Some days ago I lost my great friend Omar Sharif. The last time I saw him was last week, when I visited him at the hospital in Helwan, Cairo. The doctor told me and his son Tarek that he had not eaten or drunk in a week. He could not recognise us and I had the feeling that it was really the end.
On my way to Cairo I began to think about our friendship and the first time we met in 1977. An American TV company was working in Giza to do a live programme on the pyramids, with Omar as host. I was working in Giza as well at that time and I remember that Omar had a 5cm-high statue of Khufu and one day he asked me “If you believed in reincarnation, who would you like to be reincarnated as?” I told him that it was difficult for me to answer this question, but, in the end, I told him that if I believed in reincarnation, I would love to go back in time and be Khufu in my next life. Despite having to move the location to the UK for the second part of the show due to filming rights issues, the live documentary turned out to be a huge success: it was the first live broadcast ever from the pyramids and, most of all, Omar’s charisma really made the difference in captivating the audience.
We became friends after that episode and he used to tell me all his life stories. He lived in Hollywood for seven months and one of his best films was with Barbra Streisand. Funny Girl was indeed a great film; when we were alone, Omar would sing me the song he sang with Barbra in one of the scenes. He loved her. Some stupid people began to attack him because of his relationship with her, but he would tell me “When I kiss a girl, I certainly don’t ask about her religion!” Omar believed in God and did not see any difference between a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. I believe that everyone who takes religion as an excuse to attack someone has a sick mind.
I travelled with Omar to many countries. In 2005, we went together to Los Angeles for the opening of the King Tut exhibit at the LA County Museum. It was during that trip that a famous accident took place when we went for dinner with friends to a restaurant. When we were leaving the place, Omar gave a €20 note to the restaurant valet, who, annoyed, threw it to the ground. Omar got very angry and tried to hit the valet, but I was able to stop him before this happened. He never touched him, but, when the man found out who he was, he took him to court and lied that he was hit. Omar never asked for support despite the fact that we were five people that evening and could have revealed the truth. He decided that he would solve the problem on his own and paid a ridiculous amount of money to his lawyer. Despite this, he lost the case.
He was a happy man, with a beautiful smile, honest, never lied to anyone. He was married for almost twenty years to the great Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, who died six months before him. When he was chosen by David Lynn for Lawrence of Arabia and moved to Hollywood, Faten refused to leave Egypt and follow him. After this refusal, he told her “I will be living alone…I am afraid I might betray you.” So they divorced, but Faten remained the only real love in his life.
We were once invited by the President of the Dominican Republic to visit the country and Omar’s son Tarek, who was 54 years old at the time, came with us. The president conferred an award to Omar in a film festival and the next day at 8 PM he came to see us. We thought that he would have dinner with us but, instead, when he arrived he said that we would watch Doctor Zhivago together. Omar and I were very upset as we had not eaten all day and thought we would skip dinner—the film is 4 hours long! But, obviously, we could not say anything, so we sat down. The film began with the scene of the funeral of Zhivago’s mother and with the 8-year-old Zhivago walking with flowers in his hands. Fifteen minutes later came the moment when the child Zhivago throws the flowers on his mother’s coffin. At that point, the president stood up, asked to turn the lights on and said: “This young Zhivago is Tarek when he was 8 years old. Look at him now how he’s grown up!” We then started laughing and gladly went all to have dinner.
I believe that Omar was really an exceptional actor: he spoke five languages fluently, he was one of the most handsome men on earth and his eyes had some kind of magic that made all women fall in love with him. When he moved from Paris to Cairo last year, Tarek told me that he was suffering of Alzheimer. He was staying in a hotel, and I used to visit him every day when I was in Cairo. It seemed like he came back to say goodbye to everyone, we visited friends at their homes and attended dinners together all the time. Unfortunately, I was often travelling and his son Tarek, who is a business man, was also often abroad for work. It happened sometimes that Omar would be alone at the hotel for a few days: once, I was in Manila and he called me to say that Tarek was not in Cairo and asked if I could go to see him. I had tears in my eyes.
He had moved to Hurghada recently and Tarek did as much as he could to make him feel comfortable; he was happy there. However, one day he had some stomach problems and Tarek took him to a hospital in Cairo. When he was feeling better, Tarek and I thought that we should have dinner together the three of us, outside of the hospital. He went to pick him up but he did not want to leave the place.
When they told me that he had died, I could not believe it…Omar is dead. The funeral was held at a mosque outside of Cairo. This is why few people came, and most of them were from the press. We wanted Omar to travel in peace to the other world.
When my father died I could not visit his grave. Omar used to laugh at me and say “How can someone who excavates tombs for a living and examines mummies be afraid of visiting his own father’s grave?!” Don’t worry Omar, I will come to visit you. I must say goodbye, my friend.
Omar was a great man: honest, sincere, and a very kind person. God gave him many talents and he was able to make the best of them and become a superstar. He died and is now buried in his country, that he loved with all his heart.
You will be sorely missed, my dear friend.