The death of actor Omar Sharif by a heart attack today in Egypt at the age of 83 brought back a happy memory to me in a roundabout way. Sharif was born into a Greek Catholic family in Egypt but he converted to Islam in 1955 when he married his wife.
Sharif’s film career had begun in Egypt by that time and, despite his conversion to Islam, had it been possible, I would have cast him in the role of Ari Ben Canaan, the Israeli freedom fighter in Leon Uris’s epic novel of Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Exodus (1958). “Dream on,” you say, and I’d be wise to take your advice; nevertheless, it was an image of Sharif and his smouldering eyes and good looks I had in my head as I read Exodus in my teen years. Ben Canaan’s brute masculinity completely overwhelms the American nurse Kitty Fremont in the book, a quality that the blond, blue-eyed Paul Newman simply could not capture in the Otto Preminger movie of two years later, save in his expression of Ben Canaan’s enduring anger against the enemies of Israel.
Sharif didn’t make his American film debut until his character rode up out of the desert in that memorable scene from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but, as we saw three years later in Dr. Zhivago, he was capable of giving a fully-rounded, emotional performance. The tenderness Dr. Zhivago shows toward Laura (Julie Christie) is the kind of stunning tenderness and empathy we see in Ben Canaan at last, an empathy that gives the ending of Uris’s novel its extraordinary impact–an ending that the Preminger movie did not dare to touch.
It would have been a great challenge for Sharif to play Ari Ben Canaan. It’s always possible that, as a Muslim, he would have been completely out of sympathy with such a character. Yet, if we think of Sharif’s background–his blend of Egyptian, Christian, Muslim, and Palestinian–he would have been uniquely suited to bring that complex character to life.
I recommend Exodus even today as an epic novel in the old style–a compelling blend of romance, history, and action that largely died out in American fiction after the Ken Follett novels of the 1970s. I also recommend Uris’s other big books: his first novel, Battle Cry, about the Marines in World War II, and QB VII [Queen’s Bench Seven], about an honored British doctor who sues a journalist for a highly inflammatory libel. Rousing novels all, and well worth more than a few of the days you might have free this summer.