I saw Omar Sharif last weekend. Well, I saw a picture of him. But it made him so present I thought I really did see him. Immediately, the images began to foxtrot through my head: Doctor Zhivago, Sharif’s Ali to Peter O’Toole’s TE Lawrence, mustachioed International Star (as the Egyptian media likes to call him), bearded French TV host, bridge champion, exotic heartthrob but most importantly of all, icon of the marriage, in the course of the 20th century, between the Arab world and the West.
It was a recent picture, part of a full-page ad at the front of Emirates Business 24/7: gracing a new resort development, he stands to one side with manicured green in the background, formally dressed, silver haired and bearded. But his charismatic smile has not changed one bit since he starred in Youssef Chahine’s black-and-white films as a clean-shaven young man, both slimmer and more casual, with a conspicuous “beauty mark” to the right of his nose.
Aside from the momentary nostalgia Sharif’s face always evokes – a nostalgia for 1950s Egyptian cinema and the artistically vibrant, multicultural Egypt it stands for – which, on Abu Dhabi’s Airport Road, is prone to turning into a far cruder nostalgia for every old Egypt, cosmopolitan or not, I would not have given that eminently multinational face so much as another wink.
But the reason I spent all afternoon ruminating on Omar Sharif was the coincidence of seeing him on this particular weekend. It was the second day of the Art for Aid charity exhibition (held at the Cultural Foundation under the auspices of Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan to raise funds for the Red Crescent of the UAE), and I was scheduled to attend a “live interview” with the exhibition’s star guest, the Lady of the Arab Screen, Faten Hamama. For those who don’t know, said Lady was Sharif’s wife from 1955 to 1974.
A live interview, as I was to discover, is practically a talk show episode, but more sober and less brief: the perfect opportunity to raise the big, complicated questions and expect to discuss them at length.
Maybe I thought of Chahine first because, before I could remember the fact, it had subconsciously dawned on me that Chahine’s 1954 Struggle in the Valley was the film in which Faten and Sharif famously, fabulously met.
After years of categorically refusing to be kissed on screen Faten gave in to what was, in context, a relative moral compromise, only to turn round and legitimise the act by marrying the man she had compromised herself with. Even Chahine, who had grown jealously attached to both leads, could not guess what was coming. By his own admission, the marriage was so abrupt and devastating it drove him to (probably half-hearted) suicide. I actually remembered the couple more clearly in River of Love, the 1960 Anna Karenina adaptation directed by Faten’s first husband Ezzeddin Zulfuqar, from whom she had separated while Struggle in the Valley was being filmed.
A stately tragedy full of palatial ballrooms and sumptuous trains: the controversial message of River of Love – that a woman will be unfaithful if she is unhappily married – sets the tone for much of Faten’s work. While Sharif was fast relocating to Hollywood and Chahine, more gradually, to Cannes, she consolidated her local career through roles that spoke to the female predicament: a peasant girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock; another who is the victim of an honour killing; a woman of good family unable to divorce the abusive husband who has marred her life; an otherwise happy wife whose marriage suffers from an insufferably meddlesome mother-in-law; a young woman who proves herself in the legal profession against all odds.
The Lady had always managed to safeguard her reputation while mixing in decadent circles, but the mere fact of her doing so pointed to Egypt’s capacity, all through the 1950s and 1960s, for cosmopolitanism. It seems telling that her divorce from Sharif – the very epitome of such decadence – took place within three years of Anwar Sadat, the self-avowed “Believer President”, coming to power in late 1970.
True, Sadat freed political prisoners as well as the economy, making sensibly pragmatic peace with Israel rather than subjecting his people to yet another war. But in being terrified of “the communists” he not only gradually refilled the prisons but also set off wave after wave of religious fundamentalism; fundamentalists, not communists, would eventually assassinate him.
In making money, not worldliness, the standard of chic, Sadat’s reign ushered in an era of relative insularity that continues to this day; and Faten was in a much better position than either Sharif or Chahine to accommodate the new mores without giving up too many of her principles.
By 4.30pm the space set out for the live interview on the first floor of the Foundation had been quietly filled. Faten’s Emirati hostess was already bringing up topics like whether women should dress to impress their men or for themselves, and whether khul’ – the most recent development in the personal status rights of Muslim women in Egypt – was necessarily a good thing.
Being in large part a modern, televised variation on the traditional Emirati unisex gathering, this was an awkward place for a man. A feast of hors d’oeuvres flanked the lush armchairs that stretched from the Lady’s seat at one end of the space to a screen silently playing footage from her 97-strong filmography at the other. The only males allowed in were journalists and organisers; and a tacit determination to assert girl power pervaded the proceedings.
An interesting way for feminism to find expression in middle-class and segregated settings, this: what it served to demonstrate was just how insular and conservative Arabs have become since Struggle in the Valley. Egged on by no less than a hundred Arab women Faten held forth on a range of subjects. But when talking about the social influence her work has exercised, the Arab woman she consistently invoked was the lowest common denominator – a disappointingly monocultural creature who, even as she complains of patriarchal abuses, does not even conceive of questioning the status quo.
Only some mention of Sharif, I decided, could counter such traditionalism.
So when it was finally my turn to race through a question or two, microphone in hand, I plucked up the courage to mention an ad I had seen on the front page of Emirates Business 24/7. “What,” I began to say, “could the coincidence of Omar Sharif –” when I was abruptly cut short.
Not by Faten, mind you: her face had not lost its composure and, while she did not object to the hostess reminding me of the provision against “personal questions”, it was not clear whether she wanted to respond to the question or not. Before I could push my luck, however, I had already lost her.
The women around Faten were suddenly tut-tutting and shaking their heads; and I could not help thinking that, like so many Arabs now, they were all paragons of an increasinly hermetic culture. A culture which, forgetting that it actually produced them, can only tolerate Omar Sharif and Youssef Chahine as the eccentric remnants of a time or a place sufficiently removed not to be threatening.
Faten had looked imposing at the centre, as fresh, sharp and appealing as she was 20 or 40 years ago. But it was the face of Omar Sharif – icon of the marriage not between himself and Faten Hamama, but between the Arab world and the West – that would stay with me; that I missed.
The National, May 9, 2008