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ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW’ S 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A gripping day-by-day account of the 1978 Camp David conference, when President Jimmy Carter persuaded Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to sign the first peace treaty in the modern Middle East, one which endures to this day.
With his hallmark insight into the forces at play in the Middle East and his acclaimed journalistic skill, Lawrence Wright takes us through each of the thirteen days of the Camp David conference, illuminating the issues that have made the problems of the region so intractable, as well as exploring the scriptural narratives that continue to frame the conflict. In addition to his in-depth accounts of the lives of the three leaders, Wright draws vivid portraits of other fiery personalities who were present at Camp David––including Moshe Dayan, Osama el-Baz, and Zbigniew Brzezinski––as they work furiously behind the scenes. Wright also explores the significant role played by Rosalynn Carter.
What emerges is a riveting view of the making of this unexpected and so far unprecedented peace. Wright exhibits the full extent of Carter’s persistence in pushing an agreement forward, the extraordinary way in which the participants at the conference—many of them lifelong enemies—attained it, and the profound difficulties inherent in the process and its outcome, not the least of which has been the still unsettled struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In Thirteen Days in September, Wright gives us a resonant work of history and reportage that provides both a timely revisiting of this important diplomatic triumph and an inside look at how peace is made.
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Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of six previous books of nonfiction, including In the New World, Remembering Satan, The Looming Tower, Going Clear, and one novel, God’s Favorite. His books have received many prizes and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower. He is also a playwright and screenwriter. He and his wife are longtime residents of Austin, Texas.
Late one night in a rustic lodge on the edge of Jackson Lake, in the Grand Teton National Park, Jimmy Carter took a break from his vacation to open a thick briefing book compiled for him by the Cen- tral Intelligence Agency. He had spent one last glorious day, August 29, 1978, fly-fishing on the Snake River, horseback riding through the park, and picking huckleberries with his daughter, Amy, which went into an after-dinner pie. It was a brief escape from the tumult of Washington and his weakened and unpopular presidency. The briefing book contained psychological profiles of two leaders, Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, the prime minister of Israel, who would be coming to America in a few days with the unlikely goal of making peace in the Middle East. The ways in which Carter would relate to these leaders—and they to each other—would determine the success or failure of this historic gamble.
The profiles Carter was studying in Wyoming came from a meeting he had at the CIA a few weeks earlier. He had directed the analysts to answer a number of questions about Begin and Sadat:
What made them leaders? What was the original root of their ambition?
What were their goals?
What previous events had shaped their characters?
What were their religious beliefs? Were they sincere?
Who was important to them? What were their family relations?
How was their health?
What promises and obligations had they made?
How did they react under pressure?
What were their strengths and weaknesses?
What were their attitudes toward the U.S. and Carter personally?
What did they think of each other?
Whom did they trust, especially within their delegations?
The resulting profiles of Begin and Sadat drew sharply opposing por- traits. Sadat was a visionary—bold, reckless, and willing to be flexible as long as he believed his overall goals were being achieved. He saw himself as a grand strategic thinker blazing like a comet through the skies of history. The CIA noted his penchant for publicity, terming it his “Barbara Walters Syndrome,” after the famous television personality, but by the time the profile was prepared for Carter that category had been upgraded to Sadat’s “Nobel Prize Complex.” Begin, on the other hand, was secretive, legalistic, and leery of radical change. History, for Begin, was a box full of tragedy; one shouldn’t expect to open it with- out remorse. When put under stress, Sadat drifted into generalities and Begin clung to minutiae. Clashes and misunderstandings were bound to occur. There was some doubt among the analysts preparing the dossiers whether two such opposing personalities should ever be put into the same room together. The two leaders seemed alike only in unpromising ways. Both men had blood on their hands. They had each spent long stretches in prison and in hiding and were deeply schooled in conspiracy. They were not the kind of men Carter had ever known before.
