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Jewish Journal

Sharif Import Takes Boy on Trip to Islam

by Tom Tugend

November 20, 2003 | 7:00 pm

"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," actor Omar Sharif reminisced.

"When I told Barbra about it," Sharif added, "she said, 'You should see the letter my aunt wrote about kissing an Arab man.'"

Sharif was in town to promote "Monsieur Ibrahim," the latest of his more than 70 movies and a different kind of relationship -- 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 (Moses), nicknamed Momo, portrayed by Pierre Boulanger. Abandoned by his mother, Momo lives with his morose father, cooks his meals and drives 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 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 Quran to the boy.

Momo is nominally Jewish, but he links the faith of his ancestors mainly to his father's depression, and little else.

When the father walks out on the boy to find a job, Momo's only friend, outside the hookers whom he has started to patronize, is Ibrahim.

Eventually, Ibrahim adopts Momo and together they embark in a sporty convertible on a long trip to Ibrahim's small village in Turkey. At the end, an older and wiser Momo inherits the little market in Paris, still known to local residents as "the Arab store."

Despite moving performances by Sharif and Boulanger, and director Francois Dupeyron's description of the picture as "a hymn to tolerance, a cry for hope," the French film suffers from an excess of sentimentality and of Ibrahim's pearls of wisdom, uttered even on his deathbed.

Jewish viewers may also feel uneasy by the contrast between Ibrahim's strong Muslim faith, though tolerant and philosophical rather than ritualistic, and the utter meaninglessness of the boy's Judaism.

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 the three movies for which he is best remembered. He played an Arab desert warrior in "Lawrence of Arabia," the title role of "Dr. Zhivago" and a Jewish gambler in "Funny Girl."

In Hollywood, his two main activities were filmmaking and gambling, and in both circles he socialized almost entirely with Jews. The long association has rubbed off, and when asked what his son was doing, Sharif replied matter-of-factly, "He is in the shmatte business."

Born a 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."

Sharif met then-Gen. Ariel Sharon in Cairo in the late '70s, who urged the actor to visit his many fans in Israel, but Sharif 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 its realization.

"I see no hope for peace in my lifetime or my son's lifetime," he said. "Maybe my grandchildren will see it."

He is proud of "Monsieur Ibrahim," following a long string of second-rate movies after retiring to Paris. He thinks that but for the constant Israel-Palestinian headline friction, the Muslim-Jewish relationship would constitute only a minor aspect of the film.

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." He expects that the message will resonate in Israel, where local distributors purchased the film at the highest price they ever paid for a French import.

"Monsieur Ibrahim" opens Dec. 5 at Laemmle's Sunset 5 theaters in West Hollywood.

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