And Omar Sharif Jr. has faced his fair share. The grandson of late actor Omar Sharif (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”), and Egyptian Canadian actor and model, details his meandering and melancholy – but ultimately meaningful – journey in new memoir “A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring” (Counterpoint, 209 pp., ★★½ out of four).
Sharif’s memoir grips you for sure – sending you on international adventures and even to the Oscars stage – and could indeed help someone grappling with their sexuality. But despite shared growing pains, most won’t relate to his specific privileges. The book also loses its way in its attempts to capture the weight of who his prolific grandfather was.
Sharif Jr. is perhaps best known for coming out in a personal essay for LGBTQ outlet “The Advocate” in 2012, about a year after the Arab Spring began. Writing the letter “took time, thought and reflection,” he writes. “Nearly three months went by before I published it, and still I really struggled.”
“I write this article because I am not unique in Egypt and because many will suffer if a basic respect for fundamental human rights and equality is not embraced by Egypt’s new government,” the letter reads.
The letter was met with ridicule internationally – especially in Egypt and from his own father, who told him he basically gave up everything by coming out and disclosing he was Jewish. Despite the vitriol, he received an outpouring of support from LGBTQ people who finally felt seen.
Nonetheless, court cases were filed aiming to revoke his Egyptian citizenship and ban him from the country – another way he and his grandfather are alike. The late Sharif, who died in 2015, was almost banned following his affair with “Funny Girl” co-star Barbra Streisand during the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel.
The organization Human Rights Watch says LGBT people were still being detained in inhumane conditions and tortured in Egypt as of October 2020.
But the book, as the title suggests, tries to tell the tale of two Omars. Some of its most heartbreaking moments feature the elder Sharif in Alzheimer’s-induced confused states, treating the grandson he loves horribly. He once eviscerated him at a dinner in front of complete strangers: “You want to be something, but you are never going to be anything like I was because you will always be a failure!”
The heartbreak doesn’t stop there. We learn about his mother’s breast cancer, death of his baby sister and the history of his Holocaust survivor grandparents, as well as his many traumatic experiences with gay men – including a closeted man who once implied he would shoot Sharif if he outed him.
He also details his mother’s poor initial reaction to his coming out: “Don’t tell your father! Don’t tell anyone! God help if your father or the rest of Egypt finds out. You’ve always caused me stress. That’s probably how I got this–” she said, referencing her cancer (they ultimately reconciled).
The most devastating portions surface when Sharif reveals a wealthy sheikh in the Gulf Cooperation Council – the economic union of countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and more – for whom he was working at the time, raped him.
“I don’t remember being able to speak. I couldn’t say no, so I shouldn’t have been able to say yes, either,” Sharif writes. “I felt trapped in a body I couldn’t control.”
These horrifying moments don’t pepper the whole text. See one incident where he finds himself stuck climbing out of a hookup’s house in college, trying to avoid running into said hookup’s housemates; they had to call the fire department to get him out. He also talks being the Oscars‘ first trophy man in 2011 (typically, just women held the trophies) and chatting with then-best supporting actress nominee Melissa Leo in his dressing room. He told her she was going to win the Oscar for “The Fighter,” even though he didn’t know 100%. When she did win, the “Omar” you hear her namedrop in her speech is him.
Sharif also has a bone to pick with activists of today and doesn’t consider himself one anymore. “Many of the actions I see activists taking these days seem to be motivated by polarizing, all-or-nothing confrontations. A sense of pragmatism is on the decline … I believe in engagement and dialogue above all – in finding common ground.”
He posits a strong point, suggesting the world can’t subsist on all-or-nothing ultimatums. But it comes across slightly tone-deaf, in spite of his obvious heroism, given the centuries advocates have spent fighting for equality to receive nothing in return.
We all contain multitudes – but fighting for what’s right shouldn’t include making yourself smaller to fit them all.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org/online and receive confidential support.
The Trevor Project helps LGBTQ+ people struggling with thoughts of suicide at 866-488-7386 or text 678-678.
The LGBT National Help Center National Hotline can be reached at 1-888-843-4564.
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