Carter believed he instinctively understood Sadat, however, even though they came from distant cultures. Part of their bond was the fact that they had both been farmers. As a boy, Carter had plowed the red clay of southwest Georgia behind a mule, feeling the damp cool of the freshly turned earth between his toes. He was struck by the observation that Jesus and Moses would have felt at home on a farm in the Deep South during the first part of the twentieth century. Around the globe but on the same meridian as Plains, Georgia, there is a village of mud huts in Egypt called Mit Abul Kum, where Sadat spent his early years. Farmers in the black alluvial soil of the Nile Delta irrigated their fields using an Archimedes screw, which the Greek sage reputedly invented when he visited Egypt in the third century BCE. One could see painted in the tombs of the pharaohs scenes of village life that were still being lived three thousand years later.
Changelessness is the essential feature of such rural childhoods—a feeling of being cocooned, at once protected and entrapped. And yet, even as a child, a dark-skinned peasant from a small village in the Nile Delta, Sadat sensed his unique role in Egyptian society. Once, when he was playing with some other children near an irrigation canal, they jumped into the water and Anwar leaped in after them. Only then did he remember that he couldn’t swim. He thought, “If I drown, Egypt will have lost Anwar Sadat!”
Although he rarely talked about his race, Sadat was only two gen- erations away from slavery—his maternal grandfather, an African man called Kheirallah, had been brought as a slave to Egypt and was eman- cipated only after the British occupiers demanded the practice be abol- ished. Kheirallah’s daughter, Sitt el-Barrein (woman of two banks), was also a black African. She was chosen as a wife for Mohamed el-Sadaty, an interpreter for a British medical group.* She covered herself in traditional black clothing, with long sleeves and a skirt that reached the floor. She was Mohamed’s sixth wife; the first five bore him no children, so he divorced them one after another. Sitt el-Barrein would bear him three sons and a daughter. Anwar was her second child.
The racial dynamics in the Sadaty family were highly charged, as they were in Egyptian society as a whole. Mohamed el-Sadaty’s mother, called by custom Umm Mohamed (mother of Mohamed), was an over- bearing figure who had arranged the match with Sitt el-Barrein. It’s a bit of a mystery why she made such a choice, since Umm Mohamed was of Turkish lineage, with fair features, and she despised her dark-skinned daughter-in-law. Mohamed inherited his mother’s Turkish features; he had blue eyes and blond hair. In Islam, a man is permitted four wives at a time, and Mohamed would eventually marry twice more when the family moved to Cairo. In addition to his three wives and his formidable mother, Mohamed’s vast household grew to thirteen children. Sitt el- Barrein occupied the lowliest place because of her race. She was little more than a maid, occasionally beaten by her husband in front of her children. Sadat rarely spoke of her.
It was his grandmother, Umm Mohamed, the strongest figure in the family, who made the biggest impression on Sadat. “How I loved that woman!” he recalls in his autobiography. She was illiterate, but she insisted that her children and grandchildren become educated. Anwar often spent summers in Umm Mohamed’s mud-walled hut in Mit Abul Kum, where her influence was unequivocal. From an early age he began to imagine himself as a figure of destiny, his imagination fired by the stories his grandmother would tell.
His favorite was the legend of Zahran. It is a tale of martyrdom. In June 1906, several years before Anwar was born, a party of British soldiers was pigeon hunting in a nearby village called Denshawi. They shot some domesticated fowl, infuriating the villagers. Total chaos followed. One of the soldiers accidentally shot and wounded the wife of the local imam. The villagers responded with a hail of stones. The soldiers fired into the mob, injuring five people. A local silo caught on fire, perhaps because of a stray bullet. Two soldiers raced back to camp to get help, but the other members of the hunting party surrendered to the villagers. One soldier who escaped died of sunstroke in the intense heat, although he may also have suffered a concussion from the stoning. British soldiers who came to the rescue killed an elderly peasant who was trying to assist the dying man, wrongly assuming that he had murdered their comrade. The British occupiers decided to make an example of Denshawi. Fifty- two villagers were rounded up and quickly brought before a tribunal. Most of the villagers were flogged or sentenced to long prison sentences. Four were hanged.
