CAIRO: On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, which eventually led to his assassination, the devoted widow of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat reminds the world of what her husband died for. Jehan Sadat’s new release, “My Hope for Peace is, first and foremost, a labor of love.
At the home she shared with the man she still refers to as “the love of her life , on 6 Kafour Street, Giza, the former first lady displays genuine hospitality and simplicity of character, shifting pieces of furniture around herself in the grand reception area before offering us a seat.
Sophisticated yet down-to-earth, Sadat had left a legacy of undisputed devotion in the hearts of generations of Egyptians who worked with her in the hospital wards when she personally volunteered in the Red Crescent as the wife of then vice president during the 1967 war. Soon after, she became instrumental in establishing the Wafa’ wal Amal Society (Loyalty and Hope Society), a rehabilitation center for injured war veterans.
“Anwar Sadat’s only rival for popularity among Egyptians these days is a safe and sure ally: his wife Jehan Sadat, wrote Time magazine in 1974 under the title “Egypt’s Liberating First Lady .
Working tirelessly to revolutionize Egypt’s personal status laws regarding women’s rights, she made many friends, but also many enemies.
“In 1979, amid furious debate, she writes in her book, “the reforms we proposed were adopted. By contemporary standards, the laws seem conservative, yet they were perceived as a dire threat by the zealots . Protests broke out at universities, even though we came nowhere near banning polygamy. Instead, ‘Jehan’s Laws’ called for familial mediation, made it mandatory for a husband to inform his wife that he was divorcing her, made it mandatory for a husband to inform his first wife if he planned to take a new one.
But it was not her own legacy, which she insists was inspired by her Islamic faith, that she wished to immortalize through her new book, but that of her husband.
“I don’t want the people to forget Sadat, she says.
“Sadat paid his life to bring peace to Egypt. He was also planning not only for peace to prevail between Egypt and Israel, but he was also asking other Arab countries whose land was occupied by the Israelis to come and join him because nothing will come to you on a silver platter. You have to sit with your enemy, negotiate and reach a solution.
Indeed Jehan Sadat devotes the longest chapter in the book to charting the origins and the chronology of the Arab Israeli conflict and with great finesse, regretting the Arab world’s (especially the Palestinians’) hostile reaction to Sadat’s unprecedented peace initiative.
“They [the Arabs] refused to negotiate and they lost a very big opportunity. At that time the settlements were very few in the West Bank. There were only two settlements in Sinai which Sadat insisted on having them dismantled.
The book launch also comes at a sensitive time of regional conflict, with the divisions among the Arab world accentuated on the heels of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza. This, for Jehan Sadat, is all the more reason why she believes it is important to evoke the spirit and visionary politics of her late husband.
“When I saw the aggression on Gaza I felt very sorry for the innocent people, the children who were dieing, but at the same time it made me think that people have to say ‘God bless his soul’ because if Sadat hadn’t made this peace we would have been in the same situation as Gaza, with aggression between us and Israel. But he saved us and paid his life for it. He did something that was not that easy 30 years ago.
She recalls how Sadat knew that eventually the Arab states – who had dismissed Egypt from the Arab League and moved its headquarters in objection to the peace treaty – would realize the value of what he did in 10 years.
Ever the diplomat, Jehan Sadat emphasizes that Sadat would not have dealt with the controversy surrounding the blockade on Gaza and Egypt’s closure of the Rafah Crossing any differently from President Hosni Mubarak, vehemently criticizing those who demand revisions of the Camp David Accords on the pretext that they are unfair to Egypt.
“Why unfair? she asks. “We had Sinai completely, what’s wrong with that? We are no longer occupied, what’s wrong with that? We are living in peace not like the Palestinians, the Syrians or the Lebanese who are not secure like us. What more do they want? Do they want war between us and Israel?
Looking at the 30-year impasse during which there has been little progress in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Jehan Sadat believes that the lack of a united Palestinian front has been the most detrimental to the peace process, but stresses, as she does in the book, that the scourge of Israeli settlement-building, the continuous confiscation of Arab land and the demolition of Arab homes fuelled the aggression between both sides, rendering any land-for-peace initiative a distant dream.
But as her late husband used to say, politics can be “the art of the impossible and despite the rise of a new far right administration in Israel, Jehan Sadat sees hope in another new administration on the other side of the Atlantic with the inspirational US President Barack Obama.
“So does Obama remind you of President Carter, I ask.
“No, he reminds me of Sadat, she smiles, “his color, his way, his ambitions his principals. I even sent him a letter of support during the campaign . his charisma is just like Sadat’s when he was his age.
On the subject of the US, Jehan Sadat talks about the second reason that triggered the idea for her book, that is, Islam. “My Hope for Peace is as much an impassioned defense of Islam as it is a tribute to a beloved husband and a respected statesman.
The book actually opens with a chapter titled “Eleventh of September, Sixth of October where she juxtaposes the atrocity of the attack on the twin towers with painful memories of her husband’s assassination.
“As the horror unfolded, the enormity of it all sank in, she wrote, “Militant fundamentalists purporting to be Muslims had perpetrated an unthinkable crime . And yet, scarcely believable as the flickering images on the television seemed to me . I remembered another autumn day in which zealots had shattered lives, sown confusion and plunged nations into turmoil: Oct. 6, 1981, the day my husband Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, was assassinated. . He was killed because he had done the unimaginable, and for some angry few, the unforgivable: he had negotiated peace with Israel.
As Senior Fellow of the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the university of Maryland, Jehan Sadat has been lecturing all over the US for many years and was disheartened by the deteriorating image of Islam and Muslims after 9/11.
Hence she dedicates three chapters to rebutting false claims and clarifying misconceptions about Islam such as claims that it is a monolithic, violent religion which is anathema to democracy, has no respect for human rights, and is particularly discriminatory against women.
She also emphasizes her own faith and the role of faith in Sadat’s life as an instrument that has informed many of his political decisions.
“I understood that his desire for peace with Israel stemmed from something more profound than pragmatism. Sadat believed peace was God’s will; he believed in Islam’s injunctions to create a just and tolerant society . that Arabs and Jews are brothers . and that they should be reconciled, she wrote.
Thwarting other misconceptions about the Sadats’ palatial properties all over the world, Jehan Sadat’s closes her candid and impassioned book with a chapter about surviving by herself, evoking Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own and showing pride in the fact that she paid for the house she owns in Virginia where she spends half her life. As for her house in Giza, she says that it is the property of the Egyptian government leased to her for her lifetime.
Forever hopeful that peace between the A
rabs and the Israelis, between Islam and the West, shall come one day to prove that her husband did not die in vain, Jehan Sadat says that she is not ready to retire.
Quoting Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, she ends the book with an uplifting message of moral and spiritual transcendence: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.
“My Hope for Peace By Jehan SadatCairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2009.