Like her husband Anwar Sadat, Jehan Sadat, who died this week, is the focus of conflicting views and contradictory sentiments. Below, Al-Ahram Weekly recalls some of the most significant moments in the life of this controversial but remarkable woman, in her own words.
29 August 1933: Jehan Raouf was born in Cairo to Safwat Raouf and Gladys Cotrell. Her parents had met in 1923 when Safwat was studying medicine at the University of Sheffield. Gladys was a music teacher. It was a marriage, Jehan Sadat later said, that her father’s family had vehemently opposed.
“I did not know until I was 11 that my name was Jehan, a Persian name picked out by my father which means ‘the world’. My mother, who was English, had nicknamed me Jean, and that is what I was called by my father, an employee at the Ministry of Health,” she wrote in her memoir A Woman of Egypt. “I was born on Roda Island, one of two islands in the Nile linked by bridges to Cairo in the east and Giza to the west. In Cairo, my family was not poor and not rich — but middle class.”
She attended school in Giza and developed an early interest in politics because, as she wrote in her memoir, she grew up at a time when unease about the performance of the king was growing. “Sentiment was mounting against king Farouk. He did whatever the British asked him to as long as they let him stay on the throne… His government was extraordinarily corrupt, and it was said that many in it sold titles and government positions in exchange for land… I wanted to be proud of our king but instead I was ashamed.”
“My obsession with politics was puzzling to my family. My father was not political at all.” she said.
29 May 1949: In 1948, during a summer holiday with her family in Suez, Jehan met Anwar Sadat. The year also saw the creation of the state of Israel.
“I did not recognise him when I first saw him. Perhaps it was because of the hour, two o’clock in the morning, when I was in my aunt’s kitchen in Suez helping to prepare Sohour, the predawn meal, during Ramadan. Perhaps it was because of the improbability of it all. How could this man, this national hero, be just sitting in the hall of my cousin’s home? It was unbelievable.”
Jehan Sadat wrote that her admiration of Anwar Sadat was instant and irreversible. She would ask a family member to tell her stories of Anwar Sadat’s political battles against the British occupation.
“I was thrilled to hear the story of how Anwar had first been sent to prison after the British security police searched his house and found a German transmitter that he was trying to fix so that he could send a treaty to Rommel in the desert east of Alexandria. Anwar wanted to offer Rommel Egyptian military support in return for Egyptian independence,” she wrote.
In her memoir, Jehan Sadat agreed that what she learned about Anwar Sadat should have quelled her interest in him. A man who was almost 20 years her senior, who came from a very poor background, whose life had had more downs than ups and whose future was uncertain. But, she adds, it was impossible for her as a 15-year-old romantic girl to be practical.
It was her birthday, she wrote, and Anwar Sadat was still in Suez with her family. He took her for a drive and told her that while he could not buy her anything for her birthday, he would sing her a Farid Al-Atrash song.
“At 15, or at any age for that matter, I did not need to be told about the power of love. It is an emotion that comes easily to women,” she wrote.
On 29 May 1949: A little under a year after their first encounter in Suez, the couple married.
“You are a lucky man,” the photographer said to Anwar as we posed for our official wedding photograph.”
“My husband and I began a journey that was carefully charted. Often our roots would be very different. But always our destination would be the same,” she wrote.
22 July 1952: The eve of the day when the Free Officers, of which Anwar Sadat was one, decided to depose Egypt’s last monarch, king Farouk. Anwar and Jehan had gone to the cinema. Following their return to the house of Jehan’s parents the porter came and asked her about her husband. When he knew that Anwar Sadat was parking the car in the garage the porter handed her a note that had been left by a man who had come looking for her husband. Once he saw the note Anwar Sadat pretended that a friend of his was really unwell and rushed to see him.
The following morning a worried Jehan Sadat got a telephone call from her husband who told her to turn in the radio. At 7:30am on 23 July 1952 she heard her husband reading a statement: Egypt has gone through a difficult period in its recent history, which has been plagued by bribery, graft, and corruption. The corrupt elements were responsible for our defeat in the Palestine war. This is why we have carried out a purge. The army is now in the hands of men in whose ability, integrity, and patriotism you can have complete confidence.
For Egypt, just as for the Sadats, this was clearly a new beginning. Anwar Sadat was now part of the ruling regime.
When her husband was made speaker of the People’s Assembly, Jehan Sadat became more involved in public affairs. She wrote that by 1965 she was becoming increasingly anxious about what she saw as misguided policies, not least the way the civilian and military police handled any form of opposition, from landowners to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter were particularly loathed by Abdel-Hakim Amer, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s minister of defence and right-hand man.
“Many of Amer’s influential colleagues were running out of control, using their new positions of power to crush anyone they disliked and to stifle all criticism of the government,” Jehan Sadat wrote. “Anyone suspected of being a member of the Brothers or even knowing one was being seized for questioning and often tortured. The property of former politicians was being appropriated in the name of the state.”
5 June 1967: Anwar Sadat, never commented much on her worries over state management, looked his wife in the eyes and told her that, contrary to the news on the radio, Egypt had lost the war. “Jehan, I have just come back from speaking with Amer and Nasser… Every one of our planes is lost. Israeli infantry have already captured Arish. Our soldiers are on the run. This is a disaster for Egypt,” she recalled.
