A love story that defied social and religious barriers

Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama were the film industry's dream couple for 20 years.

Egyptian actor Omar Sharif is seen with his wife, actress Faten Hamama, and their eight-year-old son, Tarek, as they get together for New Year's Eve celebration in Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 31, 1965. (AP Photo)
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It was her first kiss on the big screen, and it was with her future husband, making it one of the most highly anticipated and romantic kisses of its time. It was 1953, the golden age of Egyptian cinema, where a 23-year-old graceful and feminine actress by the name of Faten Hamama was a big star and had finally consented to her first ever kiss in a feature film, Siraa fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley) directed by the late legendary Youssef Chahine. The kiss was to be with a relatively unknown but good-looking co-star of 23 by the name of Michel Demitri Shalhoub, who later changed his name to Omar Sharif.

Sharif's brooding dark eyes dominated the scenes as they captivated his leading lady, giving the audience a peek into one of the Arab film industry's hottest couples and preserving for generations to come scenes from a fairy tale love story that lasted for over 20 years and defied social and religious barriers. The two icons divorced in 1974 after working together in a collection of the best films of the golden age of Arab cinema. Both have garnered local and international awards for their contribution to film, and will be honoured again at the Dubai International Film Festival. Hamama will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and Sharif will be honoured with a retrospective of his work and a showing of his latest film, J'ai Oublié de te Dire (I Forgot to Tell You).

Hamama, dubbed "the lady of the Arab screen", remarried, became a recluse, coming out of her extended hiatus for just a handful of Egyptian film and TV projects and never seems to look to the past. Sharif, one of Hollywood's most famous Arab actors, never remarried, continued his career on the international arena, and frequently returns to this chapter of his life. "I had a couple of adventures with women, but not the great love. I had a great love once with my wife that has to be said," Sharif told the media just two months ago on the red carpet of the Venice Film Festival.

Their love story began when Chahine offered an unknown actor, Shalhoub, the starring role opposite the widely popular Hamama in his movie on the condition that she approved him for the part. By 1953, Hamama had over 40 films to her name, making her debut at the tender age of seven when she appeared in the film Yawm Said (Happy Day) in 1939. Shalhoub was just starting off with no previous films to his credit.

The story of their first encounter has been repeated so often that it has become synonymous with their love story. Shalhoub, fluent in three languages, Arabic, English and French, out of nervousness upon meeting Hamama started to recite Shakespeare's Hamlet soliloquy of "To be or not to be ..." Despite the fact that Hamama didn't speak any English at the time, she liked what she saw, and Shalhoub got the role.

The film, with themes of class struggles and corruption, went on to win local awards and was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. It also launched the on- and off-screen pairing of the two main stars. Raised a Roman Catholic and from a wealthy family, Michel Shalhoub converted to Islam and changed his name to Omar Sharif in order to marry his leading lady, who was Muslim and from a conservative and less wealthy background.

Crowned the "dream couple" by film critics and fans, the two stars, Sharif with his superb physique, style and grace, and Hamama with her soft voice, delicate features and raw emotions, sizzled on the screen in numerous blockbusters, including the romantic musical Ayyamine el helwa (Our Best Days), 1955, the war drama Ard el Salam (Land of Peace), 1957, and the Arabic remake of Leo Tolstoy's 1935 novel Anna Karenina, Nahr el hub, 1961, their last film together before their divorce. They have one son, Tarek Sharif, born in 1955, who appeared at the age of eight in Sharif's film Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Hamama remained quiet about their break-up, preferring to just stick to her motto of "Art is all that elevates and inspires the human feeling - And all that falls by the feeling does not belong to art". Sharif, on the other hand, blamed his constant travelling when he was shooting David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, the film that went on to win the 1962 Best Picture Oscar. "It separated me from my wife, from my family. We didn't see each other anymore and that was it, the end of our wedding," he said. "I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian film star."

* Rym Ghazal