For weeks her grandchildren kept acting it out, making a game of it almost, their terror and incomprehension hidden -- though not very -- inside their mock sprays of gunfire, their burlesqued staggers and crashes to the floor of their playroom.
"It was such a -- I can't tell you. They kept waking up in the night. In the daytime they were all the time shouting, then falling on the ground and crying, 'The bullets are coming. The bullets are coming!' My grandson Sherif, he was maybe 4 when Anwar died. That day, at the parade, Anwar looked up from his place in the reviewing stand and saw the little boy. I tell you, his grin was from ear to ear. Sherif stopped eating afterward. He went to his school. He refuses to draw, to open the book at all. He just sits there. We had to move him to another school. He is okay now."
A woman of Egypt is propped against pillows in the restaurant of a Washington hotel. She is 53 and a grandmother of 10. Cairo and the day of the assassins seem far away -- but not quite. Jehan Sadat's skin is the color of weak tea in a clear glass. Her nails are lacquered in a pale silver; the face of her wristwatch has a small glittering jewel in it. If everything about this Moslem Middle Eastern woman seems luxuriant and westernized, in deeper ways everything about her seems laced with the sadness of things lost.
"I miss the ... sand," says the widow of Anwar Sadat, the man who went straight into history by going straight into the camp of his enemy, not for war but for peace. She rubs her thumb and forefinger together, as if she had caught a single grain of sand there, could feel its wonderful gritty warmth again. "This is the tiniest thing about my country I could think to tell you. In another month or so I will be going back for my summer visit. In the meantime I am extravagant enough to call my children there every day."
"Oh, yes, I know. The bills. The bills."
All around her, in the safe air of the Jefferson Hotel's Hunt Club, people are plowing politely through expensive midday food. But the former first lady of Egypt hasn't had even water: This is Ramadan, the ninth lunar month, the Islamic holy month of abstinence. Tonight, after dark, Sadat will eat and drink for the first time in 24 hours. Then she will begin her fast again. She is a woman struggling to remake her life, but she is not remaking her faith.
"Please," she says, with the smallest nod, "it will hurt me if you do not take something. At least something to drink. I will sit here and talk. No, no, it doesn't bother me at all. I assure you. A religious fast reminds us, you see, that there are many other people in the world besides ourselves who are suffering, and not just from starvation. In a sense we are trying to fast from all our bad deeds as well."
She is a university teacher, she is a poetry lover, she is a mother of four grown children. She is also a nearly lifelong advocate of women's rights, especially in her own Arab world, where women have long been regarded, at least by some, as chattel. (In Saudi Arabia, women are still not permitted to drive a car, and an unmarried daughter can be put to death by her father for losing her virginity. Egypt is generally considered one of the most liberal Arab countries as regards the rights of women, and some of that has to do with Jehan Sadat, who, as the wife of the president of the republic, fought for a modernization of divorce laws, among many other things. By her own admission, she used to nag her husband about the role of women in Egyptian society. Generally he was sympathetic. "Generally.")
And yet Jehan Sadat has been living these past several years not in her home along the Nile, the palace at Giza, but in a large, postmodern, protected house on a cul-de-sac in Great Falls, Va. There are flowers everywhere in and around this tastefully decorated home, which is guarded by a high chain fence down its sloping back and also by a brigadier general of the Egyptian army who sleeps in a bedroom downstairs and makes breakfast. A passer-by might notice only the bag of pine bark mulch leaning against a tree, the plastic bucket of ferns dangling from a tree in the front yard.
Laid carefully away somewhere in this spacious house are a gold-braided blue military suit with a sleeve cut off; a pair of shoes; a scarred pipe; a watch crusted with old blood. These are some of the things her husband was wearing or had with him on the day he died. Someday she will take them out and show them to the American people. Not yet.
"I know God will never give me back my husband," she says. "But I always believe that God does never forget His creatures."
And then, more softly: "I don't quite know how to say this, but I don't think I could ever see the beauty of flowers until after my husband was dead. God takes one thing, He gives another."
'Love Makes Miracles'
She was 15 years old when they married. He was 31 and had children. He'd recently been sprung from prison, where he had spent much of three years in solitary. What could she possibly have seen in him?
"Love makes miracles, doesn't it?" she answers.
"He'd been a political prisoner. I had already heard how he had shouted at the judge from behind the prison bars and how brave he had been. To me Anwar was like a hero in a book."
She first met him in the home of her cousin, in Suez. Two months later, on Sept. 29, 1948, he proposed. Her father accepted for her. "He came to my house every day in our engagement, and we would go to the motion picture, or for walks, always with a member of my family. You could not go out together alone."
She laughs. "I remember taking his picture to my girlfriends in school. They looked at those pictures. They said, 'Jehan, he's not that good looking, you know.'
" 'I know,' I said.
" 'But of course he's rich.'
" 'He has a high position.'
" 'Well, what then?'
" 'He has values. I think he is going somewhere.' "
Oct. 6, 1981. The president of the republic, the supreme commander, had looked so resplendent on the sun-flooded noonday of his death. Afterward his critics would say Sadat's designer uniform looked like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and that he had sadly lost touch with the realities of the Middle East. The president loved a parade and all Egypt knew it. He didn't like to carry his own pipe and tobacco -- made an untidy bulge in his breast pocket.
"It's very tight, Anwar," his wife had said to him about the suit that morning.
"You don't know anything, Jehan," he had answered. "You don't know anything in military."
"Yes, but I know about what is tight fitting," she came back.
His killers, who would vault from the back of a parade truck with their fragmentation grenades and submachine guns, were Islamic fundamentalists who, among other things, could never accept the fact that the head of the largest Arab state had gone, four years before, on Nov. 20, 1977, right into Jerusalem and the hated Knesset itself, proclaiming to Israel and the world: "Ring the bells for your sons. Tell them those wars were the last of wars ... The will of peoples is part of the will of God."
"Hu higiya, hu higiya," hoarse Israeli commentators had cried when Sadat's gleaming white Boeing 707, Egypt 01, rolled to a stop in the floodlights of Ben-Gurion airport. "He's arrived, he's arrived."
Was he making "a separate peace"? In Beirut the leading left-wing newspaper, as-Safir, declared: "Sadat has entered history. As of today his name will be remembered with those of Herzl, Balfour, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan as one of the founders of the State of Israel, the consolidators of its existence, the champion of its imperialist dreams."
He left Israel escorted by four Kfir jet fighters. He also left with three urns from the age of the patriarchs and a pair of earrings from former prime minister Golda Meir. The earrings were given as a gift "from a grandmother to a grandfather." A grandchild had been born to Sadat during the 44 hours he had spent in the land of the ancient enemy.
That was in 1977, and of course what came eventually in its wake were the Camp David accords and a peace treaty destined to go wobbly. But what also came in its wake was Anwar Sadat's assassination. In seconds, on the reviewing stand, the world seemed a litter of chairs and bodies. Jehan Sadat's place was about 25 yards upward from where her husband sat. What she remembers is the screaming: "Get down, get down!" People were hurling chairs on top of the fallen, trying to save them. She was airlifted out in a helicopter. A little while later, on the way to Maadi Military Hospital, with no idea whether her husband was alive, she kept saying over and over, Please, God.
"I was just begging Him. Every part of me. I can't know how long this went on. Then we are at the hospital. Nobody comes to tell me Anwar's condition. I sat there. Again I kept praying -- 'Please, God.' It was oozing out of my pores. I stood up and said, 'I think everything is over now.' A prominent editor my husband knew well jumped up and said, 'Oh, Mrs. Sadat, please don't say this.'
"Perhaps the next thing I remember is seeing Anwar in the surgery room, lying there. Is he dead? Of course he's dead. He was stretched out, in his uniform. One sleeve had been cut away. The caked blood on his clothes is very visible. It was like something in a dream. I found myself falling on him. I am kissing his hands, I am kissing his face. My tears are just coming.
"After a time, I do not know how long, I got up and said, 'Call my children. Tell them to come to see this thing that has been done to their father by his own people.' They came. Again, they are kissing him, as I did, on his wrists, on his neck. I told the doctor, 'Don't let anyone else come.' Two days later I saw him again. Again Anwar is lying there as if asleep, not dead. We are in the room together. I was going over to begin kissing him again. 'Wake up, Jehan, wake up,' I say to myself. 'He's dead.' That's when I touched his face. It was frozen stiff ...
"I took the car home. The driver, he is yelling, hitting at the steering wheel with his fist."
She relates all this in a steady voice, save for the part about touching his frozen face. At that her voice had cracked.
Sadat had said to his wife once, "No one will kill me, Jehan, unless it is the fundamentalists."
"And here is what is so terrible," she says. "I somehow knew it was going to happen. You see, I woke up that day and didn't want to go to the ceremony."
Oct. 6, 1981, six years ago come this fall.
"Every day?" she says. "No, I would say every minute I miss him. Every second."
A while ago Jehan Sadat was leaving a party in Potomac. At the door, she found herself alongside the ambassador from Portugal and also Richard Berendzen, the president of American University, and his wife Gail. They all chatted for a minute or two, then headed for their cars. Sadat, who was being escorted by her bodyguard, Gen. Mohammad Seoud, had just gotten into her car when she looked back and discovered that the ambassador's limousine was stuck in the mud. She hesitated, peering through the glass, then climbed out and went over to lend a hand. She dug right in with the others.
