“I was filming ‘Funny Girl’ with Barbra Streisand in 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out, and the Arab press called me a traitor for kissing a Jewish woman,” reminisced actor Omar Sharif.
“When I told Barbra about it,” Sharif added, “She said, ‘You should see the letter my aunt wrote about kissing an Arab man.'”
Sharif is promoting “Monsieur Ibrahim,” the latest of his more than 70 movies and a love story of a different kind — between an elderly Muslim and an abandoned Jewish boy.
Sharif’s title character is the owner of a small food market on a seedy Paris street, where Orthodox Jews do their best to ignore the parade of prostitutes and their customers.
In a small apartment above the street lives 16-year old Moise, nicknamed “Momo.” Abandoned by his mother, Momo lives with his morose father, cooking his meals and driving him crazy with ear-splitting rock music on a transistor radio.
Momo also does the shopping for the truncated family at Ibrahim’s market and rationalizes his petty thievery there because he believes it’s all right to steal from an Arab.
Ibrahim is actually not an Arab, but a Turkish Muslim who imparts philosophical musings from his personalized interpretation of the Koran to the boy.
Momo is Jewish, but he links the faith of his ancestors mainly to his father’s depression.
When the father walks out on the boy to find a job, Momo’s only friend — outside of the hookers whom he has started to patronize — is Ibrahim.
Despite moving performances by Sharif and by Pierre Boulanger as Momo, and director Francois Dupeyron’s description of the picture as “a hymn to tolerance, a cry for hope,” the French film suffers from excessive sentimentality.
Jewish viewers may also feel uneasy by the contrast between Ibrahim’s strong Muslim faith and the way Momo views his Judaism as meaningless.
Sharif seemed taken aback by the last observation. “The only objections I heard from French Jews was that no Jewish mother would ever abandon her child,” he said.
At 71, Sharif is grayer and more pensive than when he broke women’s hearts from Cairo to Los Angeles, but he is still a handsome and well-built presence.
Already a star in his native Egypt, he came to Hollywood in 1962, and during the following six years won international fame in three movies: He played an Arab desert warrior in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the title role of “Dr. Zhivago” and a Jewish gambler in “Funny Girl.”
Since then, he’s mainly been involved in films considered second-rate.
Born Catholic but later converting to Islam, Sharif is widely read and has followed the Arab-Israeli conflict with great interest and sorrow.
He still considers Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 peace mission to Israel as “the greatest moment in television history, greater than man stepping on the moon.”
In Cairo in the late 1970s, Sharif met then-Gen. Ariel Sharon, who urged the actor to visit his many fans in Israel, but Sharif said he does not plan to take up the invitation until there is “a glimmer of peace.”
His views on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement parallel those of such dovish Israelis as Yossi Beilin, but Sharif holds out little hope for peace soon.
He expects that his new film’s message will resonate in Israel, where local distributors purchased the film for the highest price they ever paid for a French import.
If viewers take anything away from the movie, he hopes it will be the lesson that “We can live together and can love each other.”
“Monsieur Ibrahim” will open Dec. 5 in New York and Los Angeles and open subsequently in other major cities.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.