Courtesy the author
Omar Sharif Jr. on a childhood trip to Egypt Courtesy the author
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Becoming an Optimist

My grandmother’s positive outlook—despite all she’d been through—helped me endure years of bullying

by
Omar Sharif Jr.
October 06, 2021
Courtesy the author
Omar Sharif Jr. on a childhood trip to Egypt Courtesy the author

Omar Sharif Jr.’s parents—a Muslim father and Jewish mother—divorced when he was young, and he spent years shuttling between them: He spent summers and holidays in Egypt with his father and his famous grandfather, the actor Omar Sharif. But most of the time he lived with his mother—and his bubbe and zayde, both Holocaust survivors—in Montreal, where he attended a Jewish school.

In elementary school, the bullying began and followed me like a fiery trail of hate. It’s odd that the kids in school suspected something I didn’t even know for sure yet. The way some of the teachers looked at me made me feel that I was different, that I wasn’t normal, and, ultimately, the kids confirmed that I wasn’t. I suppose I always thought that I was someone other than whom I appeared to be, but the incessant comments, which turned into persistent bullying, made me acknowledge it to myself. I finally conceded that I wasn’t like the other boys, and once I did, society quickly shoved me into a cardboard box, slapped a large label on it, and left me to figure out what to do with myself. Over time, the horrible names I was called—faggot, queer, and homo, among others—ceased to bother me because I could only entertain so much pain.

There were occasions when a few of the teachers looked like they felt bad, but not enough to get involved, until the day one of the kids who regularly called me names pushed me to the ground. Before the fifth grade, no one had physically laid a hand on me or shoved me into a locker, but that afternoon, I knew that if I didn’t strike back, the other kids might follow suit and try to beat me up, too. So I stood, balled up my fist, and punched him. It quickly turned into an all-out brawl. Teachers rushed into the schoolyard to break up the fight, pulling us apart. As if that weren’t enough, I faced my biggest fear: my parents would be called, told what had happened, and then given the reason I was fighting. I felt sick when the announcement came from the principal, Rabbi Hammerman, calling me into his office along with the other boy. The boy and I sat next to each other in front of Rabbi Hammerman’s desk. I didn’t know how he was feeling, but my heart thumped against my chest and I clutched the arms of the chair to keep from hurling all over the floor. Being in the principal’s office felt horrible because I never wanted to bother anyone. I had taken the verbal abuse day after day, year after year, but I wasn’t going to let anyone lay a hand on me. When Rabbi Hammerman came in and shut the door, I prepared for the worst while holding back tears. He sat down, studying both of us and deliberating in silence. He released a heavy sigh and then slowly leaned forward, peering sternly at the other boy.

“Omar is one of the finest and best students I’ve ever known,” he stated firmly. “And if I hear of you calling him a name again, that will be the last of you in this school.”

I couldn’t believe what I’d heard, and the boy didn’t utter a single word in defense. When we were dismissed, I turned to Rabbi Hammerman and said, “Thank you.” Even though I was equally at fault, I didn’t get into trouble, and he didn’t call our parents. He knew I’d been bullied for all of those years in that school, but this time, I think he was proud of me for finally standing up for myself—even if it meant I had to fight.

My childhood was complicated, but it was all I’d ever known, and I lived in and loved both worlds equally. Distant and dissimilar, the only time they ever touched was between my twelfth and thirteenth birthdays.

Between twelve and fifteen is when Muslim boys reach adulthood, or become baaligh, and have full responsibility under Islamic law. On the Jewish side, we have a bar mitzvah on our thirteenth birthday to indicate that we have all the rights and obligations of a Jewish adult, including the observation of religious precepts. To celebrate both the Muslim and Jewish traditions of becoming a man, my parents came together and threw me a big party because I belonged to both worlds and taught myself to respect them equally.

Initially, a party wasn’t something that I wanted, because Mom told me I should invite all of my friends—and I didn’t know where to find any. I knew I didn’t have enough for a party, so I started asking random classmates just to make my parents think the other students liked me. I’m sure their parents made them come because of my last name. Grandfather Omar, Dad, his new wife, Shahira—who was pregnant with my baby sister—along with family and friends flew in from Egypt and celebrated with my entire Canadian family. It was so amazing to be surrounded by that much love at one time. There were over two hundred and fifty people laughing, dancing, and telling stories as they enjoyed good food and wine together. On that day, my two worlds were one.

By thirteen my identity was set, and because I was attracted to boys, I wasn’t like any of the other boys I knew. Of course, I wasn’t attracted to anyone in high school, because I was too busy envying them. I wanted to be them. I wanted to be popular and cool, too. I didn’t want to be gay and unpopular, or to have my parents find out. I already believed that there was something wrong with me—that I wasn’t normal. When Mom spoke with her friends, she called gay people abnormal. When we were walking down the street and she saw someone transgender or someone who dressed alternatively, she’d snicker and call them freaks. The hurt I felt made me want to cower in the shadows and stay there. I didn’t know anyone in school who was out, but if anyone was gay, they stayed in the shadows after seeing the way I was bullied.

It’s amazing how one lie turns into two lies, and then into three, becoming a habit or even a lifestyle.

