and assurance, she did not hesitate to express her opinions to foreign diplomats and heads of state. (She once feared that Muammar Gadhafi intended to shoot her himself because she disagreed with him.) When Henry Kissinger politely commented on the model rehabilitation center for veterans that she had developed, she told him that it was thanks to the American people. When he expressed surprise, she said, "We may have been fighting the Israelis, but their military equipment came from the United States. It was American tax dollars that caused our soldiers to lose their arms and legs and need rehabilitation." "He laughed," she adds, "realizing that he had fallen into my trap."
Incidents like these are artlessly recounted but it is apparent that Jehan Sadat's object in doing so is to reinforce her claim, to friend and foe alike -- to the radical Moslems who opposed her husband and to all these who supported him -- that she has been and is indeed "a woman of Egypt" and all that that implies.
Abigail McCarthy, a columnist for Commonweal and the author of a memoir, "Private Faces/Public Places," has also written, with Jane Muskie, a novel, "One Woman Lost."