A Woman of Egypt

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Daughter of a government employee and an Englishwoman, Jehan Sadat grew up in middle-class Cairo, surrounded by protective relatives and traditional culture. She early developed a strong sense of nationalism that arose from her dismay at King Farouk’s corrupt monarchy. When revolutionary hero Captain Anwar Sadat visited her cousin’s home, Jehan was instantly love struck. Throughout their marriage, however, Jehan would find that love for her husband would be inextricable from fear for his safety--a well-founded fear, as Sadat’s assassination in 1981 would prove. Jehan’s account of her girlhood offers details of daily life in the Cairo of the 1940’s and supplies insights into the Egyptian social standards of her era, which, for example, prompted Jehan’s parents initially to oppose her marriage partly because Sadat was quite dark-skinned.

The book suffers from a stiltedness which makes the dialogue, especially when something of world importance is being discussed, seem greatly edited and somewhat trivialized. When the Camp David talks reached an impasse and Sadat was planning to walk out, Jehan records herself as saying, “But, Anwar, then there will be no chance of peace. You must stay. You must,” convincing him to remain until the accord with Israel could be reached. Her stiff, simplistic account of this and other major events leaves out much of the gritty substance of real-life politics--and human relations as well.

Following Jehan’s own personal development is interesting, however, particularly her growth from a devout, subservient Muslim girl into the first real champion of women’s rights in Egypt--a controversial and brave stance that involved reforming divorce laws to assist abandoned wives, helping peasant women form cooperatives, and, ultimately, giving all Arab women a new kind of female role model: an elegant, well-educated, and humane woman working alongside her husband for important causes.