The tough questions for Jihan Sadat, widow of the Egyptian president, came over lunch.
She had been praised by Nancy Reagan in a moving ceremony at the White House in the morning and had been feted the night before at the Phillips Collection. But after her speech at the National Press Club lunch, held in the Kennedy Center Atrium, queries from the crowd of 300 came via index cards:
What is the future of Egyptian-Israeli relations? Does President Reagan care as much about the Camp David accords as Jimmy Carter did? Did your husband think of himself as a king, and why do you need 10 houses?
"First of all," Sadat said, "he was not a king. He was a very moderate person. He never asked for anything, even in his food. He had one meal a day. He would say bring me a salad . . . and I would bring him some light tea. He was never using money . . . That man was just doing his best . . .
"We don't have 10 houses. We only have one house in the rural areas, and this house we built and . . . expanded. The one I live in now, I rent. The one in Alexandria--it is a government house. President Mubarak made such a lovely gift to us. He gave us these houses during our lifetime. Afterwards, they go back to the government. I don't have any accounts of money. I don't have any land except the land surrounding the house we built. We bought it 25 years ago when it was very cheap. It's about 15 acres."
She defended her late husband, countering that all leaders are criticized. But she said of the criticism of Sadat, "Some of it really hurt. It is not true. Some of it -- if it is objective -- I agree with it. He was a human being. And some of them, I must say, were overpraising him during his life and some are overcriticizing him after his death. Every society has these hypocrites."
On Middle East policy matters, she was vague. "My husband started with peace and paved the way and he would not regret having good relations with Israel."
"What can President Reagan do for Middle East peace?" She said, "President Reagan can do a lot to continue peace in the Middle East."
When asked whether President Reagan's concern for the peace process equaled Carter's, Sadat shot the audience a beleaguered look. "These questions!" she said, as the tension in the room broke and people laughed. "Both are very concerned with peace."
All of the questions reflected the topics of debate that have crystallized in the wake of Sadat's assassination a little over a year ago: Eyptian-Israeli relations, Anwar Sadat's own success -- or lack of it -- at home, President Mubarak's treatment of women in general and Jihan Sadat in particular.
Sadat spoke about her low profile since the assassination when it came up as a question at the lunch.
"I took a sabbatical from the university for the last year," said Sadat, who is now teaching there. She also continues to wear black beyond the end of the year of mourning. "I was feeling very hurt, very sad. The rumors said I left Cairo, I'm not coming back, I have houses here, I have a ranch -- I'd like to know where the ranch is . . .
"I am not in the newspapers, yes," she continued, "because I am not active. Although, there were photos when I went to the tomb" on the first anniversary of her husband's death.
Sadat defended President Mubarak when one questioner asked if Egypt was retreating on women's rights, since Mubarak's own wife never appears in the newspapers. Mrs. Mubarak, said Sadat, "is working and she is a very nice lady, and she is concerned about social issues. Nothing will lead us back. And when President Mubarak was here at a National Press Club luncheon , he talked to you, Mrs. Vahlberg," she said, turning to face Vivian Vahlberg, president of the press club, "and he congratulated you on being the first woman on this podium."
She launched into a spirited defense of Islam when she was asked whether religion was a hindrance to women's rights. "There is nothing against women in our religion," she said. ". . . If you have a bad image of Islam, it's not because of Islam, it's what's going on in Iran."
Sadat delivered her prepared remarks from a head table of guests that included a son-in-law; a 21-year-old daughter, Jihan; the Egyptian ambassador; Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and Diane Sawyer of the CBS Morning News. Sadat said of her late husband, "He died for his ideals, but his ideals have lived on and there is no looking back on the path towards our place in the sun of modern civilization."
On the question of why Egyptians did not seem to mourn after Sadat's death, she said, "On the contrary. You can ask the Egyptian people. They are very sorry. The only difference is when president Nasser died, people came rushing into the streets . . . It gives you an idea of the institutions that Sadat set up in the country--that Egypt went gracefully to Mubarak. The people were not anymore lost. They had confidence in President Mubarak. They were very sad, but not lost. So they didn't go rushing into the streets."
Reacting to criticism of her role as first lady, she said, "I never interfered in politics. I don't think this is anything to hurt any husband -- just being involved in social activities. If I wasn't working in social activities, they would find something else to criticize me for . . . I heard that they put on television "Why Cairo Was Calm," on PBS last week that when I kissed President Carter at an official arrival ceremony , that hurt many people. And they said this is a very bad thing. If you put yourself in my shoes," she said looking around the room in exasperation, "what would you do?" Her audience broke into applause. "I was kissing him in front of my husband."
She had been received warmly at a morning ceremony in the East Room of the White House during which Nancy Reagan awarded the American Friendship Medal posthumously to President Sadat. Among the guests were Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal and Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arens.
"Since I've lived in this house, I can't recall wanting to extend a warmer welcome than the welcome today to Mrs. Sadat," said Nancy Reagan to applause from the audience. "Although your pain has been very personal -- I know," said Reagan, turning briefly away from the podium to Sadat, "we too feel the loss of your husband."
The award is given by the Freedoms Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization which presents the award to non-Americans who have made contributions to democracy, peace, or freedom. "No award could be more fitting," said Nancy Reagan. "In a world filled with hatred, he was a man of hope. In a world trapped by the animosities of the past, he was a man of foresight."