Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Goodbye, my friend Omar Sharif

Zahi Hawass remembers the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif who died on 10 July

omar
omar
Al-Ahram Weekly

I did not realise that my last meeting with the late Egyptian actor Omar Sharif would be our farewell meeting. He is now sleeping in peace with a contented face, as if plunged into his own world of memories that have now died with him.

We will never know what he was thinking of during his last days. Omar has passed away, leaving us with a wealth of heritage and love. He will always survive in the hearts of his fans, who loved his talent and art.

The ancient Egyptians believed that a person dies twice: first, when his soul leaves his body and second, when the last person who remembers his name himself passes away.

Therefore, a person’s work was very important in order to leave memories of himself and to keep his name alive until eternity. According to this belief, I think the name of Omar Sharif will always be alive among future generations.

Alzheimer’s disease attacked Omar’s memory in his later years, but it never attacked his soul or his sympathy or his love for people and life. His memory withdrew in his later years until he had forgotten all but his most recent memories and those of his childhood and youth.

He used to keep a photograph of himself in his wallet. It was taken when he was just four years old, on a beach in Alexandria with his mother beside him. He was a unique person who did not know hate, envy or wish evil to anybody. He had no enemies and he avoided personal struggles. He lived his life as he wanted to, and despite all his fans he lived alone with himself and his art.

My last meeting with him was when I went with Tarek, his son, to see his father at a hospital in Helwan. Omar was then living in Hurgadah and had been taken to a hospital in Cairo suffering from a stomach complaint. Tarek had flown with him on a medical plane for treatment in the capital.

At the hospital, the doctor came to speak with us and said that Omar was refusing to eat or drink. We waited more than an hour for him to wake up, but when I entered his room with Tarek to see him he was still asleep. I saw his face and did not know that this would be my last meeting with my great friend.

Tarek said that he would come back to see Omar and take him out of the hospital and the three of us would have dinner, but Omar refused to go. On my way back from the hospital I could see my friendship with Omar scrolling down before my eyes. We were like twins. When he used to come to Cairo I would see him every day and we would have dinner together.

During the last period of his life, Omar would sometimes forget my name, but he was always waiting for our meeting. I smiled because I remembered the time that he was upset about missing a planned dinner with friends Jacqueline Bisset, Danny Glover and Kurt Russell as he had had to remain on stage for two hours at the Cairo International Film Festival.

When he arrived, he said he was afraid of dying first and thus missing the dinner! I realised that Omar lived day to day and rarely knew what he would do the next. He never ate during the day, taking only one meal at dinnertime, and he used to enjoy every moment of it.

I also began to think of the things that happened to him when he was a child. During the last period of his life, Omar talked about his mother and how she had played a huge role in his life. He spoke of her kindness and firmness.

As a boy, Omar was fat and showed no talent at languages. His mother sent him to an English school to control his body weight, as English schools were known to serve little food to their students. He lost weight and learned English.

In his youth he became friends with the pioneering Egyptian actor Ahmed Ramzy and met the renowned film director Youssef Shahine, who selected him to play the main role opposite the late actress Faten Hamama in the film Fight in the Valley (Seraa fil-Wadi).

The film was shot in the Upper Egyptian city of Luxor, among the soaring ancient Egyptian monuments.

Omar was fond of acting and was planning to travel to London to study it. He went to see Hamama because he would never have accepted the role that Shahin had offered him had she not approved of him first. When Omar met her, she asked him to act out a role he liked, and he chose some lines from Hamlet. Luckily, he won her approval.

They finished the film together, and on their way back to the hotel their hands touched. They were married in 1955. Fight in the Valley was the first and last movie Omar made with Shahine, but Omar and Faten made six movies together, the last one being River of Love (Nahr al-Hob) in 1961.

At that time, the English film director David Lean sent to Egypt for a young Arab actor to play the role of Prince Ali in his upcoming film Lawrence of Arabia. Twelve young actors were auditioned, and Lean chose Omar Sharif. In my opinion, Sharif should also thank his mother because it was because of her he later succeeded in Hollywood.

He flew to Jordan at the time of the making of Lawrence of Arabia, where he was met by King Hussein, like him a former pupil at Victoria College in Alexandria, and from there he went to the desert to shoot the final scenes of the film.

Omar always remembered this film and told me once that he had spent a year shooting it. Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence, became a close friend, and Omar invited him to attend one of the film festivals in Cairo. When O’Toole died, Omar was upset, but he said he was rarely plunged into depression by the deaths of friends. An exception came when his niece Fatima died when she was just one and a half years old. He said he had cried bitterly over that.

I remembered other things about Omar as I made the trip from Helwan to Cairo, after leaving the hospital. He was a big fan of the Egyptian football team Al-Ahly, for example. We used to watch the games together, and he became mad if the Al-Ahly team lost the game.

When the 25 January Revolution took place in Egypt, Omar was in Cairo, staying in a hotel near Tahrir Square. He was happy since he believed Egypt had chosen democracy and freedom. But when the Muslim Brotherhood took power, he was upset and said that we should separate politics and mosque. He was afraid that Egypt would go back to the dark ages. He decided to leave Egypt and not to come back.

I did not see Omar for almost a year. On the day of the 30 June Revolution I had to attend the Acila Festival, organised by the former Moroccan minister of foreign affairs Mohamed Ben Esa. I then went to Paris to see Omar. We sat together watching the news to find out what was happening in Egypt. On 3 July 2013, when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted, Omar was very happy and said that Egypt had come back to us.

Omar loved Egypt, and he would do anything for his country. I believe his fame is a result of his having never become Westernised — you can still see the light of the pharaohs in his face and eyes, and it was this that made women fall in love with him. He had a unique voice and spoke five languages.

I remember that my dear friend Bruce Ludwig from Los Angeles once told me that his wife Caroline would love to meet Omar. When Bruce and Caroline were in Egypt, we had dinner together with Omar, who came with his magic and kissed Caroline’s hand and sat by her. He put the flowers that were on the table in front of her and Caroline almost fainted.

Omar used to love telling stories over dinner. He told me once about a visit by Salah Nasr, the head of Egyptian intelligence after the July 1952 Revolution. Nasr came to see Faten and Omar and asked them to “protect the Revolution” by spying on their colleagues, supplying the intelligence services with whatever was said by various film stars. It was a difficult visit. Faten told Nasr that she could never do what he asked, and Nasr took action against them both.

While living in Paris, Omar once received a call from President Anwar Al-Sadat, who asked him to call Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to ask him what he would do if Al-Sadat visited Israel.

This was before Al-Sadat’s famous trip to Jerusalem in the late 1970s. Omar went to the Egyptian Embassy in Paris and called Begin. The latter said that he would receive Al-Sadat as if he were Jesus himself.

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