"The pause was only a few seconds," says Gail Berendzen, who watched what happened, "but in that briefest of transitions, I think you could see a woman struggling mightily with who she used to be and who she is now, perhaps a kind of split-second realization that, yes, she was once the wife of the ruler of Egypt, with all that power and entourage, and that was fine, but that on the other hand she's also just one more human being living now in a new and different and not entirely comfortable kind of world. I remember the general saying to her, 'No, no, Mrs. Sadat, you must not go over, your clothes.' But she disregarded him and got out. As I say, it was just a few seconds. But in it there was a kind of transition and a struggle."
Life in America
Some of her grandchildren have come to see her new home. "They said, 'Granny, what is this? This house is nothing like what we know at home.' But then, you know, they discovered the TV, the VCR. Aha."
She is crazy for Safeway and Giant, it turns out, loves cruising the aisles on a Saturday for asparagus and celery. Her former life presented no such opportunity.
The reasons Jehan Sadat is living in America at all and not in Egypt with her daughters and grandchildren (her son is now in New York) are many and complicated and even controversial. Enough of the explanation has to do with money, and the need to make it. Despite what people may perceive to be the truth, Sadat says she is not a wealthy woman. Or at least not a financially secure woman, not yet. She has been making lots of money since she moved to America, with free-lance teaching and spot lecturing and book writing, and some of it has garnered ugly publicity, but she insists she needs every bit of this money. She says her husband died poor -- broke, in fact -- and although that may sound not quite believable, there are Middle East observers and Cairo insiders and correspondents from Egyptian newspapers who back up her claim.
"I came here from zero. I came here with nothing," she says. The smallest anger is flashing. "This is absolutely true. He had loans to the bank, in fact. Believe me, if he left us anything I wouldn't be traveling here to there all the time, in the bumpy planes, up and down, up and down."
Last fall she abruptly resigned a visiting professorship at the University of South Carolina, which paid her in excess of $300,000 in fees and expenses over three semesters. (A university student had sued the school to find out what the figures were; the average annual faculty salary was about $34,000, in a university and a state with strained finances.) Those who know Sadat say the rash of stories and op-ed columns about the fees hurt her deeply, made her seem like an Arab Imelda Marcos, and were the cause of her resignation. At the time the South Carolina stories came out, it was also reported she was making $75,000 a semester at a small university in southwest Virginia for lecturing there one day a week.
Her speaking engagements can command as much as $15,000. Yet she is known to do many things -- local benefits and Rotary functions -- for free. She has done benefits with the Jewish National Fund, and this has aroused a certain ire in the Arab world. "Am I to hate the Jews?" she asks. She has upward of a dozen honorary doctorates. Several weeks ago Hofstra University gave her another, and she gave the commencement address in return. This summer Simon and Schuster will publish her autobiography, which is said to have drawn an advance of several hundred thousand dollars. It's titled "A Woman of Egypt."
"By Jehan Sadat," she says, disarmingly. (She no longer spells her name "Jihan.") She will go on a national tour to promote the book. "All the big states."
After her husband's death there were stories in Egyptian newspapers that she was detained at the Cairo airport trying to get suitcases of gold out of the country. The stories turned out to be untrue. Rumors and gossip and half-truths of all kinds about her persist -- that she has secret ranches, that she has married her bodyguard, that she is feuding with President Hosni Mubarak and his wife, that she amounts to a political exile in her own country. "Each of these stories, because they are untrue, hurts me," she says. "But I have always been excessively reported on and criticized in Egypt by some factions." Although she doesn't say it in so many words, the need to get away from such stories seems another reason why she chooses not to live in her homeland.
There was a time, in the early '70s, when her husband was new to the presidency, and she was pushing hard for women's rights, when she was greeted with this at certain convocations: "Dayan is better than Jehan." Dayan, as in Moshe Dayan, Israel's greatest warrior.
A while ago Sadat gave a lecture at the LBJ library in Austin. A Palestinian student stood up and said, "Your husband was a thief and a murderer. He robbed his country blind. You are no better than he was." When he was finished, she said, "If what you profess were true, I wouldn't be here talking at this moment."
Says Mohamad Hakki, who worked at the Egyptian embassy in Washington for seven years and has come to know Sadat well in the time she has been living here, "I tell you this question must have been on the mind of every Egyptian in the world after Sadat died: How much money did they have? From everything I know, her husband died without a cent in his pocket. What would you have her be -- dependent on her children in Egypt? If there's a perception she loves money and is trying to acquire it now, that's true, in a sense. But think of it in the context of a woman trying to remake her life and be self-sufficient. I said to her several years ago, 'How long do you think you can do this for?' She said, 'Two or three years. Then I'll stop and live.' "
In a sense Jehan Sadat is a great lady without a country. "Yes," says Hakki.
