You probably saw the stories about Omar Sharif, the movie star who died last week at the age of 83. He was perhaps best known for his big screen roles in Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia.
But before he was a star here, Omar Sharif was a matinee idol back home in Eygpt, says Wael Khairy, an Egyptian film critic.
Khairy was a just a boy growing up in Cairo when he discovered Sharif’s early Egyptian movies like Sira` Fi al-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley), Ard al-Salam and Nahr al-Hob (The River of Love). He says these early films that came out of the golden age of Egyptian cinema were playing on television day in and day out
Years before Omar Sharif became a Hollywood movie star, long before he had appeared in Doctor Zhivago and as Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif "was as one of the most charismatic leading men ever to grace the screen in Egypt,” says Khairy.
If you want a glimpse of Sharif’s early acting career, Khairy recommends watching Sharif’s breakout movies Sira` Fi al-Wadi, which caused a sensation at Cannes in 1954. Another pick: The light-hearted Our Best Days, in which he appears with actress Faten Hamama, soon to become his wife.
A final pick: a film about an Egyptian caught in the Palestine-Israel conflict called Land of Peace, which became a huge hit.
Khairy says Omar Sharif had a huge influence on Egyptian cinema and on the next generation of actors. "Of course he was a good actor. He was born with good looks but he certainly had the acting chops. To this day his influence on Egyptian cinema is huge, so he's the guy who made it, he broke the international barrier. When people try to make it big or reach an international audience in any field in Egypt, they call them the Omar Sharif of soccer, or the Omar Sharif of music and so on."
So what’s Khairy’s favorite Omar Sharif film?
“I loved Hassan & Marcus (2008). He played a Christian priest disguised as a Muslim sheik. It’s very powerful and it was perfectly timed to become a box office sensation. The film addresses issues of religious extremism and tolerance and sectarian violence, and emphasizes the possibility of friendship and love between members of different religions. It was a very good movie.”
Plus it’s funny, he says, with dramatic undertones.
"The thing about Egyptian movies, they always tend to mix humor with drama. It’s just the Egyptian way.”