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MY FATHER AND I by Camelia Sadat (Macmillan: $16.95; 203 pp., illustrated)

January 05, 1986|Bridget Connelly | Connelly is the author of "Arab Folk Epic and Identity" (University of California Press)

It is perhaps not easy to have a hero for a father. And Camelia Sadat tells an often anguished, yet circumspect, story of her relationship with a man who was a modern-day hero--Anwar Sadat, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President of Egypt who was assassinated in October, 1981. Her book attempts "to tell the story of a daughter's love for her father."

The contradictions and complexities of loving Sadat color this ambivalent memoir of a dutiful daughter. The author was conceived the year that Sadat divorced her mother to marry the younger and more modern Jihan. Camelia's little-girl fantasy of being a boy takes on a special poignancy when the reader learns that had she been born a boy, her parents' divorce would have been nullified and her beloved mother restored to the status of first wife in a Muslim family.

Sadat chronicles the emotional ups and downs of her relationship with her father as he rises from newspaper editor to speaker of the Egyptian parliament to vice president to president and Nobel Prize winner. Much of the narrative of the early chapters are from her mother's point of view since Camelia lived in her mother's household with her two sisters until she was 10. The "glory years," as the author terms the time she lived with her mother and enjoyed regular visits from her father, ended abruptly when Sadat claimed his custody rights and moved his daughters into his second wife's household. Just as abruptly two years later, he arranged a marriage to a stranger for the 12-year-old child.

Through her marriages, divorces, her struggle for an education, and her decision to leave Egypt to study in the United States, Sadat's adult daughter yearns for consistency from her father. She suffers from his mood swings and his shifts from indulgence to indifference.

Reared as a traditionally courteous Muslim daughter who kisses her parents' hands in respectful greeting, yet educated as a modern liberal woman, Camelia Sadat finally decides she must "step away from the conflict and search out my own individual identity as a woman, a Muslim, and as my father's daughter." This book is largely the result. It is at once an unwritten letter to her dead father, a quest for self-definition, and an appeal to the American audience to whom it is addressed.

The tone of the book is never bitter, but perhaps reconciled. Sadat dedicates the book to both her parents and prefaces it with a Koranic verse which inveighs against having contempt for one's parents. She ends her work similarly with an envoi to her father, explaining: "I was caught up in the changes our country went through which to many people, you yourself represented. In this new world I have tried to find a place for myself and the old ways you taught me."

Sadat had told his daughter that he would leave her no inheritance of money, but one of love and pride. This legacy seems hard-earned. Ironically, it is in the United States, not Egypt, where his daughter says she can feel this heritage in the love and kindness she receives daily because of who her father was.

Indeed, an Egyptian audience today would not be so sympathetic to the plight of Sadat's daughter. For as former editor of al-Ahram, Mohamed Heikal, explains in his biography of Sadat ("Autumn Fury"), Sadat was never mourned in Egypt as he was in the West. The man whom the West viewed as a cosmopolitan peace-maker who ushered Egypt into the world of modern diplomacy with the Camp David accords was seen at home as a traitor and an opportunistic profiteer eager to be the superstar on international television.

Near the end of the book, Sadat tells of a confrontation between herself and another foreign student in a writing class at Boston University where she was registered under an assumed name. When an Iranian woman asks her about the purge of Sept. 3, 1981, in which Sadat had about 1,500 dissidents thrown into jail (including al-Ahram editor Heikal and many other prominent people), Sadat defends her president by explaining that troublemaking fanatics wanted to overturn the Camp David accords and were plotting an assassination. To the accusation that he might be turning out to be "just like the Shah," Camelia retorted, "Sadat would never arrest people without a just cause. That is against his nature."

To the reader of this vignette, a note of irony sounds after having read about 25 pages earlier the story of the author's own fear of being jailed by her father: "I could see him sending me to jail on some charge or another. I remembered the bad luck of my uncles. . . . I am not closer to my father than Talaat, I thought. I could see myself being featured in Father's speeches as the third Sadat whom he had, as President, thrown into prison to prove that he was a good and honest man."

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