Born in Alexandria to Lebanese parents, Omar Sharif not only reshaped Arab cinema, he also left his mark on Hollywood.
Born in Alexandria in 1932 as Michel Yusef Dimitri Chaloub, Sharif grew up in a multicultural home where multiple languages were spoken—Arabic, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. His parents, Youssef Chalhoub and Claire Saada, were of Lebanese descent, and were part of the Syro-Lebanese minority that was living in Egypt.
An unlikely journey
The arc of Sharif’s career didn’t follow the archetypal tale of an aspiring actor seeking out the spotlight from a young age. Initially, Omar was a student of mathematics and physics at Cairo University. But destiny had a different script for him. A young and ambitious director, Youssef Chahine, spotted Sharif’s potential. A combination of his good looks and a touch of luck got him roles that put him on a pedestal in the Arab cinema. In 1954, Chahine’s films, notably “The Blazing Sun,” became the furnace where Sharif’s stardom was forged, pairing him with Faten Hamama, one of the most famous actresses in the Arab world who later became his wife.
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“He was a really handsome young man who probably hadn’t dreamed of working in cinema, who got noticed by a young and talented director, who made him a star within a couple of movies (alongside) Egypt’s most prestigious actress,” explains Amir Ramses, filmmaker and director of the Cairo International Film Festival to Arab News.
However, it was 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” that thrust Sharif into a whirlwind of international acclaim, marking the beginning of an era where Sharif wasn’t just a local heartthrob but a global icon. His role of Sherif Ali earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in addition to two Golden Globes. From there onwards, the actor embarked on different roles, chiefly in Hollywood. He breathed life into a multitude of characters, from the romantic lead in “Doctor Zhivago” to the charming counterpart of Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” and its sequel “Funny Lady.”