Egypt faced political upheaval and an ongoing military struggle to rebuild its military capabilities and the combat readiness of the Egyptian Armed Forces. Following the mysterious death of Amer, Anwar Sadat became vice president on 19 December 1969.
28 September 1970: Jehan Sadat wrote in her memoir that she woke up after having a disturbing dream. She told her husband that in the dream she had been standing on her parents’ balcony and watched Arab leaders, who had just taken part in an Arab summit in Cairo, walking with tears in their eyes. A few hours later, Nasser was dead.
6 October 1973: Jehan Sadat was the spouse of a president who had come to power when part of Egypt was occupied, and when Nasser’s supporters, who opposed her husband’s presidency, were working to remove him.
She wrote: “Anwar, what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for them to arrest you, to put you in prison, to kill you?” I asked him in exasperation, one night in April. “Well, Jehan, you have forgotten something very important, God is with me,” he would answer.
Less than a month after this conversation, Anwar Sadat had his political opponents arrested. His wife, meanwhile, began to assume an ever larger public role.
In her memoir, she does not shy away from sharing details of conversations she had with her husband about domestic political developments of details of conversations she had with his aides in which she confided to them her concerns over his safety.
In her memoir, Jehan Sadat wrote that she had suspected war was round the corner but was not sure. Her husband had gone on yet another mission that would take a few days. She had sent her three daughters and son to school and was listening to the radio.
“Suddenly, just after 1:30pm, the news bulletin I had been waiting for interrupted the normal programming: Attention, enemy forces have started an attack against our forces in the Gulf of Suez. Our forces are now engaged in repelling the aggressors.”
Following Egypt’s victory in 1973 Anwar Sadat embarked on a series of daring political decisions, on the home and foreign fronts. Jehan Sadat’s public profile also grew. She became increasingly active over health and social issues, particularly those relating to women.
Not only did Anwar Sadat face criticism for his economic and political choices, he also came under fire for allowing Jehan Sadat to assume a high-profile role. But as Jehan Sadat wrote in her memoires, her husband felt he had the confidence of the vast majority of the people. Nor was she particularly upset when critics referred to proposed amendments to the personal status law as Jehan’s laws.
19 November 1978: On this day, Anwar Sadat made his controversial/historic visit to Jerusalem in pursuit of a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli struggle. Following the trip the negotiations started with Israel that would eventually lead to signing a peace treaty with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.
“Anwar Al-Sadat, Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter. These men, these leaders are shaking hands, embracing each other. The sight is too much to readily absorb. It is 26 March, 1979… We are at the White House where the three men have just signed the Camp David Peace Accords. I cannot believe this is actually happening,” Jehan Sadat wrote in A Woman of Egypt.
What followed, however, kept Jehan Sadat on edge. Her husband was moving from one confrontation to the other, on the domestic and foreign fronts. Egypt lost the support of other Arab states, and the Arab League moved its headquarters from Cairo. Tensions were running high and, in September 1981, Jehan became increasingly alarmed when her husband ordered the arrest of a wide range of political opposition figures.
6 October 1981: “6 October 1981, was one of the few days out of thousands of days that I did not fear for my husband’s life. 6 October had become one of Egypt’s proudest anniversaries, the annual celebration of the moment in 1973 when our soldiers had crossed the Suez Canal to reclaim the land taken from us by Israel,” she wrote in her memoir.
Her confidence, sadly, proved misplaced. During the military parade staged to celebrate the anniversary of the crossing Anwar Sadat was assassinated.
“Anwar was buried in a tomb shaped like a small pyramid right across from the parade grounds in Nasr City where he was gunned down. This was my decision not his,” wrote his widow.
In the years that followed the death of her husband Jehan Sadat lived between Egypt and the US. No longer a controversial figure, she maintained a public presence by sharing her memories of life with her husband in TV and press interviews. In 1987 her memoir, A Woman of Egypt, was published in English from Simon and Shucster. An Arabic edition soon followed.
Following the January 2011 uprising that forced her husband’s successor Hosni Mubarak to resign, Jehan Sadat showed sympathy with the demands of the protesters. On 6 October 2012, however, with Mohamed Morsi president of Egypt, she was shocked to see Aboud Al-Zomor, one of the Islamist army officers involved in planning her husband’s assassination, invited to an event organised by the presidency to mark the October War.
Following Morsi’s removal from power, Jehan Sadat said she was relieved to see him out of office. She said she had faith in President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who she felt would continue the mission of her late husband.
In recent years Jehan Sadat made fewer and fewer public appearance. Her time was mostly dedicated to her family — her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. For the last two years her appearances became ever more rare as her health became increasingly frail.
On 24 June 2021 Jehan Sadat’s family announced that she had been admitted into intensive care, and on 9 July 2021 the announcement was made that she had died.
10 July 2021: Jehan Sadat was laid to rest next to her husband in the tomb built for Anwar Sadat next to the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. Jehan Sadat’s burial ceremony followed a military funeral attended by President Al-Sisi who ordered the minting of a medal to honour Jehan Sadat, the first woman in Egypt’s history to be given a military funeral.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.