Poster of Dark Waters
The Land of Peace
Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama
in The Lady of the Palace
For the Sake of a Woman
Lawrence of Arabia
Omar Sharif was born in Alexandria in 1932 to Joseph and Claire Chalhoub and was christened Michel Dimitri Chalhoub. He was later to change his name and convert to Islam. Sharif was a plump child, which worried his mother a great deal and made her send him to an English school, Victoria College, where much care was given to sports and healthy food. She was right about her choice, for in less than a year Sharif had developed an athletic body. Although the school was very strict about its discipline, Sharif liked it and later expressed his gratitude: “Had I not joined the school I would have been a very different person. Sports played a crucial role in the early years of my life and determined the road that I later took” (Omar Sharif’s Confessions). It was also in Victoria College that his relationship with theatre and acting began.
When Sharif finished his school education, he worked with his father in the timber business, waiting for a chance to fulfill his dream to act. In spite of the well-to-do life he was leading, he could not give up his dream in order to follow his parents’ wishes. He formed a theatrical troupe of students and amateurs, and usually played the main roles. Later, the French Ambassador attended one of the plays and congratulated him on his performance.
When all this did not convince the father to let his son proceed with his acting career, Sharif decided to play a trick on his father and sell the goods for less than their original price. But his father was very patient with him and Sharif had to keep going on with his trick. Two years later, when the losses could no longer be ignored, the father gave up and finally told Sharif: “You want to become an actor? Fine. Do whatever you want” (Omar Sharif’s Confessions)
Sharif took the first step in his career when he applied to The Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London. However, something came up and changed all his plans. His school mate the director Youssef Chahine, who had just come back from America where he studied cinema, phoned him to ask whether he was interested in a screen test for the main role in a film he was preparing. He remembers vividly the day of the screen test:
Frankly, I was terrified … I was going to face the camera for the first time … and I was going to act in front of Faten Hamama herself. But, again frankly speaking, I could not help imagining my photo beside hers in the poster and my name with hers in the news. (Saleh, p. 86)
In 1953 Sharif starred in The Blazing Sun (Sira’ fi-l-wâdî) – and married Faten Hamama two years later, in 1955. They broke up in 1974 after having one child, Tarek Sharif (born 1957), who starred when he was 8 in Doctor Zhivago as Yuri. Sharif was once more romantically linked to his Funny Girl co-star, Barbra Streisand.
In Lawrence of Arabia 1962, Sharif was rediscovered by another director, David Lean:
It was luck that made me put two photos in an envelope and send them to David Lean when he announced that he needed an Eastern actor to play a role in his new film. It was luck too that made David Lean send the producer of the film himself to Cairo to see me … I expressed my opinion of Lean’s films to him in fluent English… (Saleh, p.87)
This role earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Although he did not receive the award, he got another reward from this film: a strong relationship with the director David Lean, who played the role of Sharif’s mentor and advised him to choose his roles carefully.
Omar Sharif worked in American, Italian and French cinemas. As a typical Alexandrian, he speaks fluent Arabic, English, Greek, and French, and has a working knowledge of Italian and Turkish. In November 2005, he was awarded a medal by the UNESCO in recognition of his significant contribution to world film and cultural diversity. Sharif was chosen as the honorary president of the Cairo International Film Festival (2006).
Besides being an actor, Sharif is also one of the world’s best-known contract bridge players. In 1968 he formed, together with three Italians, the first professional team for bridge. He writes a syndicated newspaper bridge column, and is both author and co-author of several books on bridge and has licensed his name to a bridge computer game. “People do not know me. … I am a very simple person whose favourite hobby is Bridge. I have exerted much effort to master it” (El Kawakeb, January 1966).
Sharif’s journey in life and art has been once likened to a nineteenth century novel where the hero oscillates from one state to the other. In his book Nogoum wa Shohob fî el Cinema el Misreyah, Ahmed Youssef sees that Sharif’s presentations on screen reflect a constant feeling of alienation. Escape from time, place or class dominates the heroes of his Arabic films. Similarly, the heroes of his international films are always strangers living away from home. Youssef connects that to Sharif’s own childhood: he could speak French, not Arabic, fluently, although he lived with his Syrian-Lebanese (Shawam) family, in cosmopolitan Alexandria. This feeling seems to have increased until Sharif decided to return home, to the place that had created the star Omar Sharif.
He seems to have made use of this “journey”. When asked about Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (2003) he said: “Darling, for the past 25 years I was making rubbish movies. I couldn’t stand myself anymore. I thought I should make a statement as a popular person in the Arab world. I wanted to say, look, it is possible to … love each other.” (Time Magazine, 8 December 2003).
