Omar Sharif didn’t have to Play a Terrorist

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Omar Sharif is dead at 83. Born Michel Chalhoub in Alexandria to Lebanese Christian parents in 1932, he changed his name and converted to Islam in 1955 in order to marry his co-star Faten Hamama.

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The two were a power couple in the Cairo film world of the 1950s, a time of Egyptian nationalism and a growing experiment with socialism under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was a more secular time, when few urban Egyptian women veiled, and the feminist movement had successes.

Sharif was catapulted into world-wide fame because in 1962 director David Lean cast him in the role of Sharif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia.

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He later worked again with Lean in the 1965 Doctor Zhivago, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak. In 1968, having already played a range of characters from Genghis Khan to a German military officer, he was cast as Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

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The Egyptian government banned the film and was allegedly angry about his playing a Jewish character (the film came out a year after the 1967 war). For his part, he fell in love with Streisand.

Barbara Streisand is said to have quipped that if you thought the Egyptian government was upset, you should have seen the letter she got from her Aunt Rose.

(Faten Hamama and he became estranged after he became a global star and pursued other conquests, something he later regretted; she was the only woman he ever married. She died in January of this year, but by that time Sharif’s Alzheimer’s was so advanced that when he was informed, he no longer recognized her name).

Sharif later played Che Guavara (1969), but in the 1970s the quality of the roles he was offered declined steeply and he later gave up acting, save for a turn in the 2003 French film, “Monsieur Ibrahim,” about a Parisian Muslim shopkeeper who adopts a Jewish boy. That role won him a Caesar, the French counterpart of Hollywood’s Oscar.

Sharif was a citizen of the world, someone who crossed cultural boundaries with apparent ease. Born Christian, he embraced Islam. Born Egyptian, he was comfortable in Los Angeles and Paris. Having become Muslim, he fell in love with Jewish co-star.

But what now seems remarkable is the acceptance he gained and the range of roles he was offered by Hollywood in his era of fame.

In the zeroes of this century, Arab-American actors often could not get past being stereotyped as terrorists. Even Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub, who shares a patronym with Sharif, and who gained fame in the role of the neurotic detective Monk on the USA Cable Network, had to play a terrorist at the beginning of his career. Once, he said, was enough.

It is a little difficult to imagine a major director recruiting a star from Cairo nowadays, or such a star being offered a mainstream lead such as Zhivago. It is not as if the geopolitical tensions are worse now than then. In fact, they have in some ways lessened. Egypt was more or less viewed as an enemy in the mid to late 1960s by Washington, whereas nowadays it is seen as an ally.

What has changed? I think there is just more general, public prejudice against Arabs and Muslims in the US and Britain today. In the 1960s, people seemed to be able to make a distinction between individuals and nations. Otherwise the Sharif-Streisand epic romance could never have happened. I don’t think that the September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda explain the sea change. Perhaps it is the long Iraq War, where Arabs were the military enemy every day all day for 8 years (and now again with the rise of Daesh (ISIL, ISIS).

What I can say is that in this regard, the 1960s were healthier. They gave us an Arab, Muslim leading man and movie star whom we could adore, no matter who we were. I wish we could get back to that.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Omar Sharif has died aged 83”

24 Responses

  1. Michael Nouri–he’s about 68– who has been a big star (Flashdance, Damages) for years is the son of a father born in Bagdahd, who went to the Jesuit High School there and then immigrated to the US and went to Georgetown University. Nouri has a charity for devoted to Middle East understanding.

  2. i think it’s mostly because during the cold war the “enemy” was not identified by national or religious identity but rather by political ideology – which is why if someone like Sharif accepts the western political affiliation and values (i recall no communist-friendly comments of his…) he is seen as “one of us”, while at the same time americans of any ethnic background could be marginalized and black-listed for the mere suspicion of being too left-leaning. i’m not sure those times were more or less tolerant than ours – they were just intolerant about different things.

    • The elephant in the room that somehow does not get mentioned is the half century of Pro Israel propaganda.

  3. Karen Keyworth

    Excellent article that articulates a very negative change in our American society. I would imagine that this decline was impacted by the tactics used by FOX News. So sad.

