Omar Sharif: Actor without borders

 
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By Khaled Diab

The late Omar Sharif was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West.

Sharif-Zhivago

Friday 24 July 2015

In a world where the most famous Arabs in the West tend to be infamous, Omar Sharif was like a breath of fresh air. For a young Egyptian growing up in London, he was a welcome and flamboyant distraction from the popular stereotypes of the Arab: oil sheikh, fanatic or terrorist.

Although he was more famous for playing bridge than for acting when I was growing up, the aura of his legendary silver screen persona from the 1960s still mesmerised people. Buoyed by his off-screen playboy lifestyle, easy charm, dashing good looks and disarming honesty, Sharif remained a household name, no matter how many mediocre films he made for a quick buck to pay off his gambling debts.

Sharif-LawrenceSharif’s big international break was in the universally acclaimed epic Lawrence of Arabia. Casting him as a traditional Arab tribal leader was a bizarre choice. Omar Sharif grew up among the upper crust of cosmopolitan Alexandria and Cairo, where his modern upbringing was probably more “western” than that of many Westerners.

He attended Victoria College, a British school, where he rose to become the head boy and a prefect. The late Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said also went to the same school, where he lived in terror of the older boy’s “entrenched authoritarianism” and in admiration of his acting talent on the school stage.

Meanwhile, Sharif Ali, the character Omar Sharif portrayed, was a fictional and generic amalgamation of the Arab sheikhs TE Lawrence aided during the Arab revolt, who made what is widely regarded as the most spectacular cinematic entrance in history.

Despite the romantic and exotic orientalism of Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif’s great strength was that he did not allow himself to get typecast as a celluloid Arab – whether the “noble” desert Bedouin or the more common Hollywood staple, the “reel bad” Arab villain.

In his 1960s heyday, Sharif played a Spanish priest, a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis and even Genghis Khan, which was panned by one critic as being “no closer to history than Omar Sharif is to being a Mongolian”. Sharif has even played a German. “Can you believe an Egyptian playing a German? Hitler turns in his grave at this,” Sharif once joked in an interview.

But the most famous non-Arab he portrayed has to be the dreamy and exceedingly romantic Russian Doctor Zhivago.

A polyglot who spoke five languages but didn’t have a mother tongue, Omar Sharif was not just a cinematic icon. With his ability to glide between cultures, he was also a symbol of an easy-going multiculturalism. He was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West, that the cultural divergence within them is greater than that between them.

Sharif, the first Egyptian and Arab to conquer Hollywood, not only challenged western clichés, he also undermined stereotypes in Egypt and the Arab world, and stood as a symbol of a vanishing cosmopolitan era of greater mobility and tolerance.

Born Michel Chalhoub, he was not just the son of Egypt but also of the Levant. His Lebanon-born father was a well-to-do Greek Catholic merchant who settled in Alexandria, while his mother was of Syrian-Lebanese extraction.

Sharif-HamamaUpon embarking on his film career, Chalhoub changed his name to Omar Sharif, partly because his father was ashamed of his career choice and partly to give himself an easier name for Egyptian audiences to recall. He soon ostensibly adopted the religion to match his new name when he fell in love with Egyptian silver screen legend Faten Hamama on the set of his first film, the classic Sira’ Fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley), and converted to marry her.

And like Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif’s first film in Egypt – the Arab Hollywood – was a mega-hit, though his casting in it also diverged from his real-life circumstances. In Struggle in the Valley, Sharif plays the son of a farmer caught in a passionate love affair symbolising the class struggle. In reality, Sharif grew up in a bourgeois household frequented by King Farouq, who played cards with his mother.

But Omar Sharif never became involved in overtly political art nor activism. Perhaps as a function of his complex and varied background, upbringing and career, he never sought to be a symbol for or representative of anyone.

He was a lover of the good life who was prone to overindulgence, especially when it came to his many affairs and to gambling. The side effect of this was that he lost many of the dearest things in his life, including his marriage to Hamama, and  led a rootless existence for long years living out of hotel rooms around the world. “I’ve been forced to live like a Bedouin,” he once said.

Sharif was also unapologetic about his multiple cultural influences and lifestyle choices, and never tried to fit into a particular cultural template. He didn’t seek assimilation in the West nor did he strive for a return to Arab authenticity when he came back to Egypt. “I am very western in culture and very eastern in temperament,” he once described.

This uncompromising individualism sometimes landed him in hot water, such as when he became romantically involved with Jewish-American superstar Barbra Streisand, known for her staunch support of Israel. Sharif’s response to allegations of treachery levelled against him in the Arab press was disarmingly simple and straightforward: “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her.”

Cinematically, Sharif’s silver years were better than the dry middle decades of his career, though, in his self-effacing honesty, he did not believe that age brought with it wisdom. He produced a number of Western and Arab films of worth, including The 13th Warrior, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, al-Aragouz (The Puppet Show), and al-Muwatin Masri (The Citizen is Egyptian).

It is a shame that he will no longer produce films of such calibre. But given his hit-and-miss career and his uneven acting abilities, it will not be Omar Sharif the artist that the world will miss the most.

