A Tale of Two Omars – Omar Sharif, Jr. (Counterpoint Press)

Omar Sharif, Jr. grew up under the shadow of his world-renowned grandfather, an acting legend and a hero in his home country of Egypt and beyond. The fact the younger Omar is gay will likely be sufficient to pique interest in his memoir from LGBTQ+ readers, and being in the closet, living a double life, and coming out are indeed major themes. More than that, Sharif has a heart-rending and at times surprising story to tell about how he became a global spokesperson for tolerance and intercultural understanding.

Sharif begins his memoir with his 2012 letter in the Advocate, through which he came out as both gay and half-Jewish and urged a reckoning in Egypt on the unfulfilled democratic goals of the 2011 revolution. Sharif considers himself a proud Egyptian, and he spent a good portion of his childhood there after his parents’ divorce. Sharif’s memoir includes his political observations and his hopes for Egypt and the greater Muslim world. But his approach is personal, sharing his own stories about how homophobia, racial prejudice, and religious condemnation challenged his ability to live an authentic life and ultimately shaped his humanistic convictions.

Sharif’s childhood was one of change and contrasts. His parents divorced soon after he was born, and he spent the school year in Montréal with a close-knit family that included his Jewish mother, his aunt, and their parents who were Holocaust survivors. A gentle, pretty boy, he was the target of anti-gay name-calling and bullying at school, while at home, he experienced vicarious trauma as he witnessed the lasting impact of the Holocaust on his grandparents Bubbie and Zadie. Then each summer, he took unchaperoned transatlantic flights to stay at his grandfather’s luxury properties in Egypt and Europe. In Montréal, his life was complicated, tough and introspective. In Egypt, it was carefree and indulgent, and since Omar Sharif, Sr. was a star, no one would dare make fun of his grandson.

Fame and fortune did not protect Sharif from life’s worst discontents, however, and his story demonstrates how homophobia is the ultimate equalizer. Childhood peers taught him to hate his gayness, and he knew intuitively his mother and father would disapprove of him (and they did for years after he came out). He contemplated suicide. In his teens, his only outlet was furtive and sometimes dangerous sexual encounters with older men. Though gifted with good looks and an easy sociability, he struggled to find romantic companionship in his young adulthood and suffered from depression. Later, he stumbled upon an opportunity to work for a wealthy and powerful Sheik, which turned out to be a nightmarish psychological and sexual imprisonment from which he could seek no aid from family members for fear of their stern judgment of his sexuality. These are harrowing tales of gay survival that need to be told, and they are no less courageous coming from a young man of privilege, a circumstance that Sharif acknowledges.

Furthermore, one appreciates the high stakes for Sharif in telling his story. After coming out in the Advocate, he received death threats, and for the sake of his personal safety, he could not attend his grandfather’s funeral in Egypt three years later. In Egypt, homosexuality is criminalized and reviled. His countrymen campaigned to revoke his citizenship. Interestingly, in the 1960s, his grandfather was also a target of expulsion from the country due to his Catholic Lebanese heritage and his affair with Barbara Streisand (the elder Sharif converted to Islam when he married the Egyptian actress Faten Hamama).

Sharif credits his grandfather with instilling him with the values of tolerance and inclusion as well as a love of languages and being the life of the party. There’s some complexity in his characterization of Omar Sr. however, as he does not shy away from mentioning his grandfather’s infidelities nor his mental decline late in life. Sharif’s reflections on his grandfather’s dementia are some of the most affecting passages in his memoir.

His purposes get muddled a bit as he jumps around to adventures in fashionable districts of London and his arrival in Hollywood, which come across as name-dropping moments to authenticate the author’s insider status. But overall, Sharif’s memoir succeeds where it needs to the most. By the end of the book, one feels like they know him. As a reader who knew next to nothing about the younger Omar, I can say he’s gained a fan.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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