By Julie K.L. Dam
Updated October 07, 2002 12:00 PM

Even now, Camelia Sadat retains an air of gentility. At her home in Newton, Mass., she shows visitors photographs of herself with world leaders: Jimmy Carter, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin. A closet is filled with stylish outfits, which she dons for daily walks—often with her neighbor, a courtly 87-year-old widower named Albert Alexander. Sadat, 53, calls him Mr. Alexander. “I address everyone as Mister,” she explains. “It is the way I was brought up.”

These are the last remnants of a lost lifestyle. The daughter of slain Egyptian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Anwar Sadat, she once earned up to $25,000 for speeches, taught college courses, was a coveted dinner guest among Boston society and owned a spacious home in nearby Need-ham. But brain surgery in 1993 to ease epileptic seizures set off a cascade of financial and emotional disasters. Today she depends on $659.39 in monthly state and Social Security stipends, and home since March has been a subsidized housing facility.

Sadat had to sell a Cartier necklace to pay living expenses, including $308 for a two-month deposit on her new lodgings—a small bedroom and half-bath, plus a kitchen, living room and shower shared with four other tenants. She no longer drives a Jaguar to Saks to buy designer clothes but boards a bus to bargain hunt at Marshalls. “I will never live in seven rooms again,” says Sadat, whose father was assassinated in 1981, six weeks after she had moved to the U.S. to begin graduate studies in communications at Boston University. Nor can she find a job. “I’m willing to do anything, be a secretary,” she says, “but they say I’m overqualified.”

It’s not quite as simple as that. Plagued by epilepsy since 1969, Sadat was suffering up to 12 seizures a day by the early ’90s. She was teaching Middle Eastern history at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., in 1993 when she underwent a right temporal lobectomy—removal of a tiny area of the brain. It worked, but there were nonmedical complications. As an adjunct professor, Sadat was not eligible for medical benefits. Though the Egyptian government chipped in $50,000 toward more than $100,000 in hospital bills, her finances were severely strained. She left Bentley in 1996 in an unsuccessful bid to find full-time work and eventually lost her home. She spent stretches in motels and YWCAs before securing subsidized housing.

The surgery also affected Sadat’s personal relationships. After years of illness, says Daniel Hoch, her neurologist, “suddenly she was more confident and assertive.” Or as Sadat puts it, “I will not take ‘s’ from anyone.” That may have led to what she describes as an estrangement from her daughter Ekbal, 36, an insurance company executive in Boston, who did not respond to requests for an interview. “It was a pretty traumatic time,” says Dr. Hoch, who referred Sadat to a psychiatrist she still sees. The specialist declines to comment, but Sadat—who says she suffers from balance problems and fatigue—calls any talk of mental disability a “grave insult.”

As her troubles deepened, Sadat began to avoid her friends. “She was just the most scintillating personality,” says Larry Lowenthal, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Boston, one of several old associates trying to find employment and better housing for her. Her loss of independence, he says, is “tragic.”

Sadat’s life has long been one of upheaval. Within weeks of her birth, Anwar Sadat divorced her mother, Ekbal, now 85, and wed Jehan Raouf, with whom he had four children. He seldom acknowledged Camelia and her two older sisters in public. In her 1985 memoir My Father and I, Sadat decried her father’s decision to marry her off, at age 12, to an Army officer 17 years her senior, who she says beat her. (Ekbal was their only child; Camelia’s second marriage ended in divorce in 1977.) Though the book launched her career as a human rights activist in the U.S., it angered relatives in Egypt. “She was a bright girl [but] a crazy girl also,” says Jehan, 69. “She wrote ugly things about me and about the family. I will not talk to her.”

Her professional dealings, too, have been complicated. In 1984 she founded the Sadat Peace Institute but shut it down after a few years because, she claims, people were trying to exploit her name. Her speaking engagements dwindled, she says, after a dispute with her promoter. And when a deal to write a book for HarperCollins about Muammar Gaddafi fell through, she had to repay the $85,000 advance.

“In my opinion she has to come back, instead of being alone, nobody looking after her,” says her cousin Talaat Sadat, a lawyer in Cairo. But Sadat is determined to do things her own way, even if it means selling her remaining valuables. “Deprivation of food, clothes, anything,” she says, “it doesn’t have an effect on me.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Nancy Day in Boston and Tetiana Anderson in Cairo