Omar Sharif: from desert prince to alone in Paris

The actor lived a glamorous life of fame and fun – now, with his fortune and memory fading, his frustration is palpable

Thu, May 8, 2014, 17:38

Many men would envy Omar Sharif. The actor’s portrayal of Sharif Ali, prince of the desert, in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) catapulted him to international fame at the age of 30.

For decades, Sharif enjoyed beautiful women, fast horses, bridge tournaments and gambling. Now he’s shipwrecked by old age, egocentrism and his failing memory, doomed to live out his remaining years in the luxury hotels of Europe.

Sharif, now 82, will be the guest of honour at the opening of the Dublin Arabic Film Festival at the Light House Cinema tonight, where he will present Monsieur Ibrahim, the 2003 film for which he won a French César award. In it, he plays an ageing Turkish Muslim shopkeeper who becomes a surrogate father to a Jewish boy.

Sharif was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to immigrants from Zahle, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. “When I was small, my mother beat me on the backside with a slipper. She sent me to the British boarding school in Egypt because the food was bad and she wanted me to lose weight. She played poker with King Farouk,” he recalls.

Falling for ‘Egypt’s Shirley Temple’
Sharif earned a degree in mathematics and physics at Cairo University, worked briefly in his father’s exotic wood business, and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. The director Youssef Chahine discovered him in the early 1950s and he was cast opposite Faten Hamama. She was the same age as Sharif, had been a star since childhood and was known as “Egypt’s Shirley Temple”.

Sharif, born Michel Chalhoub, a Greek Melkite Catholic, converted to Islam and changed his name for the love of Hamama. They married and had a son, Tarek.

They were the Arab world’s most celebrated couple, starring together in many films. Everything changed when Sharif went to the Jordanian desert for a year to shoot Lawrence of Arabia, for which he won the Golden Globe for best supporting actor and an Oscar nomination.

Sharif became fast friends with Peter O’Toole, who starred as Lawrence. “I loved him. He was my friend,” says Sharif of O’Toole. “When he died [last December] I went crazy . . . After Lawrence of Arabia we made terrible films together. He said, ‘Let’s make rubbish and have fun’.”

Not since Rudolph Valentino played the lead in The Sheik had millions of western women fantasised about the Arab lover. Sharif signed a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures and moved to Hollywood. His lead role in Dr Zhivago (1965) reinforced his stature as an international heart-throb. Sharif didn’t want to cheat on Faten Hamama, so he asked for a separation.

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