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Man Of The Year: Reflections from Cell 54

14 minute read
Anwar Sadat

Anwar Sadat was born in a Nile Delta village and born again, as it were, in a prison cell. In his speeches and writings he has often contrasted the disorder of cities with the virtuous simplicity of life in hamlets, like his home village of Mil Abu el Kom. Curiously, Sadat has also described as “the happiest period of my life” eight of the 18 months in 1947-48 that he spent in Cell 54 of Qurah Maydan, awaiting trial for complicity in the political assassination of Amin Osman Pasha, a former minister in King Farouk ‘s government. There Sadat developed a philosophy of life that, he today insists, guided him as a revolutionary and later as President of Egypt. In the following excerpts from his forthcoming autobiography, In Search of Identity, to be published in April by Harper & Row, Sadat describes his feeling for village life, and the almost mystic happenings in Cell 54.

“The treacle has arrived,” announces the local crier in the alleys and squares of our village: my grandmother rushes outside, dragging me along besideher, toward the canal where a ship loaded with treacle has just arrived from the nearby Kafr Zirqan. The road is not long, but every step fills me with joy and pride: men stand up as we pass to greet Grandmother. Though illiterate, she is a haven for everybody; she solves their problems and cures their sick with old Arab concoctions of medical herbs unrivaled in our village or in any of the neighboring ones. We buy a big jar of treacle and return home. Behind her I trot along—a small dark boy, barefooted and wearing a long Arab dress over a white calico shirt—with eyes fixed on the jar of treacle, a treasure won at last.

Everything made me happy in Mil Abu el Kom, even cold water in the winter when we had to leave at dawn for the flush canal—a canal filled to overflowing for no more than two weeks, our “statutory” irrigation period, during which all land in the village had to be watered. We worked together on the land of one of us for a whole day then moved to another’s.

That kind of collective work—with no profit, or any kind of individual reward, in prospect—made me feel that I belonged not merely in my immediate family at home, or even the big family of the village, but in something vaster and more significant: the land. It was that feeling that made me, on the way home at sunset, watch the evening scene with a rare warmth, recognizing an invisible bond of love and friendship with everything around me—smoke rolling down the valley, promising a delicious meal at the close of a village day, and perfect calm and peace in the hearts of all.

This big shady tree was made by God; He decreed it: it came into being. These fresh green plants whose seeds we had ourselves sown could never have been there if God had not decreed it. This land on which I walk; the running water in the canal; indeed, everything around me was made by an overseeing God—a vast, mighty Being that watches and takes care of all, including me. Trees, seeds and fruits are all, therefore, my fellows in existence; we all came out of the land and could never exist without it. And the land is firm and tough; all that belong to it must be equally tough.

The feeling that everything I did or saw in the village was new never left me throughout my childhood. Nothing was old, not even those bedtime stories which my grandmother and my mother told me.

The ballad which affected me most was probably that of Zahran, the hero of Denshway. Denshway was only five kilometers away and the ballad dealt with a real incident. British soldiers were shooting pigeons in Denshway, the ballad goes, when a stray bullet caused a wheat silo to catch fire. Farmers gathered and a British soldier fired at them and ran away; they ran after him and in the ensuing scuffle the British soldier died. Many people were arrested. Scaffolds were erected before sentences were passed; a number of farmers were whipped, others hanged. Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and was the first to be hanged. The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle,how he walked with head held high to the scaffold.

I listened to the ballad night after night. My imagination roamed free: I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie: I wished I were Zahran.

This was not all I came to learn in Mit Abu el Kom. I learned something that has remained with me all my life: wherever I go, wherever I happen to be, I shall always know where in fact I am. I can never lose my way because I know that I have living roots in the soil of my village.

Two places in this world make it impossible for a man to escape from himself: a battlefield and a prison cell. In Cell 54 I could only be my own companion, day and night, and it was only natural that I should come to know that “Self” of mine. I had never had such a chance before, preoccupied as I had been with work (in the army) and politics, and hurried along by the constant stream of daily life.

Now in the complete solitude of Cell 54, when I had no links at all with the outside world—not even newspapers or a wireless—the only way in which I could break my loneliness was, paradoxically, to seek the companionship of that inner entity I call “Self.” It was not easy. There were areas of suffering which kept that “Self” in the dark, shadows which troubled my mind and accentuated the difficulty of self-confrontation.

Nothing is more important than self-knowledge. Once I had come to know what I wanted, and got rid of what I didn’t, I was reconciled to myself and learned to live in peace. To return to my village became a lovely dream, and work in any field simply charming. The future—both foreseeable and unforeseeable—wasa joy to contemplate.

When we were allowed to read books, magazines and newspapers, I voraciously read, finding in every word a novelty—something which opened new horizons before my eyes. It was thanks to an article contributed by an American psychologist to the Reader’s Digest that I succeeded in getting over my troubles. The gist of that article was that a shock may occur, at any stage in a man’s life, which might make him feel that all avenues in front of him are blocked, that life itself is a prison cell with a perpetually locked door.

There is more than one key to this door. First, a man should clearly recognize the source of his trouble; secondly, he must have faith. Faith means that a man should regard any disaster simply as a fate-determined blow which should be endured. From this follows a deliberate effort to fight away its consequences. No problem should ever be regarded as insuperable. There are always solutions to everything. What makes us think in this way is our belief that God created men to play the rolesassigned to them. The God who has created us cannot be evil in any sense: He is good and beneficent (contrary to God’s image that a Sheikh in our village Quranic teaching school had drawn up—a mighty and frightening Being).

