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The Omar Sharif I met

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Omar Sharif

by Rajeewa Jayaweera

I read with sadness the passing away of film icon and legend Omar Sharif last Friday. I had already read some months ago an announcement made by his son Tarek that his father had had Alzheimer’s Disease. He shot to stardom for his supporting role in ‘Lawrance of Arabia’ and lead role in ‘Dr Zhivago’.

My encounter with him sometime in 2004 was purely accidental and occurred during my assignment as Manager for Sri Lankan Airlines based in Paris. Having used the hotel Le Royal Monceau (now a Raffles hotel in Avenue Hoche in Paris, a few meters from the Champs-Elysées and Arc de Triomphe for a delegation visiting France for air talks, I had got into the habit of spending a few hours on a Sunday afternoon occasionally in the hotel lobby enjoying a glass of wine and watching the world go by, sometimes with my Polish-Sri Lankan partner and sometimes by myself. I had always wondered of the reason for a life size portrait of Omar Sharif hanging in the hotel lobby.

One Sunday afternoon, I spotted Omar Sharif seated a few places from my own seat and decided to engage him in conversation. I walked up to him, excused myself, and said, ‘I believe you are Omar Sharif.’ He immediately responded, saying, ‘What if I am?’ Considering his fame, it then occurred to me that he must be regularly pestered by his fans, and I wondered if I had made a mistake.

Nevertheless, I introduced myself and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your film ‘Dr. Zhivago’. He still seemed apprehensive, perhaps thinking I was an Asian trying to bum a drink off him, and asked, ‘What is the theme song of ‘Dr. Zhivago’. I replied, ‘Lara’s Theme is more commonly known as Somewhere My Love and the original instrument used was the Russian Balalaika’. He then broke into his famous boyish grin and invited me to sit down and share a bottle of wine with him. After informing him twice I did not wish to intrude on his privacy and being assured I would not, I accepted his invitation.

He started off by inquiring about my country of origin. He was not well informed on Sri Lanka but showed a keen interest when I briefly narrated Sri Lanka’s history. We stuck common ground the moment I touched on our colonial era, which then developed into an animated discussion on politics. I had always read with interest of Egypt, first under Gamal Abdel Nasser and then under Anwar Sadat. Omar Sharif spoke for a long time about the movement led by Nasser to rid Egypt of colonial rule and, subsequently, the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

It opened the avenue for me to direct the conversation to two more of his films, which I had also immensely enjoyed, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘The Night of the Generals’, in both of which Omar Sharif played important roles. I told him of the time I had spent in Moscow and asked him how they reproduced scenes of the drab and wintry USSR in their screen sets during the filming of ‘Dr. Zhivago’ in Spain. He grinned and told me, ‘Young man, nowadays they can reproduce Alaska in the middle of the Sahara!’. His last film ‘Monsieur Ibrahim’ had been released a few months previously, which I had seen. He won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival and Best Actor César, the French equivalent to the Oscar. He said it would be his last.

I found him to be warm and friendly, with a keen sense of humour. There was never a dull moment during the few hours we spent talking. More importantly, despite his prominence, I never felt uncomfortable. He was treated similarly to royalty by the hotel. The deference shown by hotel staff astonished me as it was not something one often saw in France. He told me that he stayed at the hotel whenever he visited Paris, and his visits sometimes lasted a couple of months. I was pleasantly surprised by the manner in which our glasses were replenished the moment they were empty, something rarely seen in unionized France. After advising me to quit smoking, Omar Sharif narrated he had been a five-pack-a-day smoker and had given up in 1992 after a heart bypass operation. He seemed genuinely disappointed when I told him I did not know how to play Bridge, one of his favourite pastimes.

We exchanged business cards before parting and agreed to meet again. However, that did not happen until I left France at the end of my assignment in mid-2005.

The three hours we spent talking about movies and politics and savouring three bottles of fine French red wine, Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru were some of the most enjoyable hours I spent during my stay in France.

We are publishing an article written by the late Rajeewa Jayaweera, who passed four years ago. The article was originally published in Sunday Island on July 12, 2015.

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