After years in the wilderness, Omar Sharif, the most successful Arab actor, is on his way back, and returns to his homeland for a cinematic renaissance at age of 77. Ali Jaafar looks at the life and career of a true pioneer. Few entrances have been more dramatic in the history of cinema. Emerging from the shimmering desert heat nearly 50 years ago astride a horse, Omar Sharif's introduction to western audiences set a tone for a career that has seen the Arab actor scale the heights of international stardom and break boundaries. Half a century later, Omar Sharif remains the most successful Arab actor to have made it in Hollywood. Ever since that stunning moment in David Lean's 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif has had his share of ups and downs. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he maintained his position as an international sex symbol, mixing in circles that included Peter O'Toole, Barbra Streisand and Julie Christie. A long spell in the wilderness, the result of too many questionable film and lifestyle choices, would ensue as the actor all too often became a self-parody, taking on roles to pay his bills and - despite being one of the world's leading contract bridge players - service his gambling debts.
Now, however, Sharif is enjoying a renaissance. His latest film, Al-Mosafer (The Traveller), was selected in competition at the Venice Film Festival and will also be the opening night gala of Abu Dhabi's Middle East International Film Festival on October 9. The film's title is a fitting moniker for Sharif himself. Growing up in pre-Nasserite Egypt in the 1930s, where he attended the famed English school Victoria College in Cairo with fellow alumni King Hussein of Jordan and Edward Said, Sharif still has fond memories of his native land.
"Cairo was beautiful at that time. It was clean," says Sharif. "There were three million people in 1962 when I left. Imagine. Now nobody knows how many people there are. They can't do a census in Egypt because when you go and knock on the door every family tells you they have five children... when they probably have at least 12." That sense of wistful regret flows throughout Al-Mosafer. Marking the feature directing debut of the Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Maher, the tale spans 60 years, albeit taking place on three specific days - 1948 in Suez, 1973 in Alexandria and 2001 in Cairo - as an ageing man reflects on a life of love lost. Any student of Middle Eastern history will be aware of the epochal nature of those three dates and while Sharif only appears in the final section - he is played as a younger man by the Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy - the film belongs to him. His hair may now be white, and the dunes under his eyes betray his 77 years, but there is no mistaking that husky burr which first captivated Egyptian audiences more than half a century ago.
His first film was the sadly-departed director Youssef Chahine's 1954 classic The Blazing Sun. It was Chahine who discovered Sharif, in a Cairo cafe as legend has it, and gave him the part of a peasant farmer fighting the injustices of a feudal landlord. Watching that film now is a shuddering reminder of how effective an actor Sharif can be. His bristling good looks, allied with the indignation of youth and intensity of a man being given his big break, combine to create a performance of heat and shadow. It was during filming The Blazing Sun that Sharif met the greatest - and he claims only - love of his life, the Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. The Arab world's Brangelina of their day, the couple electrified Arab audiences with a series of on-screen pairings before divorcing in 1974 following Sharif's ascent to global film stardom.
That rise began with David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif's portrayal of Sherif Ali matching Peter O'Toole's brooding TE Lawrence. It would also mark the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the Irish actor, initially forged off set as they mixed filming in the desert of Jordan with long weekends of rest and relaxation in pre civil war Lebanon, that would become the stuff of folklore. "All the stories that Peter tells about us are exaggerated, while all the stories I tell are true," recalls Sharif with a gleam in his eye. "When we were shooting Lawrence we used to work for 21 days straight and then take three days off. We'd get drunk together ... and have fun in the fleshpots of Beirut."
From there, international stardom followed. Three years later, Sharif reunited with Lean to star in Doctor Zhivago, and would go on to play everyone from Genghis Khan to Che Guevara to Barbra Streisand's love interest in Funny Girl. After that film, which came out in 1968 at the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Sharif's work was banned in his native Egypt because he had worked with Streisand, a Jew. Sharif swats away the furore with the air of a man who has no time for prejudice or ignorance. "There was all this nonsense in the Middle East about an Arab kissing a Jew but that stuff never meant anything to me," says Sharif. "My son has married a Catholic, a Jew and a Muslim, so that shows you how I brought him up. My only philosophy is to love all people - except for bad people - no matter what race, colour or religion they are."
He does admit, however, to being less than judicious in his subsequent choice of film roles. His 1970s filmography reads like a lamentable collection of Euro puddings and ill-advised misadventures. The 1980s and 1990s weren't much better. Eventually, he would make a stunning comeback in 2003 with Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Quran, in which he played a Muslim Turkish shopkeeper who befriends a young Jewish boy. He was honoured for the role with a Best Actor prize at France's prestigious Cesar Awards.
"I got fed up with doing bad things, losing my self-respect and dignity especially as my grandchildren were growing up and starting to make sarcastic remarks about my performances," says Sharif. "I try now that I am an old man to make films that have something to say." Since then, Sharif has had mixed cameo roles in Hollywood fare such as Roland Emmerich's 10,000BC and Hidalgo opposite Viggo Mortenson, as well as weightier roles in a number of Arab productions. Last year, he starred for the first time opposite the Egyptian actor Adel Imam in Hassan and Morcoss, in which Sharif played a Muslim preacher and Imam a Christian priest who trade identities after a series of assassination attempts against them. A subtly effective poke at religious bigotry in Egypt, the film was a success at the local box office.
Almost half a decade after Sharif first broke through on the international stage, he remains the only Arab actor who can claim legitimately to have cracked Hollywood. In part, Sharif was blessed by good timing - and good looks. He came to prominence in the 1960s, long before American and European audiences had ever heard of wahhabiism, jihad and even fundamentalism. Sharif was able to transcend being typecast as an Arab, even if he often played the exotic foreigner. Even more crucially, Arab parts didn't carry with them the same negative connotations that ensued in Hollywood's mindset in a post-9/11 world. He refuses to lay the blame entirely at western filmmakers for the continued misrepresentation of Arabs on-screen.
"For years, I used to meet these rich Arabs and ask them: 'With all your money, why don't you buy CNN or NBC or some big American television company? You have enough money, make them an offer they can't refuse," recalls Sharif. "But while they were happy to party on yachts, whenever it came to signing a cheque the ink in their pen used to run dry." That trend has started to change with the likes of Abu Dhabi's US$1 billion production arm Imagenation, Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris and Tarak Ben Ammar, the Franco-Tunisian mogul, investing in productions set to offer positive portrayals of Arabs. It may take some time, however, before Egypt and the Arab world return to the cultural glory days that Sharif remembers as a youth.
"I hope in my grandchildren's lifetime it might," Sharif says. "We need to cycle back to when we had the culture. Alec Guinness says to Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, 'Remember that Cordoba had two miles of city lights when London was still a village.' That's what we have to come back to." As for Sharif, having long dropped the burden of the exotic leading man and comfortable in his new-found skin as an elder statesman, he will most probably choose more sparingly between Hollywood and European job offers in favour of more substantial Arab roles. The great traveller may finally have discovered that after a lifetime spent journeying around the world, in the final analysis, there's no place like home.
* The National