Egypt's biggest star looks homeward

Omar Sharif returns to his roots in the Arab world in a new Egyptian blockbuster.

Film still from 'Hassan and Morcoss', featuring Omar Sharif. Courtesy 

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Omar Sharif's hair is white, and the slight dunes under his eyes betray his 76 years. But his voice - that unique, husky burr - still sends one straight back to 1962, when his introduction astride a horse in Lawrence of Arabia elevated him from Egyptian screen stardom to international celebrity. Now, after decades of appearing in mostly non-Arab films, Sharif is coming home. The actor is starring in the current Egyptian box office hit Hassan and Morcoss opposite the Egyptian comic superstar Adel Imam. Sharif plays a Muslim preacher, Imam a Christian priest. After surviving separate assassination attempts, the two go on the run and assume false identities: the Muslim pretends to be a Christian, and vice versa.

The film is a subtly effective poke at religious bigotry in Egypt, and is filled with nicely observed moments between Sharif and Imam; the palpable chemistry between the two has already led to rumours of a future celluloid reunion. One highlight is a scene where both men, tired of their pretences, attempt to sneak into their respective houses of worship and end up blowing their covers. It sounds like inane slapstick, but it is elevated into something more by the two actors' warmth - and the mutual respect their characters develop as they tire of the prejudice of everyone around them.

"It's a film to get Muslims and Christians closer in Egypt," says Sharif, sitting at the bar of the opulent Carlton hotel in Cannes. "I wanted to say we can live together. You can reach people with comedy much more than with serious films if you want to bring a message. I got my greatest messages from Charlie Chaplin films. I learnt what a factory worker's life was like, what life the poor people have. I have become rather a socialist from his films."

Hassan and Morcoss is the latest in a string of Arab projects that Sharif has become involved with. Last year, he starred in his first-ever Ramadan musalsal, Tenderness and Nostalgia, a semi-autobiographical tale about an Egyptian émigré's return to Cairo following 30 years abroad (it aired on the Lebanese channel Future TV). "I had never done it before, and I wanted to do something for Arab families, but it didn't really catch on with the audiences," the actor admits. "It was too refined. There was no killing or raping in the show, just me talking about my favourite poets and missing Egypt. There were other Ramadan shows that year which had a rape or a murder in the very first episode which, of course, we couldn't compete with."

Also in the pipelines is a cameo as Libyan resistance leader Oman Mukhtar in Years of Torment, a $50 million project written and financed by the Libyan president Moammar Gaddafi. The film, a chronicle of the Italian occupation of Libya from 1911 to 1943, is being directed by the famed Syrian director Najdat Anzour, perhaps best known for his controversial Ramadan musalsals. "Mr Gaddafi asked me to play the part, and sent his ministers to come and see me, so I said OK," says Sharif, flashing a knowing look that suggests he recognises an offer he can't refuse when he sees one. "It's very well-written, but in classical Arabic, so I'm learning right now."

Sharif grew up in Egypt, where he attended the famed Victoria College in Cairo, which boasts King Hussein of Jordan and Edward Said as alumni. "I had a great life, great childhood and great parents," he recalls. "I was immediately successful. My first Egyptian film] was a hit. When I made my first international film it was a hit. I was nominated for an Oscar. I was born under a good star." It was the director Youssef Chahine who discovered Sharif (in a Cairo cafe, according to legend) and gave him his first role: the peasant farmer fighting the injustices of a feudal landlord in 1954's The Blazing Sun. Today, the film is a shuddering reminder of how effective an actor Sharif can be. His bristly good looks combine with the indignation of youth and the intensity of a man being given his big break to create a performance of heat and shadow. I met Sharif at Cannes prior to Chahine's sad passing, but Sharif has since commented on the death of his former mentor in the French newspaper Le Figaro, where he wrote of Chahine: "He wanted to be an actor, but he realised that he stammered a little bit and that he was not that handsome, therefore he told himself: I will act through others."

The Blazing Sun is also noteworthy for having paired Sharif with the greatest and, he claims, only love of his life, the Egyptian actress Faten Hamama. The Arab world's Brangelina of their day, the two electrified audiences with a series of on-screen couplings before divorcing in 1974. "I was afraid to fall in love with some idiotic starlet and leave my wife" says Sharif. "So I decided to pre-emptively divorce and give her a chance to find somebody else."

After The Blazing Sun, Sharif racked up a series of memorable performances in other Egyptian films, including A Man in our House and Struggle on the Pier. In 1962, he played Sherif Ali in David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia. From there, international stardom followed. Three years later, Sharif reunited with Lean to play the title role in his Doctor Zhivago, and went 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. He admits, however, that it was around that time that he started being less than judicious in his choices of film roles. His 1970s filmography is a lamentable collection of Euro puddings and ill-advised misadventures. Just watch 1979's Ashanti, co-starring a bemused looking Michael Caine, and you'll get the picture. The 1980s and 1990s weren't much better, but he made a stunning comeback in 2003 with Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Quran, in which he played a Muslim Turkish shop keeper who befriends a young Jewish boy. He was honoured for the role with a Best Actor prize at France's prestigious Cesar Awards.

Sharif remains a heartthrob for a generation of Arab women, but he is now devoting himself to playing roles with a social message. He has always been contradictory: a genuine intellectual lover of culture who for two decades performed in an endless stream of bad films. "I try now that I'm an old man to make films that have something to say," he reflects. "Everybody's killing each other these days, especially in the Middle East. Muslims are killing Muslims, Sunnis are killing Sunnis, Shiites are killing Shiites, Christians are killing Christians. All sorts of stuff which is unbearable for me. It's absurd."

From Sharif's perspective, the problem of fundamentalism in the Arab world is a consequence of poverty and a lack of education. He is frustrated that his own career has not galvanised a more positive image of Arabs in the media, but cautiously optimistic that a new approach to Arab media might change things. Hassan and Morcoss was produced by the Good News Group, the Egyptian company responsible for the 2006 hit The Yacoubian Building. It is one example of a new breed of Arab film companies showing an appreciation of the international marketplace.

"For years," recalls Sharif, "I used to meet these rich Arabs, I used to tell 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.' 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. "But now with companies like Good News, and what's happening in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I think we're seeing a terrific start. Are they going to go on or are they going to give up at some point? It depends. If they lose a lot of money then it will block everything. But they're being very courageous."

The mere fact that Sharif has been able to return to Egypt (and the world of Arab film in general) and find well-written characters to play is evidence of some maturation of Arab cinema. But ask the actor whether he thinks Arab culture has fully come back, and he breaks into his familiar, jowl-creasing smile. "I hope in my grandchildren's lifetime it might," he 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."

Ali Jaafar is the Middle East correspondent for Variety.