Egypt's sun has set

Although Omar Sharif starred in more than 70 Hollywood films, he never repeated the massive successes of his roles in "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia", which earned him a lasting reputation as an irresistible screen idol and hearth-throb
Although Omar Sharif starred in more than 70 Hollywood films, he never repeated the massive successes of his roles in "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia", which earned him a lasting reputation as an irresistible screen idol and hearth-throb

Omar Sharif played quiet heroes in monumental Hollywood epics such as "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia". A tribute to a great actor by Fritz Gottler and Sonja Zekri

By Fritz Göttler & Sonja Zekri

He really was a man of stature, historic stature, in the 1960s, when cinema used monumental films peopled with monumental characters to tempt audiences away from the television and back to the big screen. In 1969, Omar Sharif played Che Guevara alongside Jack Palance as Fidel Castro in the Hollywood biography directed by Richard Fleischer. This is certainly not the film that Sharif will be remembered for. Nor necessarily is "Mayerling", filmed shortly before, in which he played the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf, who committed suicide with his lover Mary Vetsera, played by Catherine Deneuve.

Fans will of course recall the character of Sherif Ali in his black robes in the film "Lawrence of Arabia", who entered into a mysterious, sensuously chaste relationship with the blonde British Lawrence played by Peter O'Toole, and that of Doctor Zhivago, in the eponymous movie version of Boris Pasternak's Nobel prize-winning novel. Zhivago was the friendly doctor who calmly navigated the horrific rapids of the Russian Revolution and found himself with the help of two women, played by Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin.

Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif in the Egyptian film "Sayyidat Al-Qasr", Lady of the Palace (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Alsaba)
The king and queen of Egyptian cinema: Faten Hamama (left) and Omar Sharif met on set and fell in love. She was the love of his life, and he converted from Christianity to Islam before their wedding in 1955. The couple divorced in 1974.

An ardent, yet troubled love for Egypt

Lawrence and Zhivago, two films by David Lean, the minimalist of the big screen. Lean's calm production style – and also the fact that he didn't demand an exaggerated performance from his actors – was wholly suited to Omar Sharif's temperament. "That's not art," the acerbic New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote at the time: "It's hard labour – something that of course many people respect more than art."

Before "Lawrence", Sharif had been a star on the Egyptian movie circuit. His relationship with Egypt was ardent, but not without its problems. Back then, at the start of his career, the whole of the Middle East watched Egyptian films. It was a golden age, and it had its royal couple: Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama, the wonderful queen of Egyptian cinema.

Both played alongside each other in many films, including the movie version of "Anna Karenina", titled "The River of Love" von 1961. Hamama was his great love. Sharif, a Christian, even converted to Islam for her in 1955. But it was a marriage that didn't survive the allure of Hollywood: Sharif left Egypt in 1974, but he never forgot Hamama: "Her love was all-consuming," he said recently in Cairo. "To be completely open about it: after her, I closed my heart." Hamama died in January.

Mourner at the funeral of Omar Sharif in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Ammar)
Profound sadness at the death of Omar Sharif: Omar Sharif was laid to rest two days after his death. Hundreds of guests came to pay their respects.

A career in the land of the arch enemy: America

Many Egyptians are ready to forgive the fact that he made his fortune from the arch enemy, America, of all places, but not that he relinquished his faith. Now and again, he did return to movie screens on the Nile. One of his best performances was in Ramy Imam's film "Hassan and Marcus", a wonderfully caustic comedy of errors about religious fanatics wielding either a cross or a crescent from the year 2008. This film is an absolute joy, because it mocks the hypocrisy of Christian clerics and that of uber-Muslims in equal measure, showing each to be as corruptible and dishonest as the other.

In America and Europe, he was also paired up with some of the greatest leading ladies: with Deneuve, Christie, Barbra Streisand ("Funny Girl"), Sophia Loren, Julie Andrews and Anouk Aimee. Omar Sharif remained the gentleman in his interaction with these women, inscrutable and discreet. He was no gung-ho action hero, and certainly not really in his comfort zone in films such as "Che" or "Genghis Khan". Nor was he the passionate lover.

His passion was at most a camouflage. He thus gradually also became a specialist at roles encapsulating Eastern wisdom, that of both the Far and Middle East – latterly in "Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran", based on the novel by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, and he was repeatedly loaned out to Russia, for example for the movie "The Possessed" by director Andrzej Wajda. He developed his true passions off-screen, at Bridge tables all over the world, playing at a professional level, or at equestrian events.

Arab media published moving reports early this year that Sharif had returned to his native home. "I have returned so that the people whom I love and who have never forgotten me can follow my funeral cortege," he said in Cairo. How could he remain in a foreign place "where only strangers come to my funeral?"

Omar Sharif died in Cairo at the age of 83.

Fritz Gottler & Sonja Zekri

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon