Omar Sharif, the Egyptian actor who rose to international fame in the 1960s with lead roles in two epic films -- Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago - was in Washington recently to receive an award for another role he's played, helping to build cultural bridges between America and the Arab world.
Sharif credits the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia" with launching his international acting career. His role in that David Lean epic earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, and led to his first Hollywood film contract. The role also made him an attractive emissary of Egypt, where Sharif was a matinee idol, and Gamel Abdel Nasser was the country's charismatic, anti-Western leader.
"I arrived in Hollywood when Nasser was in power, and Nasser at that time in the 1960's was viewed in America just as badly as Saddam Hussein before they took him out. So, if you can imagine that an Iraqi actor, before the Iraq war, would come and become a star in Hollywood, you could not conceive it," he says. "Now this was a very lucky thing because I was lucky to find the right part in a great film, Lawrence of Arabia. It was a great film, probably one of the greatest films ever made. So I was very lucky and I was immediately nominated for an Academy Award."
Sharif, 74, fondly recalls the warm welcome he enjoyed as an Arab actor in the United States. Other major U.S. film roles came his way, including Behold a Pale Horse, The Yellow Rolls Royce and 1968's Funny Girl, a film that earned co-star Barbara Streisand a best-actress Oscar and allowed Omar Sharif to play a suave, international card-shark -- not a big stretch for the globe-trotting champion bridge player.
Sharif says he felt no tensions during the four years in the 1960s when he lived and worked in the United States. But he is saddened by what he sees as a widening gap between America and the Arab World. "The world was different, it was not like today where we have this terrible hatred between each other, between some of the Arabs and some of the Americans, those extreme radicals, so it was a different world. It is not the same world any more," Sharif says.
He believes the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led many Americans to form gross misperceptions of Arabs and Muslims. He says Americans have struggled to distinguish between the small groups of Muslims who are hostile to the West and the vast majority, who are peace-loving.
"We (Arabs) are very kind people. There are some people who are not; there are some crazy people. They were created by the Afghan war against Russia," he says. "A lot of Muslims went to fight and get the infidels -- who were then the Russians at that time -- out of Afghanistan. When the war ended, they found themselves with no jobs. They did not know what to do with themselves anymore. All they knew was how to fight, how to shoot Stinger missiles, and how to shoot machine guns."
In his own film career, Omar Sharif has often sought out roles that show how Muslims can live in harmony with people of other faiths, such as his title role in the 2003 French film Monsieur Ibrahim, in which Sharif plays an elderly Turk who owns a little grocery shop in Paris and befriends an aimless young Jewish boy. But Sharif believes that the movie industry in general has contributed to the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims as "the bad guys." He says the best way to counter these stereotypes is for Americans to maintain a dialogue with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
"We must get rid of the hatred. We must be reasonable, all of us, (and all of) them," Sharif says.. "The Americans and we have to be reasonable and not have hatred at all, we must have comprehension and try to arrange things, sit down and talk and be reasonable."
Egyptian actor Omar Sharif was recently honored in Washington with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, for his decades of work building cultural bridges between America and the Arab world.