Today is the birthday (1932) of Omar Sharif (عمر الشريف), screen name of Michel Dimitri Chalhoub, an Egyptian actor of Lebanese origins who came to prominence in the West with his supporting role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Sharif, who spoke Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Italian fluently, was often cast in Western fims as a foreigner of some sort. Sharif was born in Alexandria to a family of Melkite Catholic descent: he belonged to a small ethnocultural minority known as the Damascene ‘Antiochian’ Greek Catholics of Egypt (Rum Katuleek al Shawamm), an offshoot of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. His father, Joseph Chalhoub, a precious woods merchant originally from Zahle in Lebanon who moved to Alexandria in the early 20th century, where Sharif was later born. His family moved to Cairo when he was four. His mother, Claire Saada originally from Lebanon, was a noted society hostess, and Egypt’s king Farouk was a regular visitor prior to his deposition in 1952.
In his youth, Chalhoub studied at Victoria College, Alexandria, where he showed an aptitude for languages. He later graduated from Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics. He worked for a while in his father’s business before studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1955 he changed his birth name to Sharif and converted to Islam in order to marry fellow Egyptian actress Faten Hamama.
In 1954, Sharif began his acting career in Egypt with a role in The Blazing Sun. He was also in Shaytan Al-Sahra (“Devil of the Desert”). In the same year he appeared in Sira` Fi al-Wadi (“Struggle in the Valley”). He quickly rose to stardom, appearing in Our Beautiful Days (1955), The Lebanese Mission (1956) (a French film), Struggle in the Pier (1956), Sleepless (1957) (“La Anam]”), Land of Peace (1957), Goha (1958) (a Tunisian film that marked the debut of Claudia Cardinale), Struggle on the Nile (1958), Lady of the Palace (1960), A Beginning and an End (1960), A Rumor of Love (1960), Sayyidat al-Qasr, the Anna Karenina adaptation Nahr el hub (“The River of Love”) in 1961, and There is a Man in our House (1961). He and his wife co-starred in several movies as romantic leads.
Sharif’s first English-language role was that of (the fictitious) Sherif Ali in David Lean’s historical epic Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. Sharif got the role when Dilip Kumar turned it down, Horst Buchholz was unavailable and Maurice Ronet could not use the contact lenses necessary to disguise his eyes. For me, Sharif is an absolute standout in a film about Arabs that has almost no Arabs in leading roles. There is a lot of blather talked about how Lean insisted on using “ethnic” actors when possible to make the film “authentic” yet we end up with Alec “Obi Wan Kenobi” Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony “Guns of Navarone” Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi. Spare me.
Sharif’s ethnicity was ambiguous to Westerners, and, as he noted, his accent enabled him to “play the role of a foreigner without anyone knowing exactly where I came from.” Lawrence was a box office and critical sensation, and Sharif’s performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, as well as a shared Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor. Sharif went into another Hollywood blockbuster, Samuel Bronston’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) where he played the support role of Sohaemus of Armenia.
Sharif was third billed in Columbia’s Behold a Pale Horse (1964), playing a priest in the Spanish Civil War alongside Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn. Director Fred Zinnemann said he chose Sharif partly on the suggestion of David Lean. “He said he was an absolutely marvelous actor, ‘If you possibly can, take a look at him.'” Film historian Richard Schickel wrote that Sharif gave a “truly wonderful performance”, especially noteworthy because of his totally different roles in Lawrence of Arabia: “It is hard to believe that the priest and the sheik are played by the same man.” The film, like Fall of the Roman Empire, was a commercial disappointment.
Sharif had his first lead role in a Hollywood movie when he was cast in the title part of Genghis Khan (1965) and a support role in a French Marco Polo biopic, Marco the Magnificent (1965), starring his constant film mate Anthony Quinn. While making Genghis Khan Sharif heard Lean was making an epic love story Doctor Zhivago (1965), an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel. Sharif was a fan of the novel and pitched himself for one of the support roles; Lean decided to cast him in the lead, as Yuri Zhivago, a poet and physician. The film was a huge hit. For his performance, Sharif won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama.
