Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 October 2003
Issue No. 660
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'Flowers of the Qur'an'

By Lubna Abdel-Aziz

Lubna Abdel-Aziz Omar Sharif...handsome, suave, debonair -- the name carries weight in international film circles and an enormous affection and deep sense of pride in his native Egypt. After a notable absence of several years, it sparkles and glitters once again on world marquees, satellite waves, and the pages of the media upon his receiving the prestigious Life Achievement Award at the 60th Venice International Film Festival last month. The film world paid homage to the only Egyptian actor ever to shine and survive for decades in the international film arena.

Née Michel Shalhoub, he was born by Alexandria's golden shores in 1932 to an affluent Catholic family of the "beau monde" society of Egypt. He attended the renowned British Victoria College, partly because his doting mother hoped that good English sports and bad English cooking would help her young boy lose weight. Always slender and smart, he has never since had a weight problem, and is an avid sports fan especially of football. On graduation he worked briefly in his father's lumber business but show business was his destiny -- his true "Kismet". Director Youssef Chahine cast him opposite Egypt's leading film star Faten Hamama in Struggle in the Valley (1953). His brooding dark eyes, his superb physique, his style and grace, established him as one of Egypt's screen idols. He married his leading lady and settled into a comfortable life of success in his career, marital bliss, and immeasurable joy in his newborn son Tarek. But "Kismet" had more in store for her young Adonis.

When British director David Lean was scouting locations and new faces for his next colossal production, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), his search brought him to Egypt. One look at the face, radiant and noble, the ebony hair, the beautiful black eyes with the haunting mysterious gaze, Lean immediately knew he had found his Aly, Prince of Araby. So taken was he by Omar Sharif, he created for him the most breathtaking character introduction in the history of film. For one whole minute that seemed to last an eternity, a circular cloud of hazy mist fills the screen. As it slowly approaches, it begins to take shape gaining form and focus, until it finally fills the desert panorama with the vision of the dashing Arab horseman riding the wind. His eyes, like burning coals, lit up the screen in a blazing flame, eclipsing the very presence of Lawrence himself, so magnificently portrayed by the great Peter O'Toole. That is how the world will always remember Omar Sharif. This first stunning success won him a Golden Globe Award as well as an Oscar nomination. It was followed by the equally stunning Doctor Zhivago (1965), another David Lean masterpiece.

Omar SharifSharif's international appeal and stature grew from day to day. The offers came pouring in, taking him from country to country, from project to project in film after film. In every port he delighted in the sound of rapturous sighs from women who fell victim to his golden glances.

Fifty years and 80 films later, Sharif found himself at a crossroads. The good scripts became scarcer and scarcer: "I lost my enthusiasm for cinema, I haven't done anything reasonably decent in the last 25 years." He had other passions, more fulfiling, more rewarding -- cards. Omar had a passion for any card game particularly bridge. He is a master player and has toured the world playing bridge with champion teams. He is also a horse enthusiast and was engaged in raising racehorses for many years. But now his greatest source of joy became family: his son Tarek, his daughter-in-law Shaheera and his two grandsons Omar and Karim. Two years ago he actually announced his retirement from film.

One blessed day, a script fell in his lap, one he could not resist. From the original story by Eric- Emmanuel Schmitt, Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran. French director Francois Dupeyron wrote an engaging screenplay and took it to the only conceivable actor in the world who could be the perfect Monsieur Ibrahim, Omar Sharif. "It was a magical script." Once again "Kismet" interfered with Omar's plans.

A gentle story of love and tolerance, that carries a universal message of a friendship that evolves between an old Muslim grocer and a 13 year-old Jewish boy in a Paris Red District, Rue Bleue. Abandoned by his father, the only companion for the teenager Momo (short for Moses), are the prostitutes of Rue Bleue and Rue Paradis. Monsieur Ibrahim, old and lonely and far away from his beloved Anatolia, adopts Momo, and together they find a love that overcomes all barriers. The old Muslim shopkeeper teaches Momo about the esoteric traditions of Islam and the beauty and wisdom of Sufism, the heart of Islam.

For each situation in life, Monsieur Ibrahim finds a fitting answer in the holy words of his beloved Qur'an, carefully marked with pressed dried flowers between the pages. The boy slowly embraces the old man's faith. Together they embark on a journey to Turkey, the land of Ibrahim's youth in a beat-up red convertible sports car, with defective brakes. It is a journey from dark to light, from despair to hope. The master teaches the pupil that Allah's mercy encompasses everyone and everything. As the young boy absorbs this new spiritual, he is convinced by his old master that even his nickname "Momo" stands for Mohamed.

The film brings tears to every eye and has critics already talking of Oscar contention. Omar is ecstatic: "This is a comeback for me. I only wish that people are a bit happier and a bit kinder to each other when they come out."

Author Schmitt explains: "I wanted to show that the Qur'an is a book about life and not a religious label. One's nationality does not describe one's identity." Director Dupeyron adds: "All the barriers that exist between men are only made by men, they are artificial, and like the Berlin wall you can tear them down."

Pierre Boulanger, the young French actor who plays Momo presented Omar with his Life Achievement Award. Omar was visibly moved by the public standing ovation: "I am very much honoured. This is my 50th year of being a professional actor. That alone is worth a reward, just to survive 50 years." Festival director Moritz de Hadeln paid tribute to the Egyptian star: "He has had an enormously important career. Coming from Egypt is one of his strengths. It has always made him open to dialogue between different cultures."

At 71 Omar still cuts a dashing figure. Dapper in appearance, elegant in demeanour, gracious in manner, he is still every inch a ladies' man, gambling, drinking, and slugging a policeman notwithstanding. Though the black hair has turned into strands of silver, the dark eyes have not lost their lustre and the women are still swooning. In an interview with the Italian Corriere dela Sera, Omar was quoted as saying: "Venice is the most beautiful city on the planet but unfortunately I've never been on the lagoon with a woman I loved." He added wistfully: "Maybe it's a good thing -- I still have one more thing to do in Venice!" What other unexpected triumphs does Kismet hold for the veteran heartthrob?

Back in Egypt, his countrymen wish him success in his career, harmony in his life, and in the true Sufi spirit a genuine awakening into the infinite realities within his heart. With Allah's mercy we hope that on his next trip to the dazzling Venetian shores he will sail the lagoon with a woman he loves by his side, Insha'Allah!

Pass the rest by and follow love, O heart;

Reality's folk obey love, for their part;

Love is more ancient than all that's known to exist:

They sought love's beginning, but found it had no start!

Shaykh Muzaffer (1916-1986),

Sufi teacher of Istanbul

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