Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter
This isn't one of those “how I met Omar sharif” stories, although I did, in effect, meet him. It's about the Egypt that Omar Sharif represented, the cosmopolitan, open, tolerant society it always was until suddenly, it wasn't. It's the Egypt portrayed in The Jewish Quarter, an Egyptian television miniseries set in 1948. But that is not the only connection. Omar Sharif’s real name was Michel Chalhoub.
But to backtrack for a second: every year during Ramadan, when postprandial spectators are a captive audience in front of the television set, there is one breakout miniseries that reflects the zeitgeist of the the year. This year it is The Jewish Quarter, which has the audacity to Egyptian Jews fully integrated in 1948 Egyptian society, living side by side in close quarters with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in a modest neighborhood of cloth merchants, dairymen, pickle sellers and café owners called The Jewish Quarter.
Ali, a Muslim military officer, and Leila, a Jewish saleswoman in the upscale Jewish department store Cicurel, are neighbors and childhood sweethearts. The religious difference might pose a problem- particularly for the girl’s mother, who would object even to a Jew of a different sect-but ultimately it should not be an insurmountable obstacle. Until, that is, the 1948 war with Israel begins, and the community is set asunder, dividing families and pitting neighbor against neighbor.
In spite of some inaccuracies and anachronisms, the series clearly makes an effort to show Jews going about their business, their prayers at the synagogue, their kosher butcher, with mutual respect and understanding from their neighbors. All of the characters, Muslim, Coptic or Jewish, are shown as complex, capable of both tolerance and prejudice, patriotism or misplaced loyalties. The line is drawn rather sharply between Egyptian Jews and Israelis. The single all-out villain in the drama is a Muslim.
So what does this miniseries indicate for the political zeitgeist in Egypt? For one thing, it glorifies the military, no surprise. But it is also significant as a step in the rehabilitation of the Egyptian Jewish community in the eyes of younger generations of Egyptians brainwashed by Islamist rhetoric.
So what is the connection between The Jewish Quarter and Omar Sharif, aka Michel Demetri Chalhoub? He was born Christian but he converted to Islam when he married Egypt’s sweetheart movie star, Faten Hamama, who was Muslim. In those days, back in the fifties, it didn't matter. Would he have been likely to have lived in The Jewish Quarter? No, because it was a very modest neighborhood, and Omar Sharif, like middle class or wealthy people of any religion, lived in upscale Garden City or Zamalek or wherever they could afford; there was no such thing as a ghetto. The connection is the era evoked by Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter, a truly cosmopolitan, tolerant, modernizing Egypt that once was and might be again.
Oh, and where did I meet Omar Sharif? At a family wedding, where the bride’s father was a schoolmate at Victoria College, and then, twenty years later, at the Cairo Opera, where he was charming and tactful enough to pretend to recognize me. May he rest in peace, but not so the Egypt he knew and loved.