Her friends and admirers in America range from Rosalynn Carter to Betty Ford to Jeane Kirkpatrick to Barbara Walters. Two years ago Sadat served as a distinguished professor at American University, lecturing on the changing role of women in Egyptian society. She also organized a (standing-room-only) symposium series for the university and the community titled "Women in a Changing World." The fees for the course were reasonable; for the symposiums, zero. Ford, Carter, Kirkpatrick were among her guest speakers.
"We had people calling from Saåo Paulo trying to get tickets, saying, 'Can we come?' " remembers Richard Berendzen. "We had no idea of her kind of drawing power. I really do think she is a woman of world stature. And yet what you see is the vulnerability. I think she feels her true mission is to carry on her husband's peace mission. I think maybe the thing I like best about her, despite the aura of celebrity, is that she's a real person. She blushes, and I tease her a lot. I tease her about how attractive she is, for instance. She'll deeply blush and cast her eyes down. I remember sitting one day holding her hand before her symposium series. She said, 'Oh, Dr. Berendzen, I'm so nervous.' I've always been unsuccessful in trying to get her to call me Richard."
Her vulnerability may be her most attractive quality. In the classroom, presenting lectures, she is at first nervous and stiff, but once questions begin, she can disregard her text and speak from her heart. And yet under this vulnerability lies her determination, her steel. There is an Arabic word for this: baladi. It means "from the earth." It can have a negative connotation too ("from the gutter"), but when used admiringly it refers to a subtle, sinewy strength, integrity.
Says Walters, who has interviewed the Sadats for television many times, "She is a world-class person of taste and charm, and in a sense this fact has nothing to do with Anwar Sadat." Walters saw her not long ago at a function in New York. "She reminisced about the Nobel Prize Anwar shared with Menachem Begin, and how Anwar had told her he was going to do something with the money, donate it to something or somebody, and she said, 'Oh, for heaven's sake, Anwar, you're always doing that. We can use the money. Let's keep it!' It's her great humanness. His too. I can see them as I talk to you. They always bickered lightly back and forth. He'd say, clucking on his pipe, 'Now, now, Jehan.' "
Her husband didn't listen to her on the Nobel money. He gave it to the village in the Nile delta where he grew up. He is said to have done that as well with the proceeds of his 1978 autobiography, "In Search of Identity."
At the age of 40 she went back to school and began working on degrees. She has her doctorate now in Arabic literature. When she was defending her master's thesis ("The Influence of P.B. Shelley on Arabic Poetry in Egypt"), her husband had the ceremony put on Egyptian television. Some thought that unseemly, the arrogant act of a man who thought himself kingly. Were the professors really going to ask her tough questions? Of course not.
There are those who will say she was trying to run the country with her husband at the end. Others scoff at this idea.
"You see, there is this need to be a star," says a longtime correspondent of a Middle Eastern newspaper. "It was in him and it was in her. You could tell it in the way he played up to American media. He used to call Barbara Walters 'Bar-ba-ra.' Then he switched it to 'Barb.' She needs it too."
Is that the real Jehan Sadat?
"You have to remember," Walters says, "this is a woman who got married at 15, who had an English mother. She falls in love with a much older married man, with children, and there were children, perhaps we forget that, but it's true. She marries him, she raises children, she begins to discover who she is. And now she's doing it all over again, in a sense."
The Wheel Turns
On May 29 of this year, Jehan Sadat observed in private the 38th anniversary of the day she married an ex-military man named Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat. He was skinny and broke, but he already had his head tilted toward history. He was a disciple of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom few had heard of. He rejoined the army and started his climb. Before he found his own power, critics called him "Nasser's poodle." Henry Kissinger once considered Sadat a clown; later he said he was the greatest statesman since Bismarck.
In the living room of his widow, who doubts she will ever remarry, there are many family mementos and photographs. Perhaps the saddest picture is one she keeps on a coffee table between two sofas. It was taken on Oct. 5, 1981, almost exactly 24 hours before the assassination. It records a private moment in the garden of the presidential palace. Anwar Sadat, in an open-necked shirt, is sitting with a draft of the speech he was to make the following day. Oct. 6 is a festive occasion in Egypt, the commemoration of the day in 1973 when Egyptian forces, at the command of the bold president, struck across the Suez: the October war. With that move Sadat helped give Egyptians back their pride. He became the "Hero of the Crossing."
In this photograph, Sadat is looking up from his speech toward his young granddaughter Yasmene, a name meaning jasmine, which of course is an ancient plant used for scenting tea. Grandpapa's smile is warm but also weary.
Jehan Sadat has allowed a guest to come into her house for a few minutes to look at this photograph and the way she lives now. She picks up the picture, studies it, sets it down again. Then she says, "The greatest thing is to respect, and to be respected. Once the wheel turns, it can never go back."