OMAR SHARIF, JR.

[ 0 ] February 8, 2018 |

A LEGACY OF LOVE AND ACTIVISM

~ by joel martens ~

Fame can be a truly fickle thing…And when you’re the relative and namesake of one of the world’s most well-known and beloved actors, it can be a difficult shadow from which to emerge. There are many beneath such canopies, who never quite manage to disentangle themselves from those legacies to discover what gives them personal meaning in their own right.

Omar Sharif, Jr. is certainly one of the people whose namesake is known the world over…And I mean literally the world over. His grandfather gave us some of Hollywood’s greatest film classics, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and one of my personal favorites, Funny Girl. The junior Sharif however, only speaks with deep love and gratitude about that familial heritage and even more generously, discusses the legacy of activism passed down by both his grandfather and grandmother [Egyptian actress Faten Hamama]. He is deeply proud of how each used their public personas and their notoriety, as platforms in each of their courageous fights for human rights.

A favorite quote from Mark Twain says, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear–not absence of fear,” and it’s something that fits Sharif, Jr. to a tee. Jewish, gay and Muslim, he chose to come out in a world that was fast becoming hostile. It was Egypt in 2012 at a time when the powerful Islamist religious, political and social movement, the Muslim Brotherhood was taking over. It was no surprise that his coming out revelation the same year, was met with negative reactions. Though Sharif admits he was unprepared for so deleterious a result, which including fatwas and death threats delivered almost daily.

Though experience of such things may have slowed him down for a time, he rediscovered his legacy and the power of activism, as well as the importance of using his success as a stage in the fight for those who might not have one. His public work continued as GLAAD’s National Ambassador, and more recently representing the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and speaking on the world stage about LGBT issues and the ongoing struggle to educate about HIV/AIDS. Sharif’s other work in film and on television is flourishing as well: Two films have recently been released, The Secret Scripture, with Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave and Eric Bana, and then, The Eleventh Hour directed by Jim Sheridan with Salma Hayek. The third, a documentary about the little-known LGBT community in China called China Queer: The Naked Truth is now out on the world stage and just recently nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. Things are good in his world..Very good.

This is the conversation we had for The Rage Monthly’s February issue about living life without fear, and coming from a legacy of love and action.

Your history is fascinating in that you have such a strong connection to your Egyptian roots and Muslim heritage, as well as being Canadian and your Jewish connection there. When you link that with being a gay man, it gives you a unique perspective on each world. When you were a kid growing up, was that intersectionality something you were cognizant of?

I suppose I was aware, because I was always shuttled back and forth, so my whole life became sort of about adaptation to my current environment. Whether I was in Montreal with my mom for six months and going to Jewish day school and spending time with my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors, or whether I was in Egypt for six months with two of the most well-known Arab superstars…It was always sort of about adapting. Not only culturally and religiously, but socially and economically as well. My mom came from a very middle to lower-middle class family and my dad from a very wealthy family, so life was always about adjusting to those experiences.

That juxtaposition must have been a challenge to adapt to in many ways, but I would imagine it offered you exposure to many different ways of living.

Yes, for sure. Hearing all of the stories from the Holocaust and from my grandmother, who survived the Auschwitz and Majdanek death camps, makes you very aware of current injustices in the world. And yet at the same time, I was given the benefit of seeing what an elevated platform can do to change the world. Both my grandparents on my father’s side were very outspoken about the causes that were important to them. My life became about marrying the two and speaking out when I saw something worth speaking out about.

You certainly have done that. Thank you for your activism, it’s important work. I’m curious about when your sexuality came into play and what the coming out process was like for you in that environment.

I had absolutely no intention of coming out publicly when I did, I sort of did it on a whim. I was working on a television show that was fairly popular in the Middle East and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, Islamists had just won over 70 percent of the parliamentary seats. At the time I didn’t even worry about LGBT people necessarily, though the situation was never great, it was tolerable for many years. There were instances and incidents that were very unfortunate—if not tragic—but I worried more about what would happen to women under the Islamist government or what would happen to Caustic Christians, which many of my friends and family members were at the time.

I sort of used myself as a litmus test. That was what I was able to identify with, in terms of fear, being gay and Jewish and what that would mean if people were to find out. No one really knew, because those were taboo subjects. In the Middle East, they were not something I had never discussed or that the press had ever reported on about me. Though it was certainly available to them to find out about, at least the fact that my mom was Jewish.

I figured because I had the platform and no one else was speaking out, certainly not the international community, who was very excited about the wave of democratization. I’m not sure they realized the full consequences of that on a population who did not necessarily have the educational resources to differentiate between the parties involved. So, in the end I did it, almost as an afterthought…It was a call to act and a wake up call.

