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Doctor Zhivago says Egypt improving on religious tolerance
Published in Bikya Masr on 02 - 02 - 2010

CAIRO: Legendary Egyptian actor Omar Sharif believes that Egypt has made huge steps towards religious tolerance in recent years and that his home country is doing “well” because there is “no huge resentment between people of different religion.”
The 77-year-old was speaking before a capacity audience of nearly 700 at St John’s Church in Maadi during its second annual Caravan Festival of the Arts on Monday night, whose theme this year is ‘Harmony – East & West’ – focusing on building bridges between Muslims and Christians through literature, art, music and film.
Sharif was on hand to introduce his role in the controversial interfaith film, ‘Hassan and Morqos’, which was considered to be blasphemous by conservatives and religious fundamentalists when it went on general release in Egypt in 2008.
He praised the Egyptian government for being “civilized” whilst striving to bring harmony between the various religious sects by establishing diplomatic relationships with Israel, and he also congratulated Egyptians for being “friendly with the Jews.”
Despite his advancing years, the three-time Golden Globe winner remains an ardent and active supporter of interfaith dialogue and friendships.
“When I was a child, I went to English school in Cairo, and I swear that we never knew who was Jewish, Muslim or Christian. We didn’t care – even if their names were a little strange sometimes,” said Sharif.
The star of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ also admitted to being something of a fantasist on interfaith matters by stating that, “we should always love each other … yes, it sounds stupid but I have a feeling that people hate each other, and I try now in my old age to fight this (hatred). We should love each other.”
Sharif also admitted to being the target of numerous attacks by the media, religious authorities and even a fatwa from Osama bin Laden during a long career in which he has played Muslim, Christian and Jewish roles.
“I played Saint Peter once (in the Italian production of ‘San Pietro’ in 2005), and when I asked the Vatican why they chose me for the lead even though I’m an Arab, they said it’s because I look like St. Peter,” he related.
“I played him all the way up to his crucifixion, and one of the lines I had to say was “Jesus is the son of God”, which bin Laden considered to be blasphemous – and he told me so on his own blog! Yes, Osama has a blog – it’s not just CNN that has a blog. So I wrote back to him on his blog,” the actor added.
Sharif also came in for some heavy criticism from both the Arab and American Jewish press for the film ‘Funny Girl’ in which he played a New Yorker, alongside Barbra Streisand.
The shooting of the film coincided with the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and an Arab actor romancing a Jewish actress on the big screen was a step too far for some in the press.
And Sharif’s response to his critics: “It was only a musical and nothing more.”
Later, when asked by Time and Life magazines what he made of these vitriolic attacks, Sharif cheekily answered “I never ask a girl her religion or her nationality before I kiss her.”
Sharif closed his 20-minute speech by reiterating his belief that Western-style democracy does not work in the Middle East.
“Arabs are tribal people – so democracy won’t work in Iraq or Iran. We Egyptians are not tribal people, so we are different,” he said.
Sharif was the second of three marquee guests during this five-day Festival of the Arts – the brainchild of Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler, rector of St John’s since 2003 and a keen activist on interfaith friendships, which he says is far more difficult to achieve than interfaith dialogue.
The Anglo-Afghan and New York Times best-selling author Tahir Shah opened the event last Saturday by giving a speech before a crowd of 150 people at the church on Port Said Street, whilst renowned Iraqi oud master Naseer Shamma will close the festival tomorrow night. In all over 1500 people have already attended the festival by the third day.
Naturally, Rev. Chandler is very pleased with how the event has progressed within just 18 months,
“1400 people attended our event last year when we only had the art exhibition. This year, we’ve added film, music and literature to the program and managed to secure both Tahir Shah and Omar Sharif so we are very pleased.
“We’ve had more visitors during the day, too, including 50 street kids on Monday whose visit was organized by an NGO which uses art as a therapy.
“I was also surprised by how many Egyptian Muslims turned up tonight for ‘Hassan and Morqos’ because many of them never saw the film in cinema. And this is what our event is all about – to create an environment for people of different faiths to get together and perhaps be friends.”
Indeed, the art exhibition features works by 46 artists – half from the Middle East and half from the west, as far away as Norway, Australia and the USA – and many of them have established interfaith friendships through this experience.
The curator of the event, the British artist Roland Prime – a local resident who has lived in Cairo since 2004 – is not only pleased by the number of entries, but also the quality of the art being exhibited – all of which have been commissioned especially for the event.
On display are works by the renowned Egyptian ceramicist Mohamed Mandour, his protégé Sahah Naim, as well as Britt Boutros Ghali – sister-in-law of former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali – and her daughter Katrina Vrebalovich – both representing Norway.
Prime has also produced two pieces of work for the exhibition, and added that this was a real challenge for all the participants concerned because artists do not generally like thematic exhibitions (in this case, the concept of ‘harmony’), and the restriction in size for their final pieces also posed a challenge.
But with over 40 percent of the work already sold by the halfway stage – with 10 percent from all sales going to the Spirit of Giving which supports charities working among both Muslims and Christians within Egypt, the organizers are already looking forward to next year, which they hope to attract more sponsors and visitors from further afield.
“Maadi is very much devoid of anything of cultural significance,” says Prime, “and by making our church the centre of attention for a calendar month which is fairly empty can only be good news not just for the Cairo art scene and the local artists, but also for Maadi as a whole.”

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