Ideally the relationship between man and God should be based not on fear (or punishment and reward) but on a much loftier value (the highest)—friendship. The Creator is merciful, just and loving: He is all-powerful because he created everything. If you have him for a friend, you will always have peace of mind under whichever circumstances.

The analysis contributed by that psychologist opened infinite horizons of love before me: my relations with the entire universe began to be reshaped and love became the fountainhead of all my actions and feelings. Armed with faith and perfect peace of mind, I have never been shaken by the turbulent events, both private and public, through which I have lived.

In fact, I cannot bring myself to hate anybody, as I am by nature committed to love. This became quite clear to me through suffering and pain, in Cell 54. Suffering crystallizes a soul’s intrinsic strength; for it is through suffering that a man of mettle can come into his own, and fathom his own depths. It was through suffering that I discovered how I was by nature inclined to do good, that love was the real motive behind my actions. Without love I really could not work at all. Loveprovided me with faith, full confidence in myself and in everything around me. My love for the universe is derived from my love for God. The Creator being my friend, I couldn’t possibly be afraid of men…it is he who controls their life and the entire universe.

Through that feeling which came to be an indivisible part of my very being (and which, though unconsciously, remained with me all my life) I was able to transcend the confines of time and place. Spatially, I did not live in a four-walled cell but in the entire universe. Time ceased to exist once my heart was taken over by the love of the Lord of all Creation: I came to feel very close to him wherever I was.

One of the things Cell 54 taught me was the value of inward success, which alone maintains inward equilibrium and helps a man to be true to himself. I do not care for socially recognizable success: I only value that success which I can feel within me, which satisfies me, and which basically stems from self-knowledge. A true believer should, if he has to call anybody to book, start with himself. What should matter to him is not material gain but his recognition of his own self-image and the extent to which his actions reflect it. Inward success is a source of permanent and absolute power, independent of external factors; outward success fluctuates in response to changing circumstances.

Most people are fascinated by outward success—their social position, financial gain, power, or, in a word, their image in the eyes of others. If their outward image is, for any reason, shaken, they are inevitably shaken and may even collapse. They lack fortitude because they are neither true to themselves nor honest with others. To them the end always justifies the means. However, I have been brought up to believethat how I saw myself was more important than how others saw me.

I do not hold the presidency to be of greater value than Anwar Sadat. To me Anwar Sadat is always Anwar Sadat, whatever the circumstances—a man who has no personal demands, and, if you wish for nothing, you will need nobody!

There can be no doubt that man’s value is absolute. If it were relative it would change from one person to another, from one society to the next, and from time to time. Furthermore, if it were relative, a man’s value would depend on his material “weight” or worth and could vary according as people find him useful or otherwise. The same man may be viewed differently by different people and so end up without a human (absolute) entity, losing his very “self.”

This is the case with all fascist communities—Nazi or Communist—where man’s value is always determined by social needs. People may be reduced to serfs or elevated to demigods: man may be turned into an automaton, obeyingorders and doing his work without thinking. A man’s humanity is inevitably lost as he ceases to be an individual worthy of the Responsibility and the vocation entrusted to him by God. The holy torch which he was created to bear and to usein lighting the way both for his fellow men and for posterity is extinguished.

Most people today live in power-based communities, and the world has lost the lofty ideals which man has established down the centuries. Mankind has, I believe, no way out of its current predicament except the restoration of these ideals and vindicating them in all walks of life. This is why I tirelessly advocate the adoption of the values of the Egyptian village.

My friendship with God changed me a great deal. Only in defense of a just cause would I take up arms, so to speak. For now I felt I had stepped into a vaster and more beautiful world and my capacity for endurance redoubled. I felt I could stand the pressure whatever the magnitude of a given problem. My paramount object was to make people happy. To see a smile, to feel that another man’s heart beat for joy was to me a source of immeasurable happiness. I identified with people’s joys.

Some people have asked me to define politics. I have always found it puzzling and could not provide a precise definition. All I know is that I have been brought up to nurture certain values from childhood to maturity, even to this day when I am President of Egypt, and have been moved by the paramount desire to save Egypt from its besetting troubles and help it advance toward perfection and beauty.

Some define politics as the art of the possible, which I find unsatisfactory. Indeed, if the October War is anything to go by, politics may be defined, rather, as the art of the impossible! Which is the correct definition?

The truth is always the basis of my relations with people. This is, perhaps, what has surprised many people. Indeed, they have wondered how a politician could say behind closed doors the same things he would declare in front of a microphone, how he could refrain from the exploitation of a given situation in gaining easy popularityand demagogic applause.

I am of the opinion that politics is the art of building up a society wherein the will of God is enacted. Our Creator has decreed we should engage in constructive work consistently. In such a society as that, each individual should enjoy absolute freedom, subject to no other restrictions than those implicit in the genuine human values of the society itself—values which are the fruit of its indigenous culture and which are therefore acceptable to all. Freedom is the most beautiful, holy and precious fruit of our culture; an individual should never be made to feel that he is at the mercy of any force of coercion or that his will is subordinated to those of others.

Freedom is the mainstay of a society based on Truth, benevolence and beauty. Here hearts are animated with love, faith and inner light. Constructive work would be done and principles vindicated—faith, dignity, peace and glory.

For such a society to be built, leaders should not shirk their human Responsibility—the Responsibility dictated by their human consciousness and human belonging. They should be impelled in all theiractions by distinctively human “power” rather than acting in response to personal dreams of glory or ephemeral and spurious power, such as obsess dictators’ minds and turn their heads. Indeed, it would be impossible for any community under such leaders even to aspire to the ideals of truth, benevolence and beauty: human dignity would be shattered and man would be turned into a “thing,” insignificant and almost inanimate, deprived of his absolute power as human being.

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