60 years of bril­liance

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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 8niver­sity then oined 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.

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/faten­hamama-193112993/2015-/] 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. Ataf Salem, who was as­sis­tant to Chahine, men­tioned offhand­edly 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.


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.

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.

Omar Sharif

(1932 - 2015)

The photos show Sharif in var­i­ous stages of his life,

and with his wife and son, and Ramzy’’

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