A woman of passion, peace

CATCHING UP WITH ... JEHAN SADAT

From her post at College Park, Jehan Sadat follows in the footstps of her husband, slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, "I am working to keep my husband's legacy alive,' she says.

May 09, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,Sun Staff

From her post at College Park, Jehan Sadat follows in the footsteps of her husband, slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. 'I am working to keep my husband's legacy alive,' she says.

But for this moment, Sadat didn't have to come far.

This elegant, passionate cheerleader for peace is a local; for more than a decade, she has quietly worked with the university's Center for International Development and Conflict Management. She splits her time between a serene suburb in northern Virginia and her family's home in Egypt, lending her name and wisdom to promoting understanding between countries and cultures.

At age 65, her work for peace -- she gives dozens of speeches a year throughout the world -- continues nearly 19 years after her husband, Anwar Sadat, was killed.

"I'd bet his soul is happy to see and watch what I am doing," she says, speaking from Virginia in a recent interview. "I feel his soul is watching and must be proud. It's not just for him. I am working to keep my husband's legacy alive so people will not forget what he has done."

Her husband's work does live on. At the University of Maryland, Sadat helped set up the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, a $1.5 million endowed chair devoted to peace issues. Most recently, the holder of the chair -- Professor Shibley Telhami, an expert in Middle East affairs -- has worked to carry out agreements reached in the Wye River accord last October.

In the Middle East itself, in the 21 years since Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed President Jimmy Carter's historic Camp David peace accords, tension between Egypt and Israel largely has dissipated.

But the Middle East is far from peaceful. Sadat says, "Now when we see the wars and lack of peace in the Middle East, it's almost like [the peace agreement] is not doing anything."

Similarly, ethnic tensions persist from the Sudan to Kosovo, from South Africa to the United States.

In Sadat's mind, working for peace is a never-ending task. And, with her soothing manner and adamantly centrist views, she embodies the characteristics that have won breakthroughs in peace throughout the world.

Her explanation of recent events in Littleton, Colo., where teen-agers last month shouted racial slurs before killing a classmate, is classic Sadat: She sees many angles to the problem, straddles conservative and liberal perspectives and places a bit of blame all around.

"These boys and girls are victims of this society," she says, adding, "There is too much democracy and too much freedom in this country. ... Also the weapons. It's as easy to get a gun as going to the Safeway and buying anything!"

Then she asks: "Where are the parents? We are going to lose many innocent children because there are no father and no mother."

Her philosophy on peace is to simply understand -- people, cultures, languages, perspectives. "Exchange visits and have dialogue with each other," she told the University of Maryland audience last week in a conversation with Rabin broadcast live on Maryland Public Television.

"The media also have a role to play in telling stories of peace between people," she adds.

Her perspective on achieving peace through personal effort is nothing new for her.

As a 9-year-old in Cairo, she befriended a homeless woman she passed on her way to school each day. Each day, she gave the woman half her sandwiches and candies. She rallied her mother and friends to give the woman food and medicine.

As a teen-ager, the well-to-do daughter of a British mother and Egyptian father was captivated by a working-class, divorced soldier named Anwar Sadat because he shared her views.

"He was a patriot like me," she says, her voice growing soft as she speaks about the man she still deeply loves. "Our thoughts were almost the same. Our way of living was the same."

She was 16 and he was 30 when they married in 1949.

Though they would have four children, Loubna, Gamal, Noha and Jehan -- all live in Egypt today -- she did not become a typical Egyptian wife. She worked outside the home to help Egyptian women gain economic independence, among other efforts.

"The country was very conservative, very religious," she says. "People were shocked when I started working. Not in all of Africa was there a first lady who was doing what I was doing."

At a time when feminism was barely in vogue in the West, and was decidedly opposed in the Arab world, she raised eyebrows in the strict Muslim culture by stepping into the media spotlight. She earned advanced degrees -- as much for her own interests as to set a good example for the women of her country -- and in 1980 defended her master's thesis on national television.

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