Alex Ritman - Writer and Editor in Dubai now working for The National. Esquire, Time Out, LA Times, Sunday Times, Dazed & Confused.

Where is Omar Sharif? – Esquire, July/August 2010

In November 2009, I headed to Cairo to speak to the Arab world’s biggest film star, the legendary Omar Sharif. He wasn’t there. Instead, I met him in Dubai a month later, where he shouted at me.

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Where is Omar Sharif?

It still stands as one of the most impressive delayed entrances ever filmed and certainly one of the finest Hollywood debuts. Beginning as a wobbling pixilated speck on the horizon, Omar Sharif slowly advances towards the camera on camel, shrouded in black robes billowing mysteriously through the heat thermals of the Jordanian desert.

With legendary build-up assured, Sharif – having grown from dot to discernable human figure – casually shoots Peter O’Toole’s Bedouin guide without flinching, before parking his stead and inspecting the now motionless body lying face-down in the sand. Removing his veil to reveal that unmistakable chiseled face for the first time, Sharif delivers his opening – and delightfully unnecessary – words to Western cinema-goers: “He’s dead.”

Now, almost fifty years after Lawrence of Arabia transformed Sharif from an up-and-coming Egyptian actor into tinsel town’s leading man, this same unmistakable face, albeit considerably less chiseled and a rather ghostly shade of grey, is shouting at me.

“I was not there,” he spits in a shrill voice at least an octave higher than the deep growl that once had the bronzed legs of Los Angeles’ lovelies buckling. “You should have called me and found out!”

The “there” Sharif is referring to is, in fact, Cairo and, as I’ve been trying to cheerfully explain, I did actually find this out for myself after trying to pin him down for an interview.

“Why don’t you just go to Cairo and try to find him?” a supposed representative of Sharif had suggested. (And someone he’s now vehemently denying he’s ever met – “I don’t know her, she doesn’t speak for me!”)

Having sourced his usual hotel (the Intercontinental Semiramis facing the Nile) and booked my flights, all that was left was for me to casually hang out in the ground floor bar and wait for him to arrive. Apparently, at his regular hangouts, he sits at the same spot each time, sometimes even in a chair reserved solely for Mr Sharif. I was bound to catch him. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, that is, until the evening before departure, when I fired a cursory email to my contact, who I’m fairly positive didn’t actually believe anyone would ever take up this mission.

“Sorry, I’ve just heard that Omar has left Cairo this morning for a brief trip to the Caribbean,” was the reply.


But now, less than a month later, my time has finally come. Sharif is only a taxi ride away, waiting at the Dubai International Film Festival to promote I Forgot To Tell You – a French-language film in which he plays an Alzheimer’s sufferer.

And, with the anecdote about my trip to Cairo already in the bag, I’ve got the ideal way to kick-start a conversation with someone known nowadays as being more of a grumpy old man than the charming international megastar of old. Oh, how we’d giggle about my solitary self, propping up the bar in the Semiramis waiting in vain for Omar to show up while he lay on a Caribbean beach in colourful shorts, slurping on a pina colada. No doubt he’d find my story so amusing he’d invite me out a few whiskies later and regale me with tales of his youthful adventure with which to litter this feature.

This was going to be a good interview.

“I never planned to stay in Cairo; I had a trip to make to the Dominican Republic,” he fizzes, eyes poking out of a rather skeletal face.

My seemingly perfect (and rather expensive) ice-breaker has sunk like the Titanic, scuppered by a seventy-seven-year-old with a bad temper and little time for niceties.

And why should he? Politeness (or lack-thereof) aside, Omar Sharif has seen and done it all. He has scaled the dizzying heights of fame, played everyone from Che Guevara to Genghis Khan and shared billing space with Gregory Peck and Eva Gardner. Here is someone who once lived next to Elvis Presley and – if the rumours are true – can count a number of leading ladies as notches on his creaking bedpost.

He is also a man fluent in four languages and proficient in a further three, who has traversed the globe, wearing different cultures as comfortably as one might wear a nice hat. Omar Sharif is surely a star of truly international proportions. But that’s not to say it has been one long victory lap since the glory days of Lawrence of Arabia. Sharif has also sunk to sizeable lows, both professionally and personally, suffering self- and industry-enforced hiatuses from the film scene.

Despite a career spanning one hundred-plus titles – a figure that continues to grow to this day – Omar himself has admitted that many productions were beyond appalling (“it got to the stage when my own grandchildren used to make fun of my films,” he once said). Most of the films he made over the past twenty-five years, he admits, were simply to help pay off escalating gambling debts.

But almost half a century on from his that career-defining performance, Omar Sharif is still recognised as the Arab world’s biggest film star, still the only Arab to be nominated for an Oscar (for Lawrence of Arabia). And it’s not something he can ever see changing.

“It’s not logical that another Arab would become a star in Hollywood,” he says, having calmed down now the subject has changed. “I was the only one that made it; there will not be another. Those who produce the films are all Jewish, and I’m the only one working with Jews.”

To Omar, his breakthrough simply boiled down to two factors: good genetics and the day his mother sent an increasingly overweight eleven-year-old Omar to a British boarding school hoping the bad food might slim him down.

“I got a chance in Lawrence of Arabia. They chose me because I spoke English, because I had black hair and black eyes and a black moustache.” The film’s director, David Lean, then brought Sharif onboard for his epic 1965 adaption of Boris Pasternak’s romance in revolutionary Russia as the iconic Dr Zhivago. “But it was all luck!”

