Much has been written about Egyptian President Anwar Sadat since November 1977, when he announced his decision to visit Jerusalem to promote peace between Egypt and Israel. Mohamed Heikal, the former influential editor of the major Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, attempted a portait of Sadat. Ismail Fahmi, the Egyptian foreign minister who resigned in 1977 over Sadat's peace initiative, wrote about him. Even a film about Sadat was produced in the United States by Columbia Pictures. Sadat contributed his own autobiography, "In Search of Identity." And now Camelia Sadat, one of the former president's daughters by his first wife, adds her own view in the intensely personal "My Father and I."
For all the writing, the figure of Sadat remains as elusive as ever. Hero or villain? Enlightened statesman or megalomaniac and impulsive leader? Compassionate father or authoritarian head of the family? The ambiguity runs deep in all the books. The only unambiguous portrait of Sadat was painted by outsiders in the Columbia film. There, he was all hero. Ironically, the film was promptly banned from Egypt on the grounds that it misrepresented Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, as both evil and stupid. But Sadat also was misrepresented. All who knew him appear to agree that he did not have a one-sided personality.
Camelia Sadat's portrait of her father adds to the confusion about him, rather than dispelling it. It is a collage of contradictory images the author does not succeed in reconciling, or perhaps does not want to reconcile. A few of these images are not new -- Sadat draws heavily on her father's own memoirs to discuss his childhood and youth, and his political activity during World War II. The questions about Sadat's relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic organization that later would spawn the fundamentalist groups responsible for his assassination in October 1981, remain unanswered here.
The book provides many fresh glimpses of Sadat. There is the traditional Egyptian husband rejecting his first wife, trying to force her to return to the village so she will not embarrass him by her presence in Cairo, and discontinuing support for the three children when she refuses to comply. But there also is the affectionate father, suddenly reappearing in the life of his young daughters, taking them back to his village to teach them old customs and traditions.
There is another father in the book as well, a man who takes Camelia and a sister away from their mother's house and into his own, only to marry them off promptly. Camelia is 12 years old, her sister 15. They are both underage -- the law does not allow girls to marry until they are 16 -- but Nasser and Defense Minister Abdel Hakim Amer testify at the ceremony that the girls are old enough.
Years later, Sadat was to acquire a reputation as an enlightened leader for promoting a reform of the family code providing greater rights for women. His second wife, Jihan, was a strong supporter of the reform, even the mover behind it, according to some. Camelia presents a very different picture of Jihan. In this book, she is not the champion of women's rights, but a stepmother who is only too happy to marry off the two young girls, who bans their mother from the wedding ceremony and remains a cold, distant and rejecting figure through all the tribulations of Camelia's inevitably unsuccessful marriage.
As the title implies, much of the book is about Camelia's relation to her father, an anguished attempt to be accepted and recognized by a man whom she never condemns, even when she would appear to have good reasons to do so. His relation to Camelia and her sisters is fitful. He moves in and out of their lives during their childhood, and disappears again when he becomes president after Nasser's death. The girls are not allowed to visit him at his house, their telephone calls are not returned, their existence is officially ignored.
Camelia eventually divorces her first husband, to her father's displeasure, and later remarries. This time around, it is Sadat who forces her to divorce, angered by rumors that Camelia's new husband is using the Sadat name to further his business interests. And yet in the end, in a development this book does not really explain, Camelia finds her father. The dream of her life -- to be recognized and accepted -- comes true, only to be destroyed by his death.
Camelia has added some interesting pieces to the puzzle of Sadat, but the picture is not complete. She found her father; the search for Sadat's identity is not over yet.