Egyptian Facebook users were stunned on the morning of Friday 10 June to find a post by Omar Jr, the grandson of Omar Sharif with a photo of the young man in the tender embrace of his grandfather and the caption: “Allah alone lives on forever”, an expression used by Egyptians to denote someone’s death.
Even though Sharif was known to have suffered from Alzheimer’s, news of his death at 83 came as a shock. The icon of the silver screen who started as a local widely popular star and went on to become an international figure, the gifted actor with the dark good looks passed away in a hospital on the outskirts of Cairo. Egyptians were grieved; they deeply felt the loss of a man who had become a central figure on the film scene for some 60 years. For many, his death almost marked the end of an era.
Omar Sharif was born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub in April 1932 in Alexandria, to Joseph Chalhoub, a lumber merchant, and his wife, Claire Saada, a prominent Cairo socialite famous for her charm whose guests included Egypt’s King Farouk. The Chalhoubs were of Lebanese Syrian origin. The young Michel was raised a Greek Catholic and educated at the prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria where he gained a reputation as a sportsman and gifted actor on the school theatre. He earned a degree in mathematics and physics from Cairo University then joined the family lumber business before heading to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
The cosmopolitan society he grew up in as well as his personal prowess made Michel Chalhoub an excellent conversant in Arabic, English, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian.
Falling in love
Back in Cairo, Chalhoub made his screen debut in the 1954 Youssef Chahine film Siraa fil-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley). Chahine (1926 – 2008) was one of the greatest—if not the greatest—film directors in Egypt; he gave Chalhoub the screen name Omar al-Sharif by which he went for the rest of his life. In that film Sharif acted opposite the beautiful Faten Hamama (1931 -2015) [Watani International, 25 January 2015; http://en.wataninet.com/features/in-memorial/faten-hamama-1931-2015/12993/] who was then and for many years later the prima donna of Egyptian cinema. They fell in love and married in 1955. Sharif had to convert to Islam to marry Hamama, and they had a son Tarek, born in 1957, and two grandsons Omar and Karim.
Between 1954 and 1960, Sharif played the leading role in 20 films. Prominent among them was the wild comedy Ishaet Hub (Rumour of Love) the mere name of which brings laughter to Egyptian minds until today, al-Muwatin Masry (Citizen Masry), Ayamna al-Hilwa (Our Good Days), and the musical that bore the name of the hilarious leading song Dhihk we Lieb we Gadd we Hubb (Laughter, Fun, Earnestness, and Love).
Sharif and Hamama starred together in five films, the last of which was an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina under the name Nahr al-Hubb (River of Love) in 1960.
After starring together in two films, a close friendship grew between Sharif and the heartthrob Ahmed Ramzy (1930-2012), Egypt’s equivalent of James Dean. The two friends spent a lot of time and did many activities together; they even pledged that none of them should act in a film without the other.
Then came Youssef Chahine’s Siraa fil-Minaa (Conflict at the Port). The film was shot in Alexandria, Sharif’s hometown. Ramzy stayed with the Sharifs at their family home.
An unfortunate incident occurred, however, that led to a 10-year separation between the friends. Atef Salem, who was assistant to Chahine, mentioned off-handedly to Sharif that Ramzy was flirting with Hamama, and this was enough to make Sharif’s blood boil with anger.
In a scene at the port where a fight broke between the two actors, Sharif gave Ramzy such a brutal beating till the latter, who could not fathom what was going on, slipped onto a spot of hot diesel oil that had leaked from one of the ships. He fell and was moved to hospital where he spent weeks under treatment from the burns he sustained. Sharif took his wife and left the filming location, but this marked a 10-year rift between the friends.
Conquering the world
The year 1963 brought a great breakthrough for Sharif with the role of Sharif Ali opposite Peter O’toole in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. In 1965, he played Dr Zhivago, the physician caught up in the Russian Revolution, a role for which he won the Golden Globe best actor. He also won an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his Sharif Ali role.
Sharif co-starred in other films, including Behold a Pale Horse (1964), and played a Yugoslav wartime patriot in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), the Mongolian conqueror in Genghis Khan (1965), a German military officer in The Night of the Generals (1967), Rudolf Crown Prince of Austria in Mayerling (1968), and Che Guevara in Che! (1969). He also played Nicky Arnstein, the husband of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968). Fanny was played by Barbra Streisand; it was her first screen role. His role opposite Streisand brought on a hostile reaction from the Egyptian government, since Streisand vocally supported Israel which was then at war with Egypt.
Sharif’s preoccupation with his career on the international film scene kept him away from Egypt and from his wife. In 1974, they got divorced and he stayed on in Europe and played many diverse roles. He never remarried.
The love of his life: bridge
Despite starring in dozens of films, Sharif’s career never quite lived up to its early promise. His main interest, one in which he ranked among the world’s top players, was bridge. He was a regular in casinos in France, but gambling took its toll on his career; he once claimed he was “always one film behind my debts”. He is said to have lost a GBP4 million villa on the Spanish island of Lanzarote in a bridge game in the 1970s.
With Charles Goren, Sharif co-wrote a syndicated newspaper bridge column for the Chicago Tribune for several years, and was both author and co-author of several books on bridge.
In 2004, Sharif said he stopped making films because “for the last 25 years I’ve been making a lot of rubbish because I was in debt all the time”.
Early in the 1990s, Sharif finally returned home to Egypt to stay.
Among the last Egyptian films he starred in with his usual brilliance was the 2000s Hassan and Morqos. In 2007, he played the leading role in his only TV drama Hanan and Haneen (Tenderness and Longing).
In 2003, Sharif made a European comeback by playing in the French film Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran a Muslim shopkeeper in Paris who adopts a Jewish boy. His performance won him the Best Actor César from the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma, as well as the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival.
For his lifetime contribution to the world of film, Sharif was awarded in 2004 the Award of the Celebrities of the Arab World.
Sunday 12 July saw the last respects paid to the iconic star. His funeral was held at a mosque on the eastern outskirts of Cairo. His body was interred, but his great works will forever live, a tribute to a great actor of all times.