A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Historical Mystery: What Movie(s), at What Theater, Did Anwar Sadat Attend the Evening of July 22, 1952?

As many of you will be aware, tomorrow, July 23, will mark 63 years since the Naguib/Nasser coup against King Farouq in Egypt.  It will be the seventh July 23 since I began this blog in 2009, and even a historian of Egypt starts to run out of ideas without repeating himself. I've read most though probably not all of the Free Officers' memoirs, but there are still some lingering mysteries. One involves the evening of July 22, the night before the coup, so I'll post it today rather than tomorrow.

Anwar Sadat's memoirs (or at least some of them; he retold his life several times), those of his wife Jehan, and most other standard accounts of the coup agree on one thing: Anwar Sadat, later Egypt's third President, nearly missed the coup because he was at the movies when his co-conspirators were trying to locate him. I am not the first person to wonder: what movie or movies were they watching, and at what theater? (Let me warn you now: at the end of this post, neither one of us will know the answer for certain.)

I can't answer the question, because Sadat, the old revolutionary and underground conspirator, never told us more than he wanted us to know, and he often told different stories, In the summer of 1981 on his last visit to Washington before his assassination, US media reported (I don't have the citation at hand but remember the event) that Sadat reportedly told President Ronald Reagan that he'd been attending one of Reagan's movies. I thought then and think now that Sadat, who had been lionized in the US media for the peace with Israel and was probably more popular in Washington than Cairo, was flattering Reagan and again rewriting his autobiography, though I suppose I could be wrong. Anyone with access to Egyptian newspaper files from 1952 who can check the cinema listings for July 22 might be able to confirm if any Reagan movies were playing that night.

The Sadat Autobiography Problem

I've never bothered because Sadat retold his life several times and each time told it a bit differently. I have sometimes wondered if by that summer of 1981, when he was lionized in America but jailing former allies in Egypt, if he was even certain of the truth of what happened in 1952: it's well known (ask NBC's Brian Williams) that if you keep telling the same story often enough you will believe it yourself.

In the 1950s when Sadat was editor of the popular revolutionary paper al-Goumhuriyya, he wrote his first round of memoirs: Al-Qissa al-Kamila min al-Thawra (The Complete Story of the Revolution, 1954), which must not really have been complete since in 1955 he wrote Safahat Majhula (Unknown Pages [of the Revolution]); and in 1957 the English-language account Revolt on the Nile, which is not in fact a translation of either of the Arabic works but does not contradict them. Then in 1958 came  Ya Waladi Hadha ‘Ammak Gamal: Mudhakirat Anwar al-Sadat (My Son: This is Your Uncle Gamal: The Memoirs of  Anwar al-Sadat).

That amounts to four memoirs of himself or the revolution in the Nasser era: the mere title of the last (the one I've never seen) indicating Sadat, as Editor of al-Goumhuriyya, was doing his job as a sycophantic propagandist for Nasser. Then. in 1978 after his trip to Jerusalem, came his official autobiography, called in Arabic Al-Bahth ‘an al-Dhat and in English, where it was a bestseller, In Search of Identity.

That's still not all. Sadat often retold stories of his life in speeches and, before his death in 1981 was retelling his life in a weekly feature in his National Democratic Party's weekly magazine Oktober. I have some of these in a file but not all, and have no idea if they were ever compiled.

Sadat may have come to believe his own retellings, or they could have been true and those written in the Nasser era mere sycophantic propaganda. Or, as I suspect is true of many political memoirs, they could be a melange of truth, self-justification, recycled and improved memories, inventions, and just plain bullshit. I'm guessing the Reagan tale falls in that last category, but may be wrong.

But to Return to July 22 . . .

Most biographical and autobiographical accounts agree that Sadat returned from deployment in Sinai, taking the train to Cairo because he had learned the coup was imminent. As no one from the Free Officers met him, he resolved to go with the family to the cinema. There is some confusion about who was along. Earlier accounts said his wife and children; In Search of Identity said his wife; Jehan Sadat's autobiography says her parents were invited and implies they attended. Sadat was late returning home, various accounts putting it at 11 or 12 pm.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, whose Autumn of Fury appeared after Sadat's assassination and repeats every scurrilous rumor he could find about the man who imprisoned him, alludes to an alleged tale that Sadat got into a public argument at the cinema, implying he was creating a public alibi if the coup failed, though even Heikal doesn't go so far as to insist the tale is true. There is no question that Sadat did join the plotters later that night, and broadcast the first announcement on he radio the next morning.

Many accounts suggest that the cinema in question was one of the outdoor "summer cinemas" common in Cairo in the days before widespread air conditioning. These open-air theaters (like American drive-ins but with folding chairs instead of car parking) were summer-only, opened at sundown, and ran two or three features, usually not first-run films. There were once dozens around Cairo. (A 2006 Egypt Today article by film director Mohamed Khan remembered these as well as the indoor downtown cinemas of the classic era; that site is no longer online, but you can find the text through the Wayback Machine, here.)

A few years ago a mailing list of old Cairo hands to which I belong was waxing nostalgic about these outdoor cinemas when an Egyptian contributor expressed the opinion that Sadat had attended either the old Cinema Rio in the Bab al-Luq/Midan Falaki neighborhood, or one of two open-air theaters on Manyal Roda, the names of which I don't recall, and I can't now find the post. (Anyone knowing please chime in in the comments.) I have no idea if that has any basis in fact, but I do remember the Cinema Rio, which was still in business in the 1970s. Back in 2011 CairObserver posted photos of the ruined hulk of the Rio today, for those who remember its glory days.

Does it matter which theater Sadat attended, or what film(s) he saw? Perhaps not in the greater scheme of things, but given the fact that Sadat nearly missing the revolution is a key bit of mythology about the 1952 coup, the inconsistencies in the accounts (and the story he told Reagan), it's an interesting little historical question. Anyone with answers, please comment below.

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