In this never-published interview the legendary actor speaks about fathering a half-Jewish son in a one-night-stand and working on a bawdy, nearly forgotten film with Peter O’Toole.
By Raymond Stock
By arrangement with Raymond Stock—copyright 1996-2012
On April 10th of this year, the celebrated Egyptian actor Omar Sharif turns 80 years old. The Egypt from which he once exiled himself is undergoing seismic changes. Many had hoped that these changes would lead to a more liberal society and a more open cultural exchange with the world, something Omar Sharif has represented for the past fifty years. Yet this March, a young actor identified as his grandson, Omar Sharif, Jr., announced that he had left Egypt in January to live in the U.S. because, being both gay and the son of a Jewish mother, he feared for his future after the electoral triumph of the Islamists there.
This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Sharif’s star-making film, Lawrence of Arabia, among the most important epics in cinema history. One wonders how the event might be observed, not only in London (where its Royal Premiere took place at the Odeon Leicester Square on December 10, 1962), but also in Cairo under its grim new management.
All of this has brought to mind a visit I had with Omar Sharif more than fifteen years ago. In March 1996, while stringing for a British newspaper in Egypt, I managed to secure the hugely popular figure’s consent to record a conversation with him where he then lived, in a four-star Cairo hotel. But for whatever reason, the interview—in which Sharif talks with disarming candor of his lately (more or less) acknowledged son, born of a Jewish mother in Rome, and his (almost) unknown third film with his Lawrence of Arabia co-star, Peter O’Toole (and much more)—never ran. Yet it captures something of the winningly transparent guile of the Arab world’s foremost actor of global acclaim, not long after he returned to live in his Egyptian homeland after three decades away.
As he arrives for our early evening appointment, his wavy, swept-back hair is as white and as thoughtlessly elegant as his open collared, Egyptian cotton shirt. The large, dark, deep-set eyes throw a piercingly kind, gentlemanly look. Kind, gentlemanly–yes, that’s the feeling.
“What are you drinking?” he asks. The voice is big, gentle, and manly. “I’m having scotch–that’s what I’m drinking,” he says, pouring bottled Baraka water into his tumbler of whisky. He complains that the tapwater ice in my drink will spoil the taste. And worse, I’ve added soda too. I’m forced to agree, gulping peanuts and cucumber strips while Omar Sharif, a legend in these parts (and elsewhere), slowly sips his scotch and water across our tiny table in the VIP lounge of the Cairo Sheraton Hotel.
Tanned from four days at the Red Sea, Sharif said he was living in Egypt again after thirty years in Paris. An immense star in Egyptian cinema in the 1950s, in 1962 Sharif rocketed to world recognition in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, co-starring with Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence; Sharif played Ali al-Harithi, a composite character based largely on one of the leaders of the World War I Arab revolt against the Turks.
Sharif didn’t make another film in Egypt until Ayyub (“Job,” as in “the patience of”) in 1983, a TV production based on a story by Naguib Mahfouz, who later became the Arab world’s only Nobel laureate in literature. “I didn’t even set foot” here for 13 years, he said, including much of the Gamal Abdel-Nasser dictatorship. “I don’t like army rule,” he said. He visited the country briefly after Lawrence, but, afraid he wouldn’t be allowed to leave again if he stayed, he then moved his entire family to Paris.
Sharif remained in self-exile until U.S. President Gerald Ford introduced him to the Egyptian leader, Anwar al-Sadat, at the White House in “late ’76-early ’77.”
“President Sadat was charming—he held me in his arms, he said, ‘Why don’t you come?'” Sharif recalled. Sharif was invited to return to Egypt for the wedding of Sadat’s son. He accepted the offer, and has been travelling freely back and forth ever since.
In recent years Sharif has made a number of very successful Egyptian films, especially al-Aragouz (The Puppet Show), and al-Muwatin Masri (The Citizen is Egyptian). He has also pursued the game of bridge—one of his greatest passions—taking part in occasional tournaments here. Finally, he says, he’s back to stay in the country where his great-grandparents moved from Syria in the 19th century.
But the homecoming has not been quiet. Early this year, the Egyptian press buzzed with stories about Sharif’s recently acknowledged “other” son, Rubin, who was apparently the result of a one-night Roman indiscretion in the late 1960s.
Sharif has a son named Tarek by his one and only wife, fellow Egyptian film star Faten Hamama, from whom he is now divorced. When Sharif, born Michel Chalhoub into a Christian family in Alexandria in 1932, married the Muslim Faten in 1955, he “embraced Islam,” adopting his stage name—the first part of which, Omar, was his mother’s pet name for him—as his legal name. He and Faten immediately became the most glamorous couple in Arab cinema.
“All the people are my children—if I love the mother they are my own sons and daughters, and they are not my sperm. Sperm for me is not fatherhood.”
Sharif also treats Nadia Zulfikar, Faten’s daughter from a former marriage, as his own. But the reportedly Jewish Rubin, who is said to have been married recently to an Italian actresss and is about to graduate from the University of Naples, came as a shock to Egyptians, who are more and more conservative in an era of rising Islamist feeling.
Does he now hear from Rubin, who is the spitting image of the young Omar? “I talk to him if I’m in Rome and he comes to me,” Sharif said. “The fact that he looks like me, that he is most probably my son, doesn’t mean a thing to me,” he adds. “All the people are my children—if I love the mother they are my own sons and daughters, and they are not my sperm. Sperm for me is not fatherhood.”
Suddenly Ibrahim Nafie, editor-in-chief of Egypt’s largest newspaper, al-Ahram, wanders in, looking for a Western diplomat sitting in a corner behind us. “Hi!” Sharif says, rising from his seat. They kiss each other’s cheeks, Egyptian style, like old friends. Nafie gives Sharif a playful tap on the chin.
