Cairo airport, February 2011-- We few expats, who had bravely hung on in the city expecting a rapid, happy conclusion to the Arab Spring, were now flying out. The school where we worked had closed a couple of weeks ago and most of the other teachers had immediately fled. When every ATM had stopped dispensing cash and the supermarket shelves had become woefully depleted, we booked seats on one of the few flights still operating out of Cairo, intending to stay at our house in Madrid until it was all over.
My husband and I were having a game of travel Scrabble in the terminal when we were hastily ushered onto the bus out to the plane, along with the thirty or so other passengers. As we stood in the middle of the bus, my husband holding the board in the board in front of him, I suddenly saw we were next to Omar Sharif, who smiled at me with the same dazzling eyes which– if I recalled correctly– had been voted the most beautiful eyes in the world when I was a child. There I was, in the immediate proximity of Dr. Zhivago and Sharif Ali, and I duly went weak at the knees!
My husband, on the other hand, was devising an opener by which he might chat with the filmstar...This I could tell by a look he sometimes gets in his eyes, akin to that of a magpie on the verge of filching something shiny. He must have noticed Omar Sharif was regarding the Scrabble board and casually struck up with, "So, Mr. Sharif, does the game of Scrabble exist in Arabic?" Omar Sharif smiled coyly, showing the famous little gap between his two front teeth and replied,"Yes, it does but it's very difficult." This was an unexpected reply from a man who'd had a long-running, syndicated bridge column. A woman next to him quickly hijacked the conversation with a lengthy, confusing explanation of the nature and frequency of the letter tiles in Arabic Scrabble, such that my husband couldn't get another word in edgeways.
On the plane, Omar Sharif was the only person in first class and was sitting directly in front of me in the first row of economy, which was thrilling. When we were about half-way to Madrid, he got up from his seat and walked down the aisle shaking hands with the Egyptians on the flight, having little chats on the way, as if that were simply the sort of thing you do as Egypt's most famous living citizen. Arriving in Madrid, my husband offered to carry his Louis Vutton hand luggage. I thought, petrified, that at any moment he might try to invite him to lunch at our rather rustic farmhouse. The filmstar was met at the airport by his son who, as an eight-year-old, had played young Yuri in Dr. Zhivago. Only a year or two later, I read that he could no longer remember which films he'd been in.