Omar evidently struggles with issues of anger, and not just at the opening of this conversation. In 2003 he received a one-month sentence for headbutting a policeman in a Parisian casino shortly after losing around £400,000, then less than two years later was ordered to take anger management classes after punching a Beverley Hills parking attendant. Yet strangely, he appears unwaveringly modest, less inclined to embark on the standard chest-beating session when discussing his most famous achievements. He does, however, readily acknowledge his once devilishly handsome looks, and scorns at the lack of glamour now flaunted on the silver screen.

“People don’t have to be beautiful anymore,” he says. “We don’t have any Audrey Hepburns, Rita Hayworths or Ava Gardners. They can be just like the people in the street. When you look at Al Pacino and the best actors in Hollywood now, they’re all common looking.”

At sixty-nine, “common looking” Pacino is only eight years Sharif’s junior – although it seems unlikely Sharif has actually watched any of his films to note this. In fact, talking to him about cinema proves to be another strangely provocative issue.

“I don’t watch any films,” he snaps, a surprising admission from someone who has made his life out of the industry. “Billy Elliot is the only film I’ve seen in the past twenty-five years! Oh, and E.T. Both of which I loved”

The story of a ballet dancing miner’s son and Steven Spielberg’s spindly-fingered alien are, it seems, Sharif’s favourite films. But without watching any films, how does he select which roles he wants? “I do what is offered to me. They don’t offer me to play E.T. or Billy Elliot,”

The gambling, he tells me, has stopped, as has the contact bridge that made almost as much a name for him as his film roles. “I have three grandchildren, and when I have spare time I now spend it with them. I also have racing horses in Paris.”

Perhaps Egypt’s most famous bachelor (he split from his first wife, Egyptian film star Faten Hamama, in 1974 and has never remarried), Sharif spends his time between his horses in Paris and his only son in Cairo. His time since Lawrence of Arabia has even taken on the shape of the character who first blazed a lonely path across the Jordanian desert in 1962, a nomadic figure, living out of suitcases without anywhere to call home.

“I live in hotels only,” he says. “And I eat only in restaurants.” While enjoying my Omar-less stay at the Intercontinental in Cairo, I asked various staff members about their famous guest, hoping to pick up a few clues as to his character. “He’s not a morning person,” one told me, echoing the views of a fellow journalist who had mistakenly called him before midday and received a distinctly unwelcoming response. A waiter painted a rather lonely image of a man eating alone in the private booths of the hotel’s various eating spots, often with a bottle of wine to himself.

“I don’t like eating in people’s houses because they might make food I don’t like eating at that particular moment,” Sharif barks, not particularly helping his cause. “Right, what else do you want to know?”

So much Omar, so much. Having seen his image beaming from a billboard promoting a multi-billion dollar development to be built in the UAE emirate of Ajman, and heard his disjointed voice echoing across the desert as it narrated a sound and light show, I really wanted to find out what had happened to the golden boy of Arab cinema. Why, when similar septuagenarians like Michael Caine can earn their sizeable keep as Batman’s butler, is Omar reduced to renting out his wrinkly image and pithy vocal chords to anyone with a chequebook? And, go on, for the laddish edge, just which of Hollywood’s starlets were invited back to the trailer for a nightcap and a quick round of contact bridge?

But, I’ll be brutally honest, with those tired but angry eyes burning into mine, I’m just too terrified to ask.

As I rack my brains to find a way I can resurrects the remnants of what has been a truly difficult interview, Laurent Vinas-Raymond, the writer and director of his latest film arrives and they strike up a conversation in French. Tense, angry words are thrown about, some rather fierce-looking eyebrows are raised and hands flap in all directions (from the director, that is – Omar sits hands-crossed in his blue polo shirt). Eventually Sharif also moves, slamming his delicate coffee mug down on the table. It’s time for me to leave.

Moment later, a clearly unimpressed Omar is invited to a photo session on a terrace under the welcoming mid-afternoon sun. One cameraman, having foolishly requested that his subject “give him a smile”, gets a response that silences even the twittering birds overhead.

“I am smiling, you idiot! Can’t you see my teeth?” Sharif seethes, displaying a rather distinct graveyard set of gnashers.

It transpires that I haven’t been alone in being on the receiving end of Omar’s wrath. Later on in the day, I hear that he made a film festival volunteer cry.

As it turns out, the cause of Sharif’s stinking mood came down to the simple matter of film festival scheduling. It seems his portrayal of a man suffering from memory loss was to be screened at the same time as Avatar. Even a man who professes not to watch films can figure out which might get the audience vote.

It’s quite unintentionally symbolic. Omar Sharif, a man famed for the grandiose productions of yesteryear, whose star faded several decades ago, has been usurped by James Cameron’s $500 million epic with massive 3D blue aliens, and he doesn’t like it. This, I suppose, is fair enough.

Even with the improved performances of his more recent work, most notably 2003’s Monsieur Ibrahim, Sharif will always remain one of Hollywood’s old guards, part of a movie-making age where grand panoramic openings, booming kettledrums and wobbling “Proudly Filmed In Technicolour” announcements were the order of the day.

A recent online report ranked Dr Zhivago eight on a list of highest grossing films, taking into account inflation at the ticket office. Despite all its vast earnings, Avatar came fourteenth. Perhaps Omar will have the last, albeit slightly croaky, laugh.

E.T., as it happens, was fourth.

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