It will be Omar Sharif, the person. In these times of growing polarisation, hardening cultural identities, the mindless quest for “authenticity” and fake civilisational clashes, we desperately need an Omar Sharif to glide effortlessly and elegantly through the allegedly impassable cultural barriers which supposedly separate us.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 July 2015.

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The Viking Allah

 
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By Khaled Diab

A mysterious ring in a dead Viking woman’s tomb shows how Northern Europeans came into contact with Muslims and Islam before even becoming Christian.

Viking Allah

Tuesday 7 April 2015

A ring with a cryptic inscription in a foreign tongue turns up in the ancient burial site of an enigmatic woman.

It is the kind of mystery that would have excited the imagination of JRR Tolkien. But this enigma does not unfold in Middle Earth but in the middle ages. The ring in question was unearthed in Sweden and intriguingly contained the Arabic inscription “For/To Allah”.

Recent scientific investigation revealed that what was assumed to be a precious stone containing the inscription was actually coloured glass. But the long-deceased owner wasn’t ripped off, as glass, though pretty common in the Middle East, was a rare and valuable material in Scandinavia at the time.

But how exactly did an Islamic ring end up on the finger of a Viking woman? Short of discovering time travel, we will never know for certain. Several theories have been put forward. One is that it was acquired in trade. In light of the pristine condition of the ring, the researchers behind the lates study posit the intriguing possibility that the ring’s owner may have been a Muslim herself or had travelled to Muslim lands.

With all the fears and fear-mongering about the “Islamisation of Europe”, including in Sweden, it seems outlandish that a native Norsewoman who lived over a millennium ago would be so comfortable with Islam that she would wear a ring with the Arabic word for God engraved on it, and this at a time when Christianity had barely penetrated the lands of Odin, Thor and Freya.

But it is not as bizarre as it may sound. Even though we unfairly tend to associate the Vikings today with raping, pillaging and burning, there were Nordic tribes who headed eastward, not as conquerors but as merchants (and sometimes mercenaries and slave traders). The euro may draw people to Europe today, but the mighty dirham pulled Europeans towards the Middle East a millennium ago.

Although a significant number of their descendants today complain about immigrants, these early Norse-people migrated east, drawn by the opulent riches and high tech of the Middle East, then the centre of global trade.

On their voyages, they encountered Arabs – to much mutual curiosity and dismay. Since Scandinavians were not great writers at the time, the picture we have is rather one-sided, as it is based on the prolific output of contemporary Arab chroniclers, who wrote to satisfy a large and popular market for travel writing.

Interestingly, Arab writers left us with a much more sympathetic and nuanced picture of the Vikings and their ways than Europeans did. In fact, modern scholars are drawing heavily on these ancient Arab accounts to fill in the holes in our knowledge of the Norse tribes. So, in addition to “threatening” Europe’s cultural heritage, it seems Muslims have also helped to preserve it.

One of the most detailed and fascinating accounts was penned by Ahmad ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas in the fictional Thirteenth Warrior), who was a tenth-century traveller and diplomat for the Abbasid Caliphate, which bears almost no resemblance to ISIS’s modern-day caliph-hate.

Although his writing tends to exhibit some of the cultural superiority and condescension we tend to associate with certain brands of Orientalism today – such as lumping together a complex tapestry of tribes and peoples into a single homogenous “other” – he also expresses sympathy and a willingness to understand these “Rus”, as he called them.

Like later stereotypes of the “Noble Savage”, Ibn Fadlan waxes lyrical, confessing: “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish.” Another Muslim traveller, the Persian Ibn Rustah, praised them for their heroicness and loyalty.

Interestingly, Ibn Fadlan witnessed many exhibitions of fornication and drunken behaviour, and yet, despite being an Islamic scholar, or Faqih, failed to pass, in a display of admirable academic neutrality, any moral judgement on what he described.

This may seem odd, given how puritanical Islamic scholars tend to be today. But when considering how freely alcohol flowed in the Abbasid caliphate, the odes to wine penned by Arab poets and the fact that medieval Islamic scholars often authored sex manuals, including one with the beautifully sensual title of The Perfumed Garden.

While Ibn Fadlan barely batted an eyelid at the intoxication around him, he was totally grossed out by the Vikings’ notions of hygiene. Probably perfumed and dressed in fine silks, from a dandy culture where daily bathing was a norm and ritual washing took place five times a day, his disgust is palpable. “They are the filthiest of all God’s creatures,” he declaimed. “They do not clean themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity (i.e., after coitus) and do not wash their hands after food.”

There are also moments of mutual culture shock. Ibn Fadlan is taken aback by the raping and human sacrifice of a female slave in the ship burning funeral of a chieftain, which must have seemed barbaric to his Abrahamic sensibilities. The Vikings were also aghast by Islamic burial practices. “You Arabs are a foolish lot,” one remarked, “you purposely take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and throw them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms.”

Some of the Vikings Ibn Fadlan encountered had converted to Islam, but many others were too attached to their native religions or held back because they would miss pork too much.

Given the fact she was buried and not burned, the mysterious Viking woman with the ring may have been one of these converts returned home, or a Norsewoman who had come into contact with Muslims during a voyage east.

This just goes to show that Islam has deeper roots in Europe, even its remoter corners, than most Europeans appreciate.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 April 2015.

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