Omar Sharif died Friday at the age of 83. He starred in a number of major films, like “Doctor Zhivago,” and was a fixture in Hollywood and what used to be the Hollywood of the Middle East, Cairo. It was in Egypt where Sharif, born Michel Shalhoub to a Lebanese Christian family, first made his impact on the silver screen. In many of his earliest films he played the romantic lead, opposite his wife at the time, Faten Hamama, who died this January. His first English-language part was as Sharif Ali in David Lean’s monumental picture, “Lawrence of Arabia,” and his entrance is one of the most memorable in movie history. Ali (Sharif) is a dot on the horizon who shoots and kills another man for drinking from his well, and then he rides to close the distance and fill the screen.
Sharif liked horses. He told me an American president had given him a horse, but I can’t remember which one because it was at the end of a long evening of drinking, singing, and conjugating Arabic verbs. “Where are you going?” he asked when I tried to leave the party. “I have a meeting in the morning,” I said. “We all have something in the morning,” he said, and everyone around the tablverbse laughed. “Oriental people are night people,” he said. I sat back down, and the women whispered, Omar.
This was not long after September 11, 2001. I’d moved to Cairo and my first week there was invited to a party in the Dokki neighborhood. Most of the guests were in business or politics, the Mubarak regime’s younger generation. I was shaking hands and trying to remember names when the hostess introduced “Omar,” and I looked up and saw it was him.
In some ways it was he who had brought me there. Or more precisely, had I just gone to the region to find an explanation for what had been done to New York, my hometown, it would’ve been too close to revenge, an emotion at the time seldom very far from my heart. There is art there, too, I knew, music, passion, and glamor, and for me Sharif embodied it all—even the revenge.
He seemed to believe this, too, that I’d come looking for him. At least that’s what his smile suggested. He called me an orientalist, which was an absurd charge at a party where the music of the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthoum was blasting non-stop and the hostess had actually hired a belly dancer to entertain her nearly exclusively Egyptian guests. Some of the younger women didn’t like it, but all the men did. What’s next, I wondered, a snake charmer?
I later came to understand Sharif’s calling me an orientalist to be an invitation of sorts. He had been a grammar school classmate of the founding father of the orientalist critique, Edward Said, but according to Said’s memoir, Omar used to pick on him and I imagined that I started to see why. I knew that Said didn’t like oriental culture. One time when I visited the professor in his office at Columbia, I mentioned Umm Kulthoum and Said screwed his face up to show how much he disliked her.
This wasn’t Said’s style at all—he was a classical pianist and had a broad and deep education in the Western musical canon. Maybe Sharif and the other boys thought Said was a little too delicate, a little too Western. After all, Said moved to the United States to make his name writing about the Middle East for a Western audience. And Michel Chalhoub changed his name to Omar, name of the second caliph, one of the great heroes of the Arabs and Muslims, and for over half a century played the quintessential Arab for both Middle Easterners and Westerners. He embraced the orient, which will miss his glamor.