Rebecca Murray states in Your Guide to Hollywood Movies that Ibrahim being a Muslim and Momo a Jew is without any significance. He answers, "This is one of the factors that also made me very much want to make this film, apart from the fact that I loved it. If the boy hadn't been Jewish and the man hadn't been Muslim, it wouldn't have made any difference to the film. I don't think it's relevant really. What makes it extremely relevant is the situation in the Middle East. If now the Palestinians and the Israelis were at peace, it would have no relevance – this relationship between a Muslim man and the Jewish boy. The reason it has relevance is because I, as a popular Arab personality – the Arab people like me and respect me – thought it was time for me to make an ever so tiny statement about what I thought about this whole thing. I know it won’t change the world. It won’t stop violence, it won’t stop hatred. I wanted to say that it is possible to love each other and to live with each other.”
He then added, “My philosophy is that when I go out of my room, I’m prepared to love everybody I meet, unless they’re bad. If they’re bad, I’m prepared not to love them and to dislike them independently of the fact that they’re Jewish or they’re Black or White or Christian or Muslim. It’s like when we did Funny Girl during the Six Day War (1968). A lot of the Arab press naturally said, “This man is a traitor. He’s kissing Barbra Streisand who’s giving dollars in favor of Israel.” There was a lot of press asking, “What do you think of this press saying that you kissed Barbra Streisand?” I said, “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her. That has nothing to do with it.”
1954: The Blazing Sun (Sirâ’ fi-l-wâdî)
|1954: The Blazing Sun (Sirâ’ fi-l-wâdî)|
1954: The Demon of the Desert (Chaytân el sahrâ)
1955: Our Good Days (Ayyâmounâ el houlwah)
1956: Dark Waters (Sirâ’fi-l-mînâ̓’)
|1956: Dark Waters (Sirâ’fi-l-mînâ̓’)|
1957: The Land of Peace (Ard el salâm)
1957: The Land of Dreams (Ard el ahlâm)
1957: Nights without Sleep (Lâ anâm)
1958: Shore of Secrets (Châti̓ el asrâr)
1958: The Mistake of my Lover (Ghaltat habîbî)
1958: The Lady of the Palace (Sayyidat el qasr)
1959: A Struggle in the Nile (Sirâ’ fi-l-Nîl)
1959: A Meeting with the Unknown (Maw’id ma’ el maghoul)
1959: A Scandal in Zamalek (Fadîhah fi-l-Zamâlik)
1959: For The Sake of a Woman (Min agl imra̓ah)
1959: We are the Students (Ihnâ el talâmdhah)
1960: The Pangs of Love (Law’at el houbb)
1960: The River of Love (Nahr el houbb)
1960: A Rumour of Love (Ichâ’at houbb)
1960: My Only Love (Houbbî el wahîd)
1960: The Beginning and the End (Bidâyah wa nihâyah)
1961: The Love of the Lords (Gharâm el asyâd)
1961: A Man in our House (Fi baytinâ ragoul)
1965: The Mameluks (el Mamâlîk)
1984: Ayoub (Ayyoub)
1989: The Puppet (el Aragoz)
1991: Masri, the Egyptian Citizen (el Mouwâtin Masrî)
1993: Laughter, Play, Seriousness and Love (Dihk wa lou’b wa gadd wa houbb)
1961: The Lady of Lebanon
1962: Lawrence of Arabia
1964: The Fall of the Roman Empire
1964: Behold a Pale Horse
1964: Marco Polo
1965: Genghis Khan
1965: The Yellow Rolls-Royce
1965: Doctor Zhivago
1967: The Night of the Generals
1967: More than a Miracle
1968: Funny Girl
1969: Mackenna's Gold
1969: The Appointment
1971: The Last Valley
1971: The Horsemen
1974: The Tamarind Seed
1975: Funny Lady
1975: Crime and Passion
1980: Pleasure Palace
1980: Oh! Heavenly Dog
1981: Green Ice
1984: Top Secret!
1986: Peter the Great
1989: Ashanti: Land of No Mercy
1990: The Opium Connection
1990: The Baltimore Bullet
1991: Memories of Midnight
1992: Grand Larceny
1992: Beyond Justice
1994: Lie Down With Lions
1995: Catherine the Great
1996: Gulliver's Travels
1997: Lebanon - Imprisoned Splendour
1997: Heaven Before I Die
1997: Funny Girl/Funny Lady
1998: The Mysteries of Egypt
1999: The 13th Warrior
2003: Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran
- Darwish, Mustafa. Dream Makers on the Nile - A Portrait of Egyptian Cinema. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998.
- Kassem, Mahmoud. Mawsou‘at el Momathel fi-l-Cinema el ‘Arabiya. Cairo: Maktabet Madbouli, 2004.
- Saleh, Ahmed. Nougoum el ‘Âlam I’tarafou Lî. Cairo: Kitâb el Youm, May 1994.
- Youssef, Ahmed. Nougoum Shohob fî el Cinema el Misreyah. Cairo: the Supreme Council for Culture, 1997.
- (ed.) Wassef, Magda. Egypte: 100 ans de Cinéma. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, 1995.
- El Tarîq ela Hollywood: I‘tirafât Omar Sherif. Cairo: el Ketâb el ‘Alamî, 1944.
- El Kawakeb magazine issues 695 (November 1964) and 754 (January 1966).
- Time Magazine, 8 December 2003.