It must have been a daunting thing at the time and though I don’t assume it was easy, you did it with such grace and so powerfully. You ended up leading the charge in many ways.

I was and am very fortunate, I have a family who loves me unconditionally. I have the economic resources to be okay given my situation and a lot of people don’t have that. It wasn’t easy and I spent many days in bed and at one point was in crisis intervention counseling. The reaction was so negative and because of the fatwas and death threats that I was receiving daily, I did have suicidal thoughts.

How terrifying. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for such a young man.

I definitely had it easier than most. But, the real legacy I inherited, was that I wasn’t a first. My grandfather [actor Omar Sharif] spoke out about religious tolerance in ’67 during the height of the Six Day War with Israel at the time he was dating Barbra Streisand. He received much of the same treatment and was forced to leave Egypt. I also had that example of my grandmother [Faten Hamama], who was sort of the leader of the women’s movement in Egypt and almost single-handedly got women the right to file for divorce from their husbands. She also received a lot of negative attention for that, from a lot of society at the time. But, for them, the end always justified the means. Looking back, they both did the right thing and never regretted it. So for me, it really is more about building on that legacy and was sort of a no-brainer, as far as stepping up and doing the right thing.

That embodies one of my favorite quotes, by Jackson Brown, Jr., “When you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did.” Courage is about being truthful and taking risks and is part of why I do what I do, to shine a light on those truths.

That’s why the work you do is so important too, you are a voice for our community. I think about all the young people are reading what you publish, you really are doing that exact same work…It’s a gift.

Thank you. I feel strongly that the conversations we have are vital, they certainly were for me as a young kid. Every time I read or saw something about an LGBT person back then, it was like someone threw me a lifeline. Without them too, the progress we’ve made can falter.

Yes. I saw it happen in Egypt, so don’t think it can’t. One of the scarier things is that progress can go backwards, the religious right does not give up. When they lose at home, they export their hatred abroad. You see many of them setting up shop in places like Uganda and Nigeria and really being responsible for LGBT persecution in those countries, so it really is a global issue. In the end it’s not a religious issue, or even a regional issue, LGBT rights, acceptance and equality require a global effort.

I read a piece in which you discussed your sexuality and how in the end it really wasn’t the point, that you were a human being first and foremost and this is about human rights. I see that you’re now involved with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. One, how does that fall in line with what you’re hoping to accomplish and two, how did you get involved with the organization?

I’ve been good friends with Executive Director Joel Goldman for some time and we did a video together when I was the national spokesman for GLAAD. They were founded at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s to counter negative and misleading press about the illness. They were celebrating their 30th anniversary, so with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, we partnered on creating videos for the community to remind people that AIDS is still an issue. We don’t hear about it much, but we are seeing large rises in infection rates again, especially in African American and Latino communities, particularly in the U.S. South. It’s a big thing in the Middle East too, because it’s still so taboo and unspoken. It goes untested, undiagnosed and untreated, so it’s personal and a really big issue for me.

I bumped into Joel and he said that they were having trouble finding anyone to speak about it in the Middle East and he asked if I’d be willing to use my limited platform. There is a lot I don’t know to be honest, I don’t have a personal connection to HIV/AIDS, but I agree that it’s so important to talk about it still. One of the things people don’t realize, too, is that in the GCC countries (Gulf Cooperation Council), which is comprised of Kwait, Quatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia as well, if you are diagnosed as HIV positive you must leave the country unless you are one of their nationals. And, you are not allowed even as a visitor, to bring HIV medications into the country of Dubai. It’s an effort to curtail anyone who is HIV positive from entering the country. It’s also one of the regions seeing the most rises in new infections out of the global regions. Those things combined will very likely have devastating impacts, especially if we don’t start talking about it.

Will you be travelling there to do any speaking? If you do, are there concerns about your safety?

You know, I’m not sure. Given my level of notoriety and the threats I still continue to receive, I’m not 100 percent sure where I can actually travel. It’s just a reality that I have to consider, but in the end, I feel more concern for the people living there.

Where would you say your passion lays? Is it more in activism, in your work as an actor, or do they carry the same weight for you?

Acting is really what I’ve done since I was a child. On school vacations, that’s where my family would send me, they would send me to a set, because they were all busy working. I do feel a certain responsibility to it because of that and to stay visible to be honest. And, since I am one of the only out Arab LGBT personalities, I feel there is a certain obligation to not disappear into the shadows.

It’s a reminder to me that though we have come so far, there is still so much work to do.

There is, everywhere and in the U.S., as well. The history of human evolution, it’s one of progress. At times we may take a few steps backwards, like for instance the dark ages, but ultimately, we keep moving forward.

 

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