Brow Beat

Omar Sharif Was a Hero to Many in the Middle East—Even Where Lawrence of Arabia Was Banned

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago.
Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago.

© 1965 - Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

For years, Lawrence of Arabia was banned in Turkey, because authorities deemed the film to be anti-Turkish. As with Midnight Express, many of the people associated with the film were regarded unofficially as enemies of the country. But never Omar Sharif. People felt an affinity for him here, one that could not simply be explained by his name and surname, both of which are fairly common in Turkey. Nor was it simply because he was an Arab. Instead, there was something more immediate in the way he was revered in Turkey, and in the greater Middle East. For many in this part of the world, Sharif represented someone familiar, someone they could relate to, who had made it in Hollywood.

I received the news of Sharif’s passing on the way to my parents’ summer house on Turkey’s Aegean coast, and the first thing that came to my mind was: “My mom’s going to be devastated.” During Sharif’s heyday in Hollywood in the 1960s, Western culture arrived here in increments. There was no television in those days, obviously, and films came to Turkey years after their debut in the United States. People, like my mother and grandmother, would appreciate the glamor of Hollywood in weekly Turkish magazines like Hayat (literally Life in Turkish), and for many of them, seeing someone who looked like their dashing uncle or dark and handsome next-door neighbor schmoozing with Hollywood royalty was not just inspirational—but also a source of pride.

It goes without saying that the Middle East has always been a mess. It was a different sort of catastrophe in the Ottoman times, a whole other one in the period between the two world wars, and then all the chaos in the region reached its apotheosis after World War II. Wars, coups, assassinations. The whole place was just a rancid example of everything wrong with the post-colonial order. And amid all of this, there was Omar Sharif. He was huge in Egypt, sure, but international stardom came with his legendary part in Lawrence of Arabia. And from then on, he became something else. It wasn’t just that all the girls wanted to be with him, and all the boys wanted to be him. To young people in the Middle East, Omar Sharif was an icon, an ideal: He was the promise of a better world. Just as the Animals defiantly sang “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and it connected with fellow Northerners who couldn’t wait to get out of the North of England, the very existence of Omar Sharif had a similar effect on the disaffected youth of the Middle East.

And there was a more classically romantic side to Sharif’s appeal, too: My mother used to tell me that, when Dr. Zhivago eventually opened in Turkey a few years after its original release, every single girl aged 15 to 20 fell in love with his eyes, which always looked tearful even though they never shed a single tear. The girls fell in love with the way Yuri Zhivago fell in love.

He worked occasionally in Turkey and visited the country fairly often in his later years, and he was always warmly welcomed. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep includes a scene where the hotelier antihero brags about talking to Omar Sharif that “one time he was filming in Cappadocia.” Over decades and hundreds of performances, despite the fact that Turkish cinema found a certain amount of success in the West, Omar Sharif was always regarded as the greatest star from our part of the world to break into the West.

When I arrived at my parents’ house, my mum had already found out about Sharif’s death. She was playing “Lara’s Theme.”