The year was 1954. A young Michel Chalhoub, better known as Omar Sharif, made his debut in the movie “The Blazing Sun” (“Sira’a Fil-Wadi” or “Struggle in the Valley” in Arabic) opposite the widely popular Faten Hamama. The film tells the story of a wealthy landlord who purposely sabotages the crops of a village to prevent its inhabitants from making any profit. Unbeknownst to the landlord, his daughter, played by Hamama, falls for a dashing man from the village, played by Sharif. Their characters were not the only ones to fall in love.
With only a few days left of filming, Sharif grew anxious because he did not know if he was going to see Hamama again after the movie wrapped. He wanted to confess his love for her, but was afraid she was going to reject him. Despite his reluctance, Sharif gathered all the courage he could muster, walked over to Hamama, and whispered: “Madame Faten, I love you. Will you accept my heart? Do you love me?”
Hamama silently shook her head. Sharif lovingly took her hand and asked her again: “Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you,” Hamama replied as her eyes began to fill with tears. Sharif followed his confession with a heartfelt request: “Will you marry me?” Hamama agreed. Thus began the iconic love story that unfolded both on- and off-screen.
Two Pillars of Egyptian Cinema
Sharif was born to a wealthy family in Alexandria, Egypt, on April 10, 1932. In his youth, he attended Victoria College, an elite school in Alexandria whose alumni include Edward Said and King Hussein of Jordan. At Victoria College, Sharif met Youssef Chahine, who later became a renowned film director and was credited with launching Sharif’s career by casting him as the male lead in “The Blazing Sun.”
Hamama was born into a lower middle-class family in Mansoura, Egypt, on May 27, 1931. As a young child, her father, a civil servant in the Ministry of Education and a frustrated actor, entered her in a beauty contest that she won. Soon thereafter, he submitted his daughter’s photo to a movie producer who cast her in his debut film, “Youm Saeed” (“A Happy Day” in Arabic), opposite legendary singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab in 1939.
The young starlet’s combination of “innocent looks and seductive charm,” quickly made her popular and earned her the title of “Egypt’s Shirley Temple.” In 1947, Hamama married film director Ezzel Dine Zulficar, with whom she had a daughter. The course of Hamama’s life would completely change when she was cast as the female lead in “The Blazing Sun” opposite the then unknown actor Michel Chalhoub less than a decade later.
Before that movie, Hamama had categorically refused to appear in any scenes that required her to kiss a co-star, participate in bedroom scenes, wear revealing clothes or don a bathing suit. In Chahine’s 1954 movie, there was a scene where Sharif is shot in the chest and falls to the ground bleeding. In the original script, Hamama was only supposed to hug Sharif. However, she surprised everyone, including Chahine, when she leaned over and gave the handsome leading man a passionate kiss.
That kiss, Hamama’s first ever on-screen, paved the way for a fairy-tale love story that eventually led Hamama to divorce her first husband. Sharif, who had been raised Roman Catholic, converted to Islam and changed his name from Michel Chalhoub to Omar Sharif in order to marry Hamama. They married in 1955, and their union sparked “a new iconic era in Egyptian cinema, as they came to represent the industry’s dream couple for 20 years,” according to Mirna Abdulaal.
Egypt’s power couple appeared in a number of films together including “River of Love,” an Egyptian production based on Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” In March 1957, Sharif and Hamama welcomed their first and only child, Tarek Sharif.
The “Lady of the Arabic Screen” and Hollywood’s Charismatic Leading Man
Sharif was propelled to international stardom when British film director David Lean cast him opposite Peter O’Toole in the 1962 historical epic and box office hit, “Lawrence of Arabia.” Sharif’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as well as a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and Best New Star of the Year.
In the years that followed, the Egyptian actor went on to star in several hit movies including “Doctor Zhivago” in 1965 (a role that won him yet another Golden Globe for Best Actor) and “Funny Girl” with Barbara Streisand in 1968. However, Sharif’s international fame came at a price. As his international success grew, Sharif asked Hamama to move abroad with him, but she refused and stayed in Egypt. In 1974, Sharif and Hamama divorced.
Sharif attributed the divorce to his frequent trips abroad and his Hollywood career. “It separated me from my wife, from my family. We didn’t see each other anymore and that was it, the end of our family.” Sharif once said, “I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian star.” Despite being perceived as an eligible bachelor and a sex symbol, Sharif never remarried. Hamama, on the other hand, later married an Egyptian doctor, Mohamed Abdel Wahab Mahmoud, and continued to act in Egypt.
Hamama died on January 17, 2015, at the age of 83 after being hospitalized for a “sudden health problem that led to her death.” That same year, in May, Sharif was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He died of a heart attack, a few months later, in a Cairo psychiatric hospital on July 10, also at the age of 83.
During their prolific careers, Sharif and Hamama starred in 120 and 100 movies, respectively. Even though they are no longer with us, their rich cinematic legacy continues to make audiences laugh and cry, and also inspires a new generation of young artists all over the world.