The late Omar Sharif in a magazine called Alive

Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia

Omar Sharif died today and I remember him best not for his role in “Lawrence of Arabia” — and if you have any fond memories of that film I urge you to watch it again and see how dreadful it is — but for an interview he gave in 1997 to a Cairo-based magazine called Alive that is itself mostly forgotten but caused a small sensation in media circles in Egypt at the time I lived there.

Sharif was born Michael Shalhoub, in Alexandria, and changed his name when he starred in his first film, converted to Islam, and married the Egyptian legend Faten Hamama.  He would go on to become a notorious international playboy and inveterate gambler but many, many years after that he was headed back to Cairo when he was interviewed by Sherif El-Hosaini for Alive.

OS: I’m in the process of moving from having lived thirty years in the Western world to living in Cairo, and my flat isn’t ready.  It’s one year late and I’m living in a hotel waiting for it to get ready.

SH: Why the move?

OS: I work less now, and I decided that I wanted to see my childhood friends.  All the people I know in the Western world I’ve known only since I was thirty.  I can’t talk to them about school days…about my first love.  I wanted to be home and so now I’m back.

I have thought often since then about how friendships made in adult life, no matter how deep, can go no deeper than whoever one was at the age of first meeting; beyond that is a history that is fundamentally unknowable.

But Sharif must have been in an ornery mood the day of the interview because after that philosophical insight about friendship he had this remarkable exchange below.  Let’s allow that he is drawing a somewhat inscrutable distinction but what I hear, mostly, is the interviewer’s disbelief that an actor known less for his acting ability than his good looks could make such a claim:

SH: How far do good looks go?

OS: They used to go a lot further than they do now.  Good looks have become out of fashion.  Unfashionable.

SH: Unfashionable to look good?

OS: To look good in the sense of ‘good looks.’  To look good is completely different.  I’m listening carefully.  ‘Good looks’ you asked me about — and they aren’t important.

SH: ‘Good Looks’ aren’t important?

OS: Why do you keep repeating everything I say like a parrot?

SH: Because I’m slow.

OS: I’m fascinated by it.  It’s a habit, and it’s a very unpleasant habit.  I’m just saying it for you.  I can take it for another half hour, but you’re going to have to live with it.

There’s much more like that in the interview and, in some strange way, I’ll miss Omar Sharif for it.


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