  4. I’d say two factors:
    1) The 1960s were a time of perceived abundance, in which people thought there was plenty for everyone. These days, people are more worried about keeping their own lifestyle (plus feeling that the “bad guys” are planning to take resources away from them – even though we stole the resources fair and square).

    2) In the 1960s, the “bad guys” were the Soviets (the “Rooskies”). These days, the favored boogieman with which to frighten voters are the “Mooslims.”

    Given these two factors, it’s not surprising that someone who can be typecast as a “bad guy” is so treated. As another example, look at the types of stereotypic roles Sidney Poitier was so often offered, and would be offered today.

  5. Sic transit gloria mundi. I always liked Omar Sharif in his film roles and understand that he was one hell of a bridge player. Sad that his last years had to be spent with Alzheimer’s, one of the horrors of our time.

  6. Danny Thomas was another famous actor of an earlier era of Arab extraction, Lebanese, if I remember correctly, who was never typecast as a terrorist. But he changed his name to the very Anglo sounding Thomas (according to Wikipedia, his birth name was Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz), and he had no accent, so perhaps he didn’t sound so “foreign.”

  7. Sharif had a wild life–made a number of classic, memorable movies, introduced the West to a sexy Arab whom many came to adore, and was a world class bridge player. Who amongst us can claim such achievements? He lived large, and god bless him for it.

  8. I can’t help feeling that the anti-Arab, anti-Islam bigotry in the US has grown in proportion to the growth of America’s one-sided, unconditional support for Israel beginning in the ’80s,

  9. I wonder if “Lawrence of Arabia” could even get made today. After all, the audience is expected to identify with Arab heroes and the Arab cause. A cause that Americans, in form of the Lowell Thomas pastiche (Arthur Kennedy), support. Conversely, if you saw “”Lawrence” as a kid, you probably have soft spot in your heart for the Arabs that endures despite all the subsequent real and cinematic villainy.

  10. So, Che Guevara.
    A terrorist, right? But not an Arab terrorist. Or have i chosen the wrong word?

    • The point is that he had lots of other roles, including appealing leading men, and was not typecast as an Arab terrorist.

  11. This all started with Ronald Reagan and “Morning in America.” Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis was perfect for The Raygun.

  12. We’re starring in a B movie. And we would rather have John Wayne

  13. Latterly the US has alienated the majority of the 1.7 billion Muslims whom it conflates with Arabs. You can’t alienate such a number without adopting a collective view of them and fostering a negative attitude towards them.

  14. This is a terrific piece about Omar Sharif from Prof. Cole.

    But there is another aspect to the period in Hollywood he’s writing about that goes unmentioned.

    Sharif acted in Hollywood films during the last era in which it was easily accepted for actors to play ethnic or even races they were not themselves. Sometimes it worked great – Sharif playing a Russian poet in Zhivago & a Jewish conman in Funny Girl works fine. Sometimes it didn’t – famously Mickey Rooney as a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Alec Guinness also as a Japanese (diplomat) in A Majority of One — both were dreadful.

    But until the last couple of decades – it was no big deal to see Cary Grant (an Englishman) playing Americans or Frenchmen. Or Burt Lancaster – an American – playing a French anti-nazi resistance fighter.

    Today it’s not as easily accepted. It still happens but not to the degree it used to. And audiences & Hollywood filmmakers had no problems making those casting decisions.

    Sharif benefited from that. And in some ways, yes, it was a healthier time for it. After all, generations of Americans grew up embracing foreign actors on their Hollywood screens like Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron, Ronald Colman, Cesar Romero, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Fernando Lamas, Lupe Velez, Ricardo Montalban, Curt Jurgens, Cantinflas and so many others.

    I don’t see that so much today. It hasn’t disappeared entirely–but it’s just not as common.

    • Generally some truth in this, although Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last role was a German counterintelligence agent in “A Most Wanted Man.” And we currently have a British “Spider-Man”, “Superman,” Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King.

  15. I am sure you are correct about the issues that might face Arab-American actors.

    With specifically Egyptian actors, though, has there been a decline in the sort of cosmopolitan society that could produce an anglophone actor such as Sharif?

  16. “Che” was one of the worst movies ever made, but hey we all make mistakes.
    RIP Omar.
    Do I recall that he had a social conscience . . ?
    Can someone elaborate?
    Thanks, Veterans “For Peace

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