“You’ve known him a long time?” I ask in Arabic after Nafie has moved on. “Zamaan awi,” Sharif replies. A very long time. They seem the same age: Sharif was about to turn 64. “I shall be incessantly sixty-four,” he insists.
Back to Rubin: “The mother was a journalist who did an interview on New Year’s Eve,” Sharif said. “I drank or something—and I had, I don’t know—I did a sexual act, I suppose—I don’t know what happened precisely,” he pauses. “The poor kid is the victim of this because she brought him up with my picture everywhere telling him, ‘This is your father.’ He kept saying, ‘Where is he, why doen’t he come to see me?'” Sharif looks pained at the thought.
He had no contact with the mother, “neither before nor after” that fateful interview, Sharif said, until he received a surprise visit. “One day I was in a hotel in Rome, and I think he (Rubin) was four or five, and he was in the lobby sitting with his mother waiting for me…He looked so identically like me I couldn’t—you know—and anyway if anybody brings a child I say, ‘Okay, do you want a chocolate?'”
“I took him to the circus, and all that, in Rome,” Sharif recalled, “with the hordes of photographers following us–I don’t mind. I don’t deny…” he trails off.
Has he kept in touch with Peter O’Toole? After Lawrence, the famous pair made The Night of the Generals, about a (literally) lady-killing World War II German officer (O’Toole) stalked by a relentless military detective (Sharif), in 1967. (“At the time it was outrageous–I came straight off the camel and into the Wehrmacht.”) These are the only movies they have made together—for general release, that is. As we talked about O’Toole, Sharif said something that sounded startlingly unfamiliar.
“I’ve made three films” with O’Toole, he said.
“Yes, I made one recently which nobody has seen—which is an interesting film, a surrealistic, naughty film, which we shot all in the Suez.”
And nobody has seen it?
“Very few people,” Sharif said. “It was shown in the Quartier Latin in Paris, places like that. Some art theatre, art circuit.” He remembered only the last name of the director, who he said had made several cult films “that the ‘in’ people know.'” Their film is called The Rainbow Thief.
The Emigrant, a film by director Yusuf Chahine, who discovered Sharif in 1953, has been banned, and a complaint has been filed against the actress Yousra for appearing scantily clad on a magazine cover.
The director, it turns out, was the Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known for his 1971 ultraviolent underground classic, El Topo, which was made in Mexico, and which started the craze of offbeat midnight movies in the U.S. The Rainbow Thief, his sixth film, is listed as a 1990 U.K. production.
Would it be given general release?
“I don’t know—I’m not the producer,” Sharif replied. That, it turns out, is Mexican-born Ilya Salkind, who was executive producer of the Superman series and other major films.
If by “naughty” Sharif had meant “risqué,” then should the film screen in Egypt it is unlikely to endear him to the nation’s militant Islamists. They have lately plagued actors, filmmakers and other allegedly secularist cultural figures with a wave of litigation claiming violations of religion. The Emigrant, a film by director Yusuf Chahine, who discovered Sharif in 1953, has been banned, and a complaint has been filed against the actress Yousra for appearing scantily clad on a magazine cover. Several other major suits are pending, as well.
But back to O’Toole: what did they have in common? “I can’t think of anything, apart from the fact we were actors,” he said. But—pardon this—weren’t they both known as hard-drinking, hard-living men?
Sharif scoffs. “I’m not a hard-drinking or a hard-living person,” he said. “I’ve never been.”
“He is, I’m not–on the contrary.” Sharif has an explanation for his image to the contrary of the contrary.
“I’ve been a bachelor for 25 years,” Sharif said. “This is an important thing. Whenever I go out, people say I’m out—they don’t have to not say because I don’t have a wife to be offended, or anything,” he continues. “I don’t go out a lot—I live a very quiet life, a sedate life. I’ve always done it—I’ve never had a riotous-living sort of life. I was never a discotheque addict, I’m not a nightclub addict.”
O’Toole, though, was another matter. “Peter is hard-drinking because he wanted to be the IRISH DRINKING ACTOR, all capitals. Because all the people he admired, all the actors he admired drank a lot—they were all either Irish or Welsh or something—so that’s what he decided to be when he was a kid,” Sharif said. “I think he forced himself to drink when he was young so he would become this.”
As we talked, Sharif’s son Tarek came in. Late thirty-something, of medium height and with thick, wavy hair like his father’s, he nonetheless looks a bit more like his mother, Faten Hamama. Tarek said that he was starting a new company to sell clothing in Egypt, “Sharif for Men.”
Later Tarek’s business partner, Irwin Steinberg, a big, witty, soft-spoken man, and Irwin’s blonde francophone wife Danielle joined us—they had newly come to Cairo from Montreal.
It was Danielle’s birthday; tomorrow would be Tarek’s fiancée, Shahira’s, turn; Omar’s own was coming soon. We had another round of scotch, and chatted for a while, mixing—as Egyptians of Omar’s milieu do—Arabic, English, and French. Then they went off to celebrate, while the old Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four” played incessantly in my head.
By arrangement with Raymond Stock—copyright 1996-2012
Raymond Stock is a former Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Drew University (2010-11) and lived in Cairo for 20 years (1990-2010). He was denied entry and deported by the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak on a return visit in December 2010, apparently due to his 2009 article criticizing then-Culture Minister Farouk Hosni’s bid to head UNESCO in Foreign Policy Magazine. He has published widely on the Middle East and translated stories by many Arab writers, including seven books by Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2012), whose biography he is writing for Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York. His translation of Mahfouz’s novel, Before the Throne, will appear through Anchor Books in paperback in July 2012.