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Omar Sharif Jr shatters stereotypes




Sharif Jr visited South Africa last month to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum, which took place in Johannesburg on March 26. The forum is an annual gathering where human rights activists share their stories and promote social justice around the world. Speaking as a gay activist, human rights ambassador and actor, Sharif Jr’s message was one of hope.

“The situation has regressed for the gay community in Egypt,” he told SA Jewish Report after his talk. “There’s a particularly brutal crackdown right now, so it’s important for me to speak about it.

“But more importantly, the message I wanted to share with everyone is how important our personal stories are. Anyone who has a story to share can create change and open a mind or a heart. I’m lucky that I have an exponential impact because the media will often tell my story.

“But if every person shared their story with at least five people, the world would be a very different place. We’d all gain a better understanding of the numerous issues we face. Headlines and revolutions won’t do it – there’s nothing more powerful than looking people in the eye and hearing their stories.”

Indeed, it was the need to share his personal story and an ingrained belief in the importance of fighting against injustice that led Sharif Jr to publicly come out of the closet a few years ago. An actor and model known as “Egypt’s favourite son”, his revelation – both about his homosexuality and about his partially Jewish heritage – created shockwaves across the Arab world.

“I didn’t know what the ramifications would be. It was a time of political turmoil in the country and I assumed it would be a footnote in history when I came out, compared to the significant problems that were happening every day,” he said.

“I did it not to speak about gay rights, but to speak out –because the Muslim Brotherhood had just won 70% of the vote. What would happen to women or to religious minorities if they stayed in power? I used myself as a litmus test and spoke out in a way that I knew how to.”

Sharif Jr was floored by the fallout. A media frenzy, death threats and hate speech became part of his daily life. “The problem is that when there are such severe problems in a country, people look for a distraction,” he said. “So the gossip that I provided became fodder – it was a headline story almost for a week on the nightly news.”

The backlash ultimately meant he no longer had a home in Egypt. “It was very difficult. You grow up being referred to as Egypt’s favourite son, and the next thing you’re public enemy number one. So, that hits you psychologically. I fell into a bit of a depression, but ultimately, human instinct is one of survival.”

Sharif Jr stands by his decision to speak out. “I was building on my grandparents’ legacy – not of acting but of activism, of seeing injustice and speaking out. Of knowing that you have a voice and you have to use it.

“On the one hand, I had my paternal grandparents, Omar Sharif, who always worked on religious tolerance issues, and Faten Hamama, who worked on women’s issues in Egypt.”

Another huge influence on Sharif Jr’s life was the fact that his maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. “So, on the other hand, I had those stories from the Holocaust where ‘we didn’t say anything and they moved us to the ghetto and we didn’t say anything and they loaded us on the trains and we didn’t say anything until we were marched into the gas chambers’.

“It was always ingrained into my consciousness that when you see something, you say something before it’s too late.

“I was fully aware of what the Holocaust was from the age of four or five,” he said. “My grandparents always put into my mind that if I saw any sign of injustice, I had to speak. My maternal grandmother was the most remarkable woman because while my grandfather had a lot of anger and couldn’t speak about those times, she could. She found a way to forgive but not forget, and she had a lot of German friends later in life.

“She really believed in the best in humanity, despite seeing the darkest side. She saw her family brutally murdered in front of her, yet she always retained that belief that mankind is good.”

Inspired by that, Sharif Jr embraced his mixed heritage. Growing up with a Jewish mother and Muslim father, he learned the importance of open-mindedness early on. “It’s never actually been a challenge to reconcile my two religions. I was born to a family that loves me unconditionally.

“My parents divorced when I was very young and the love I received was exactly the same from both of them. I spent time growing up in Cairo, Montreal and Paris, and my faiths combined to give me a more holistic world view. I grew up speaking about five languages and now I speak seven, including Yiddish and Hebrew.

“My multicultural upbringing and travels led me to eventually want to study politics and religion. I’m an actor, too. I don’t think people have to choose only one direction and commit fully to it. People should be able to pick and choose and create the most interesting life that they can for themselves.”

Sharif Jr applies this to religion, too. “I consider myself spiritual – neither side of my family was particularly practising of either religion and I don’t go to any places of worship. Culturally, I identify as both Jewish and Muslim. I consider both sets of religious holidays to be family time – it’s about spending time together.

“I’m a refugee, I suppose, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a family that loves me unconditionally – wherever they are is home. I also had the means to leave Egypt, so I did and I started anew. I live in California now, and I’m working again as an actor. I have two films out this year, so I’m grateful.”

While the late Omar Sharif encouraged his grandson’s acting, he told him he had to do it on his own. The younger Sharif’s success is proof of his unique ability.

“My grandfather never saw himself as a celebrity; he just did what he loved,” said Sharif Jr. “He loved people and he saw fans more as friends he hadn’t met yet, wanting to say hello. He also spoke out for what he believed in.”

And, for Sharif Jr, being a public figure also means using his voice. “There are maybe one or two others who have come out in the Middle East since I did, but it’s important for me to retain visibility at this point because for me to disappear back into the shadows would be unfair to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, who long to see a reflection of themselves in the media. Every community needs that.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Janine Goodson

    Apr 26, 2018 at 10:44 am

    ‘Amazing story of courage and how someone with a Jewish and Muslim heritage can cope and use his voice as the grandson of a famous man to try and change things, especially in the very unaccepting Muslim society. He is not only good looking, but sensitive and intelligent. Thanks for the article.’

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