On what would have been the late Egyptian actor's 86th birthday, I wanted to revisit an interview from seven years ago, one of my favorite pieces and most beloved encounters. And for me, since then, there have been many. But Omar Sharif was, is and forever will be the greatest Arab movie star. Unequaled and inimitable. Following is the original piece:
By now we’ve all heard about the incident, involving Omar Sharif and a pushy Egyptian journo. Even though I was a few feet away, no I did not witness it personally, the video is unclear and so I’ll reserve my opinion. But what I can say is that I spent a good 30 minutes with Omar Sharif right before it all allegedly happened and he behaved like ever the gentleman in my presence. Now, about answering questions he doesn’t approve of or finds mundane, that’s a different story... Sharif is wonderfully evasive and refuses to say anything that can be used as a slogan for institutions or to promote an organization.
Yet don’t be quick to chuck up the actions of this mega star from the Arab world to his age and health. In front of me, in the Press Lounge at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, stood an Omar Sharif whose face may show a few extra lines, whose voice may seem a bit softer but whose mind is as sharp as it ever was, if not rendered sharper by time and experience. His secret? “I exercise, now that I’m older, I run three thousand steps every day, I count them while I’m running, it occupies my brain. Even before I came here I did my 3,000.” An avid ex smoker, Sharif had triple bypass surgery, then after suffering a heart attack in 1994 quit the habit altogether.
Dressed in a black polo and black trousers, Sharif admitted to living out of a suitcase at this time in his life, albeit “a nice suitcase, very strong” he said smiling, tongue in cheek. Asked what he did with his Golden Globes, he casually dismissed the question with an “I don’t have them anymore... I had so many prizes, French César, Leone d’Oro from Venezia... I can’t travel with these things, so I left them in the hotels with housekeeping.”
When asked about the movements of the Arab Spring, he facetiously leaned forward and asked right back “what is the Arab Spring? I don’t know what it is this ‘Arab Spring.’ Spring is such a beautiful term, we are improving at democracy.” Then added “I hope the army will not interfere, that they stay the army, to protect the country but not enter into politics” a statement obviously directed at his own home country of Egypt.
It was then that I thought it the right moment to bring up the statement made by Marlon Brando before his death, which I heard in Ridha Behi’s latest oeuvre 'Always Brando'.
“Mr. Sharif, Brando once said you are the only superstar to come out of the Arab world and that there could never be another Omar Sharif in today’s world. What do you think of that?”
Not missing a beat, Sharif answered “I was very lucky. First of all I was born in a family that had some money and they sent me to the best English schools and in those schools I played in the theater. I loved the theater since I was young, and always played in school plays since the age of 12, 13.” But, in the first of many questions evaded, Sharif steered clear of the more political connotation hidden within my inquiry.
A bit later he did seem to rethink his answer and, this time with a hint of controversy, answered another question about what it felt like to be such a huge Arab star in his heyday by saying “I had a lot of success as an Egyptian. They treated me like a god, they really did. When I made 'Lawrence', and they gave me this Oscar nomination, I was an Egyptian and 90 percent of people who were in cinema in Hollywood were Jewish and I was the only Muslim there, called Omar Sharif. They were very nice, they nominated me, they could have said no, he’s a Muslim and not do it. If we have a Jew here and he does this, we won’t do the same.”
Once married to his Egyptian co-star Faten Hamama, together they had a son Tarek, and eventually divorced, due to Sharif’s career. He explained “I loved my wife but we were separated by the fact that I could not go to Egypt [Nasser, president at the time, required an exit visa for Egyptians to leave the country, too risky for a mega star like Sharif] and I stayed abroad for a long time and told her, ‘Darling I give you freedom if you want to get married to somebody else.’ I gave her the divorce papers so that she could marry somebody else. And she married a wonderful guy, I am very pleased with that. I never loved anyone else.”
About his co-star in 'Lawrence of Arabia' he said “my best friend in cinema was Peter O’Toole. We were brothers really. We stayed two years in the desert, sleeping in tents.” And a little known fact is that while living in Bel Air, California, Sharif’s neighbor was Elvis Presley “from my house I could see his swimming pool. I used to look and see if he had girls or something. And then he died young, suddenly, one day the house was empty...”
Nearing his 80th birthday, on the 10th of April of the coming year, Sharif gushed about awaiting the arrival of his first granddaughter “I have three grandchildren, but they are boys. I want a girl and a girl is coming in January” continuing “I will stay with her all the time!” About his infamous bridge addiction, the casinos “I haven’t been in 15 years. I found myself not playing as well. At my age, my brain is OK but not enough.”
Sharif has not made a film in at least three years because “I don’t find good things now and I would not make any film if I don’t love it” though he definitely is open to new roles and new adventures. Those who have seen him in the 2003 gem 'Monsieur Ibrahim' can never forget his touching portrayal of the Turkish shopkeeper who befriends a young Jewish boy and changes his life. The story takes place in a working class neighborhood in Paris, circa 1960, and coincidentally, Paris is where Sharif now spends most of his time “three to four months a year there.”
His hobbies include “dinner with my friends” and owning race horses “they are all in France, I have eight. I go to races to see what they are doing. When they win, I am very happy. They are quite expensive but they bring back money. I was lucky, even with that, I bought horses and they turned out to be good.”
The word “lucky” is one Sharif uses often, starting with references about his posh Egyptian-Lebanese upbringing, all the way to his health and strong constitution now that he’s in his twilight years. Perhaps luck, more than anything else, has played a role in his super stardom and we can only hope that, with a little bit of luck and a lot of charisma, another Arab cinematic star is born soon. Never to replace the larger-than-life Omar Sharif, but to continue his legacy.