Omar Sharif: Arab World Mourns its Favorite Son of Cinema

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"Omar Sharif was a legend and a symbol of the Egypt that could transcend boundaries."

The passing of Omar Sharif on Friday saw instant heartache emanate from across the cinema world and beyond. One of the last great male icons from Hollywood’s golden age — the suave, dark-eyed and dashingly handsome gent who sent hearts racing in Doctor Zhivago, Funny Girl and numerous others — had gone.

But from Egypt and the wider Middle East, there was distinctly more emotional outpouring. Sharif, ever since his first arrival on Western cinema screens as a barely discernable speck through the heat thermals of the Jordanian desert in Lawrence of Arabia, represented the Arab world on the global stage — its biggest, and arguably only, star to ever truly break out internationally.

“It’s a really sad day for an Egyptian actor,”  said Amr Waked, the star of Lucy, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and among the few Egyptian names to have come close to emulating Sharif’s success at home and abroad. “It’s very difficult to find anyone else like him.”

Waked appeared alongside Sharif on The Traveler, which debuted in Venice in 2009, but he points to the late actor's 2003 Cesar-winning performance as an elderly grocery store owner in Monsieur Ibrahim as one the “finest” that he has seen.

“For Egyptians, Omar Sharif was a legend and a symbol of the Egypt that could transcend boundaries,” said Jehane Noujaim, the acclaimed director of Oscar-nominated Netflix Originals documentary The Square, describing the late actor as a “global citizen.”

“The whole country is in grief,” added Ahmad Abdalla, the award-winning Egyptian director of festival favorites including Microphone and Rags & Tatters.

“It’s amazing how Egyptians managed to love him and keep him in their hearts regardless of his lifestyle, that some might see as a little European for them," Abdalla continued. "It indicates that his true talent was much bigger than any stereotyping or any conservative judgmental minds.”

Just a short flight from his homeland, Sharif was the first actor to be honored at the inaugural Dubai International Film Festival in 2004, now the Middle East’s biggest cinema event.

“He blazed a trail for the Arab world with endless iconic performances,” says the festival's chairman, Abdulhamid Juma. “The world has lost a legend, but his memory will live on in timeless classics for new audiences to enjoy.”

Although Hany Abu-Assad, the twice Oscar-nominated director of Paradise Now and Omar, never worked with Sharif, the Palestinian filmmaker told THR that he will always remember the man with a "big smile."

"A great actor and one of the few foreign male actors not born in America or England that became a true star playing the good guy."

Fellow Palestinian director Najwa Najjar, whose last film, Eyes of a Thief, was the Palestinian nomination for the Academy Awards, echoed this view.

"His legacy as one of the very few actors outside Hollywood, who was able to break the deeply racialized casting typecast and take roles that were not an ethnic stereotype, and without denying his origins as a Arab, will live on," she wrote to THR.