CAIRO — Omar Sharif's entrance onto the international stage stands as one of the grandest — and loneliest — in film.
The West first saw the Arab world's most famous actor when a speck appeared on the desert horizon in the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia."
Slowly Sharif, riding a camel, becomes discernable through the wavy heat thermals. His figure grows larger as he travels across the vast sand plain, and eventually his darkly handsome, glaring face fills the screen.
Just as he blazed a lonely path across the desert, so has Sharif, 76, chosen to lead a traveler's existence — emblematic, perhaps, of his unique position balanced between Arab and Western cultures.
He doesn't own a house. Or an apartment. He doesn't rent or lease the sort of villas typically associated with his kind of stardom.
Instead, he lives in hotels where he stays for a month or two at a time, perhaps shooting a movie or visiting friends.
Then he packs up his bags and moves on.
"I don't enjoy traveling a lot, to tell you the truth," he said. "I would rather have a base, a real base. But not a flat because when you get old and you live alone — I don't have a companion — and therefore to live alone when you're old in a flat or in an apartment, it's not fun."
Even in Cairo, his hometown, Sharif's son cannot offer his father a room this day.
Sharif, whose charm and self-confidence are immediately evident, said he enjoys being a creature of hotels.
"It's safe. You feel safe in a hotel, and it's fun," he said, the deep lines etched around his trademark toothy smile testament to the decades that have passed since he was one of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men. "When you're alone, you go down to the bar, you go down somewhere and have a drink or meet people."
A dedicated soccer fan, Sharif postponed his interview for several hours so that he could watch his beloved Egyptian soccer team, Ahli, beat a Cameroonian team in the Africa Champions League finals.
But his suite gave little evidence of a man who had settled in over a soccer game. No remote control on the sofa or plate of half-eaten snacks. No books or scripts strewn about. No family photos were evident.
A half-finished bottle of Johnny Walker Black sat on the dining room table.
Sharif moved from Cairo to Hollywood in the 1960s. His newfound stardom turned his life on its head, and he is the first to admit the power of Hollywood's endless temptations.
"I arrived the year of women's liberation," he remembered with a smile. "The bras had gone off. And the discotheques started in 1962 exactly. And therefore, I had never seen girls so little dressed in my life … and suddenly I see half-naked women all the time. … I was married, very much in love with my wife. I never loved anyone else, as a matter of fact."
Sharif was married to the Egyptian film star, Faten Hamama, for whom he had converted from Christianity to Islam in 1955. (His parents were Lebanese-Syrian Christians.) When he became an international star, she stayed behind in Cairo. The couple had one son, Tarek, who played Sharif's son, Yuri, in "Dr Zhivago" in 1965. As the years passed and his fame grew, he grew apart from his wife.
"But in fact, I was afraid to be tempted, and I separated from my wife without any disagreement and loving each other just because I didn't want to cheat on her," he said, noting that they divorced amicably 20 years later.
When his star began to dim in the 1970s, Sharif turned to another passion – bridge. He became one of the world's top contract bridge players and wrote an internationally syndicated bridge column.
He soon made the wanderer's life his own, moving from hotel to hotel, spending a significant portion of his year in Paris, a city he says he had grown to love.
He is remarkably self-assured. His career, in the past several years, has enjoyed a renaissance. Yet, his sparse existence strikes a strange note.
He is making fewer films these days, looking for quality scripts. And his ability to act in Arabic, English, French and Italian has afforded him many opportunities.
Sharif has shown a knack for choosing films that touch on the divide between the Arab and Western cultures.
He upset the Arab world when he kissed Barbra Streisand in the 1968 film "Funny Girl." And he has continued to choose controversial topics, such as the 2003 French film, "Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran," in which Sharif's character, a Muslim, befriends a Jewish boy. For that role Sharif won a French Cesar award.
In 2005 he portrayed St. Peter in the Italian television production "San Pietro." According to the Guardian, he was threated with death on a site linked to Al Qaeda after being quoted about his connection with the role in the film.
Most recently, Sharif tackled the issue of religious tensions in Egypt in the Arabic film "Hassan and Marcus," in which a Christian family and a Muslim one unwittingly become friends during a time of sectarian strife. It is the first film of its kind to tackle religion in Egypt head-on.
"When one sees what happens in the world between the religions, the different religions, killing each other and murdering each other, it's disgusting," he said. "I thought I might be useful, not that I believe that films change people's opinions, but I think that if you do things in the way of comedy you get to people more easily than if you do it seriously."
"I'm in a part of my life which is towards the end," he said, while sitting in his hotel suite. "And I'm happy. I want to be happy. I don't want to do things which I do just to please other people. You should concentrate on the moment you are living because you don't know how long you have."