Sharif followed it with a cameo in The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966). He, O’Toole and Lawrence producer Sam Spiegel were reunited in The Night of the Generals (1967), playing a German officer in World War Two, his fourth movie for Columbia. The film was not a success. Neither was the Italian-French fairytale More Than a Miracle (1967), despite co-starring Sophia Loren. Sharif was also praised for his portrayal of Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl (1968), at Columbia. He portrayed the husband of Fanny Brice, played by Barbra Streisand in her first film role. His decision to work alongside Streisand angered Egypt’s government because she was Jewish, and the country condemned the film. It was also banned in numerous Arab nations. Streisand herself responded, “You think Cairo was upset? You should’ve seen the letter I got from my Aunt Rose!” Sharif and Streisand became romantically involved during the filming. He admitted later that he did not find Streisand attractive at first, but her appeal soon overwhelmed him: “About a week from the moment I met her” he recalled, “I was madly in love with her. I thought she was the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen in my life.”
Sharif subsequently appeared in a great number of duds. Sharif later said, “What killed my career was appearing in a succession of films you wouldn’t turn down. They were by good directors, but they were bad films.” He specifically referenced Behold a Pale Horse, The Appointment and The Horseman. The Burglars (1971), a French crime film with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Dyan Cannon was a huge hit in France but little seen in the English speaking world.
Later he said, “I lost money on gambling, buying horses, things like that. So I made those movies which I knew were rubbish… I’d call my agent and tell him to accept any part, just to bail myself out.” He had his first decent role in a big Hollywood film in a long time with The 13th Warrior (1999). The outcome of the film’s production disappointed Sharif so much that he temporarily retired from film acting, not taking a role in another major film until 2003’s Monsieur Ibrahim:
I said to myself, ‘Let us stop this nonsense, these meal tickets that we do because it pays well.’ I thought, ‘Unless I find a stupendous film that I love and that makes me want to leave home to do, I will stop.’ Bad pictures are very humiliating, I was really sick. It is terrifying to have to do the dialogue from bad scripts, to face a director who does not know what he is doing, in a film so bad that it is not even worth exploring.
Sharif said of the film:
It has nice big chunks of dialogue, which is what I like to do, rather than riding horses or camels. I’d turned down everything and stopped working for four years. I said, ‘I’m going to stop doing that rubbish and keep some dignity.’ But when I read the script for ‘Monsieur Ibrahim,’ I phoned the producers immediately. I said, ‘Hang on, I’m coming, wait for me.’ My problem is finding parts. When you’re young and successful, they write or adapt parts for you. But when you’re an old chap, let’s be frank, you don’t sell tickets anymore. If they need an old Englishman, American or Italian, there are plenty of actors around. So what’s open for me? Old Arabs. And that’s what I play in this film.
In later life, Sharif lived mostly in Cairo with his family. In addition to his son, he had two grandsons, Omar (born 1983 in Montreal) and Karim. The younger Omar Sharif is also an actor. Sharif had a triple heart bypass in 1992 and suffered a mild heart attack in 1994. Until his bypass, Sharif smoked 100 cigarettes a day. He quit smoking after the operation. In May 2015 it was reported that Sharif was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His son Tarek Sharif said that his father was becoming confused when remembering some of the biggest films of his career; he would mix up the names of his best-known films, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, often forgetting where they were filmed. On 10 July 2015, less than six months after his ex-wife’s death at the same age, Sharif died after suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Cairo.
Let’s have the great Egyptian dish, kushari (also koshari or koshary), in Arabic, كشرى, to celebrate Sharif. It’s a real hodge-podge of stuff from Italy, India, and Egypt, representing the complexity of Egypt’s history, and also Sharif’s own mixed screen persona. It’s a popular dish in Cairo, and decidedly comfort food. Essentially, you cook all of the components of the dish separately and then combine them to serve. Some cooks use chick peas instead of lentils.
2 cups uncooked white rice
3 cups water
1 lb uncooked elbow macaroni
1 cup beluga lentils, soaked in water
5 onions, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 tbsp white vinegar
4 plum tomatoes, diced
½ cup tomato paste
freshly ground black pepper
2 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the rice. Stir until the rice is coated with oil. Add 3 cups of water and salt to taste. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed (20 to 25 minutes). This technique of cooking rice takes practice.
Fill a large pot with lightly salted water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Stir in the macaroni, and return to a boil. Cook the macaroni uncovered, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente. Drain well and keep warm.
Rinse the lentils in several changes of cold water, and, if you like, soak them for an hour. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a pot and stir in the lentils. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender.
Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the onions gently in the oil, stirring often, until they are fully caramelized. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Remove the onions and garlic from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
Place half of the onion mixture in a saucepan. Mix in the vinegar. Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato paste, black pepper, salt to taste, cumin, and cayenne. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer about 12 minutes.
Serve by placing a spoonful of rice, then macaroni, and then the lentils on serving plates. Sprinkle with some of the browned onions, then top with tomato sauce.