I don’t often see too much positive coverage on the region where I was born. I mainly hear about bombs exploding in front of the Italian embassy, journalists being kidnapped, conflicts that have been going on for sixty eight years, or pilots being burned alive. Being born in Cairo, but raised in New York City, I always felt a personal responsibility to defend the entire Middle East.
I remember sitting at a coffee shop three years ago and over hearing a very loud woman talking to a group of her friends who all looked over the age of 60. She was asking her friends, “with the exception of Israelis, have you ever heard of someone successful from the Middle East? Have you ever heard of an Arab achieving something great?” My face turned red. I was personally offended by how wrong she was, at her ignorance. I can now list hundreds of names of people who reached enormous success from Egypt alone, but back then my mind blanked out and the only thing I managed to blurt out in the loudest voice I could let out as I was making my dramatic exit was, “Omar Sharif”.
I was sure she heard me and sensed her getting ready to reply, but I didn’t wait until I heard what she had to say. I didn’t want to hear her argument about how that was an era that was long gone or how the Middle East now masters in producing young terrorists. I didn’t want to answer questions that I was confused on the answers to. Frankly, I didn’t care about the politics of it.
I watched my first Omar Sharif movie long before I knew of Yuri Zhivago or Nicky Arnstein. I was introduced to him as Hussein in the Egyptian film Eshaat Hob (A Love Rumor). I instantly fell in love. I doubt I knew anything about great acting at the age of ten but those expressive eyes were begging me to keep the TV on the Arabic channel that I would’ve usually switched off. After a few minutes my father walked into the room. He looked at me with the biggest smile, so proudly and said, “You know he went international right? He acted with Barbara Streisand and Sophia Loren”. I assumed he was cast in a small role as a Middle Eastern man, a taxi driver or a trouble maker, and didn’t look into it any further. A year later when my 6th grade teacher had trouble pronouncing my name, she asked what my ethnicity was. When I told her that I was Egyptian she exclaimed, “Wow, I had the biggest crush on Omar Sharif when I was growing up!” Throughout the years, I would usually get the same three responses when I would say I was Egyptian: “My dream is to one day visit the pyramids”, and from the “funny” ones I’d get, “so do you guys still ride on camels?”, and the last one, “Oh my, how I loved Omar Sharif”. This guy seemed to be a big deal. I decided even before watching the rest of his films that he was my favorite actor. My reasons were purely selfish. He was my greatest defense towards anyone who ridiculed the culture that I held so dear to my heart even before I cared enough to learn about all the other reasons to be proud of my ethnicity.
I read about Omar Sharif’s death the minute I opened my eyes on Friday. I was checking my Facebook feed and there it was: “Omar Sharif passes away at 83”. I read every article saying the same thing: the star of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago had passed away from a heart attack and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago. I spent the rest of the day exclusively watching Omar Sharif movies and interviews. My heart was heavy with a sadness that confused me. I’ve lived through the death of dozens of amazing legends, Eastern and Western. I wasn’t particularly obsessed with Sharif. I’ve never been a fan girl. I didn’t collect movie posters, I never chased him down at the hotels he was known to stay in. If I had seen him in real life I probably would have been too timid to even ask for a picture or an autograph. It wasn’t obsession for me. He was a symbol. In a strange way he was my savior without knowing of my existence. He saved me in the faintest of ways without ever intending to. Most of all, I respected him. I respected how much he loved his art and how devoted he was to it. I respected his love of Egypt till the very end, his National Geographic film: Tales of Egypt, his participation in campaigns to preserve and protect Egyptian artifacts, his confidence that the place where his roots were would always be great. I respected how he remained unapologetically Arab in a world that misunderstood what that meant, how his elegance and behavior defined a model of what it means to be a true Middle Eastern man.
I expected the Arab world to pause in his honor. When it didn’t, I was devastated, heartbroken, I waited the next few days to see how Middle Eastern media would react. Not much. Nothing more than a ten to fifteen minute ‘Breaking News’ segment in passing and on to the next crisis that was happening in the region. Not too many dedicated episodes on talk shows on the life and work of Omar Sharif. No memorial service where fellow costars would talk about memories of him. The majority of present actors and artists didn’t even attend the funeral. The Arab world did not pause.
Maybe my expectations were out of touch with reality, I thought. We were in the middle of Ramadan and the majority of the nation was fasting. We did just experience the second bombing during Ramadan a day after his death. We were dealing with ISIS on a daily basis. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help but remember those woman’s words in the coffee shop. I couldn’t help but think, despite my common sense saying otherwise, maybe she was right. Maybe we were a collection of ancient histories, a greatness that has withered away a long time ago, making appearances from time to time; those appearances becoming more infrequent as we shift our attention to other things. Maybe there is no room for arts, culture, and innovation with a media that insists on only covering and producing two things: a region that is torn by Islamist extremists and a region that is trying so desperately to imitate a Western world that it fails to even understand.
I’m not writing this to point fingers or to blame a nation that failed to honor one of its greats at a time that every other nation seemed to be doing a better job at it. I’m writing this as a vow to myself to honor Sharif’s legacy, one that I have a feeling he created subconsciously and simply by being the truest version of himself: an intellectual gentleman and a creative artist. I vow to devote myself to being a model example of what it means to be an Arab woman. I’m writing this as a plea to my beloved Egypt to go back to a time when creativity mattered, where people who valued their histories weren’t just romantics, written off as “unrealistic” in the midst of a region that had more “important” things to deal with.