This confused and tragic incident marked a turning point in the British occupation, inflaming nationalist sentiments in Egypt and stir- ring outrage even in Great Britain. Denshawi became a byword for the inevitable clumsy by-products of imperialism. No one embodied the face of Denshawi more than the young man named Zahran, the first of the condemned to be hanged. According to the oral ballad that Sadat’s grandmother told to him, Zahran was the son of a dark mother and a father of mixed blood—just like Anwar. “The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them,” Sadat writes. He heard this legend night after night, and it worked its way deep into his imagination. “I often saw Zahran,” he writes, “and lived his heroism in dream and reverie—I wished I were Zahran.”
It was in Cairo that Anwar first actually encountered the hated occupiers. He recalls “the odious sight of the typical British constable on his motorcycle, tearing through the city streets day and night like a madman—with a tomato-colored complexion, bulging eyes, and an open mouth—looking like an idiot, with his huge head covered in a long crimson fez reaching down to his ears. Everybody feared him. I simply hated the sight of him.”
In 1931, when Anwar was twelve, Mahatma Gandhi passed through the Suez Canal on his way to London to negotiate the fate of India. The ship stopped in Port Said, whereupon Egyptian journalists besieged the ascetic leader. The correspondent for Al-Ahram marveled that Gandhi was wearing “nothing but a scrap of cloth worth five piasters, wire rim glasses worth three piasters and the simplest thong sandals worth a mere two piasters. These ten piasters of clothing tell Great Britain volumes.” The example of this poor, dark-skinned man who turned the empire upside-down made a deep impression on the young Sadat. “I began to imitate him,” he writes. “I took off all my clothes, covered myself from the waist down with an apron, made myself a spindle, and withdrew to a solitary nook on the roof of our house in Cairo. I stayed there for a few days until my father persuaded me to give it up. What I was doing would not, he argued, benefit me or Egypt; on the contrary, it would certainly have given me pneumonia.” Sadat’s obsession with great men must have seemed comical, especially when he imitated Gandhi by sitting under a tree, pretending he didn’t want to eat, or dressing in an apron and leading a goat. He was consciously shopping for the qualities of greatness, trying on attributes and opinions. It wasn’t just Gandhi’s asceticism that appealed to him; he was drawn to the autocratic side of Gandhi’s nature, which favored action over deliberation and cared nothing for consensus.
Despite Sadat’s hatred of the British, it was through an English doctor who knew Sadat’s father that he was able to enter the Royal Military Academy. Sadat was rescued from the menial destiny he had been born to. The academy had been the exclusive province of the Egyptian aristocracy until 1936, when the British allowed the Egyptian Army to expand. During this period, Sadat read books on the Turkish Revolution and became increasingly devoted to Kemal Atatürk, the creator of modern Turkey. Sadat was already beginning to see himself as a trans- formational figure whose iron will would rearrange his society into a new paradigm. In that way, he and Begin were much alike.
Paradoxically, those were the same qualities that drew him to Hitler. “I was in our village for the summer vacation when Hitler marched forth from Munich to Berlin, to wipe out the consequences of Germany’s defeat in World War I and rebuild his country,” Sadat recounts. “I gathered my friends and told them we ought to follow Hitler’s example by marching forth from Mit Abul Kum to Cairo. I was twelve. They laughed and ran away.” Two decades later, after Germany was in ruins and sixty million people were dead, Sadat and other prominent Egyptians were asked by a Cairo magazine to write a letter to Hitler as if he were still alive. “My Dear Hitler,” Sadat wrote,
I admire you from the bottom of my heart. Even if you appear to have been defeated, in reality you are the victor. You have succeeded in creating dissension between the old man Churchill and his allies, the sons of Satan. . . . Germany will be reborn in spite of the Western and Eastern powers. . . . You did some mistakes . . . but our faith in your nation has more than compensated for them. You must be proud to have become an immortal leader of Germany. We will not be surprised if you showed up anew in Germany or if a new Hitler should rise to replace you.
Excerpted from THIRTEEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER by Lawrence Wright. Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence Wright. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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