To festival organisers, I say, please stop inviting Omar Sharif. He may still be the biggest name in Arab cinema, but it's just not worth it.
Despite the perks of stardom, Omar Sharif can be an angry man
When Omar Sharif's wrinkly right hand was sent hurtling, with surprising velocity for a 79-year-old, towards an unsuspecting journalist at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival last month, it quickly became the talk of the town, not helped by the fact that the incident had occurred before a sea of cameras in front of the media room. Although he did subsequently apologise, within minutes the video had gone viral and one grumpy old man's foul temper became bigger news than Antonio Banderas's somewhat dubious Arabic accent.
Sharif shocked many. What had happened to the former granite-jawed heartthrob? And why is his voice so painfully squeaky?
There was one person there who wasn't surprised at all. Me. Just two years ago, at the Dubai International Film Festival, no less, I too was on the receiving end of Sharif's unpleasant pleasantries. A month earlier, I had ventured to Cairo to find the man himself for an article, having been assured by an Egyptian housemate that he was a delightful chap who would happily regale anybody within earshot tales of his colourful youth and fondly recount the screen sirens he's entertained with late-night games of contract bridge.
Sharif, however, wasn't there.
Having done my research, right down to the places he usually hangs out in, I discovered just hours before my flight that he had flown to the Dominican Republic. Ah well, I thought, nevermind. When we do get to meet we can chuckle together about the situation: me in Cairo propping up the bar in his favourite nightspot while he lay on a Caribbean beach in colourful Bermuda shorts slurping on an elaborate fruit cocktail. Surely a winning icebreaker if ever there was one.
Not so. Less than four weeks later, when our paths finally did cross for a 15-minute interview in a Dubai hotel lobby, my strong-hulled conversational starter ship was sunk before it even managed to set sail.
"Mr Sharif. So nice to finally meet you. I came to Cairo last month, but you had gone awa …"
"I was not there!"
"I know, I know. It's OK, I had a nice time. I went to …"
"You should have called me!"
"I, er, didn't have your number."
It got steadily worse. My questions were chewed up and spat out by a man with a ghostly-white face, angry little eyes and no time for niceties. After fewer than 10 minutes of awkward conversation, two of which he spent talking to some other guy in French, I left.
It wasn't long before I discovered I hadn't been singled out.
Just half an hour later, at a photo shoot in a cafe, he screamed at a photographer who had dared ask for a smile.
"I am smiling, idiot! Can you not see my teeth!?"
That evening, I heard, he made a volunteer cry. What a guy. As it turned out, the reason for Sharif's less-than-joyful mood on this particular day was one of scheduling. He had been at the festival to promote a film about a man suffering from Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, it was getting its first public screening at exactly the same time as Avatar. Even Sharif, who in the few minutes of conversation we had that weren't angry, had told me that the only films he had watched in the past 25 years were Billy Elliot and ET, could have guessed which was going to get the audience vote.
But still, clashing Na'vis or no clashing Na'vis, it's no excuse, especially when you've been flown over and put up in a swanky hotel for a few days. And, to be honest, there probably weren't many films on the festival schedule that sounded less exciting than an hour and a half of an old man with memory loss.
So to festival organisers, I say, please stop inviting Sharif. He may still be the biggest name in Arab cinema (something that really has to change soon) and his face may occasionally beam down from giant roadside billboards (how Coca-Cola got him to smile long enough for a photo to be taken is beyond me) but it's just not worth it. He moans, he shouts, he occasionally even lashes out. I understand that the woman he slapped is now taking legal action. Would somebody please think of the children. And the poor journalists who try to talk to him.