The only thing I could do was stay muted and withdrawn from people. I was ashamed, and keeping my secret was slowly beginning to kill me. Swallowing the same treatment five consecutive days a week became increasingly challenging. There were days I walked to school instead of taking the bus or carpooling. I needed that time to figure out how I’d make it through the day and who I’d have to avoid, and to convince myself I could deal with the hateful comments, malicious looks, and toxic environment for one more day.

The school bell at the end of the day brought an escape from the students but not from my reality. I’d hurry through the doors, only to be greeted by my mind cruelly recapping the day’s events. The residue—and knowing that I had to return for more the next day—left me anxious. A two-day weekend wasn’t long enough to recover. I walked through the school halls looking over my shoulder, worried people were talking about me. I hated gym class, even though I was just as good as the other kids. If I missed one catch, kick, or basket, the name-calling started. “Look at him. The little fag can’t even catch a ball.” If I didn’t defend myself, it looked like they were right. If I spoke up, it could turn into something bigger. So I pretended not to hear them, even though I did—every time.

The author with his grandfather, Omar Sharif

The author with his grandfather, Omar SharifCourtesy the author

The more popular kids usually left me alone, while the lesser-known kids tried to make a name for themselves, seeking power over me with repetitive teasing and name-calling. I tried to justify it—telling myself that they might be neglected at home and took it out on me. Maybe they were bullied by their own parents or one parent bullied the other, and they mirrored what they saw. Whatever the reasons, it was difficult for me to walk through the corridors without random teenagers asking, “Why aren’t you more of a man?” or “Why are you such a woman?” I continued to walk away from confrontation, appearing to be what they said, because I always tried to consider the bigger picture. I had cousins in the same high school, and I worried that they would hear what their friends or other kids were saying about me and tell my aunt, and then Mom would find out.

One cousin had heard the rumors and asked me if I was dating anyone. Just to stop the inquiry from going any further, I replied, “Yes, I went out with Rachel the other night.” The next day, Rachel saw me heading into class and dashed in front of me, blocking the doorway.

“Why would you tell people we were dating?”

When I didn’t answer her, she half-smiled, as if she already knew the truth, and walked away. Why is the scariest question for a gay boy in the closet because most of the time the honest answer is, I’m gay.

The few times I lied to evade such questions or situations, the lies came back to haunt me, so I always felt guilty about defending myself that way. But still, I lied to everyone I loved. It’s amazing how one lie turns into two lies, and then into three, becoming a habit or even a lifestyle.

In the eleventh grade, our all-Jewish high school offered the opportunity to take a trip to Poland and Israel. When I learned that the trip would take us to the concentration camps and death camps, I felt compelled to go. To be considered for the trip, students were required to write an essay and complete an interview. I was grateful when my application was accepted, but I wasn’t convinced the trip would be a good one. The curiosity to connect to our family history had been inside me for as long as I could remember. The suffering in Bubbie and Zadie’s eyes never left them, and this was my opportunity to have a stronger connection to their world and be closer to my history, as horrifying and unsettling as it might be.

When we arrived in Poland, I was conscious of every detail of what we saw. In some of the camps and in the former ghettos, I saw the places Bubbie had vividly described. Majdanek, where Bubbie was separated from her sister and niece, still existed as a preserved landmark and could be restored and made fully operational in a matter of days. I even saw the bunks that my grandmother slept in. Just a glimpse of her world was unnerving. We walked through the death camp and entered rooms with the discarded shoes, hair that had been shaved off, and canisters of Zyklon B gas, used to murder victims. In the back of the camp, under a dome, they kept the ashes of the Jews they had burned in crematoriums. It was bigger than an Olympic-sized pool—like a giant ashtray filled with bodies and bones. As I stared into it, I was covered in perspiration, and my stomach clenched. The bandages were ripped off my memories of the Nazis; with raised eyelids, I shook with horror. Bubbie’s sister and her niece were in there.

I looked out into the darkness, wondering how many others were hiding secrets so that they could feel accepted by those around them.

Bubbie told me that when they were on the train out of the Warsaw Ghetto and heading to the camp, her young niece had nothing to drink and was lying, listless, against her mother—dehydrated and half-dead. They had nothing to offer her, so they spat in a bottle to give her something to drink. When my eyes locked on a bottle sticking out of the ashes in the dome, it made everything all too real. I had a breakdown. I couldn’t walk, move, or speak. The teachers didn’t think I’d make it through the rest of the trip and contemplated sending me home. I had lost my faith in humanity; Bubbie’s eternal light of optimism had extinguished within me. How could people be so cruel? As we took the bus to the next city, Gill, a popular girl in my grade, who I always assumed made fun of me like everyone else, came and sat next to me. She placed my head on her lap and held me for the next four hours as I cried. An unlikely friendship was born that reignited my faith in the goodness of others.

After spending time in Poland, visiting sites where death and devastation took place, we flew to Israel for a week to celebrate vibrant, modern Jewish life. I was moved by the energy and spirituality in the air, and I felt my own healing taking place. Regardless of what religion I subscribed to, the land felt sacred, like it belonged to the world—to everyone. We went to the Old City of Jerusalem, where I saw the four sections, the Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, and Armenian Quarter, each of which celebrated their differences and uniqueness while united by circumstance and geography. It was a beautiful mosaic of how the world could be and of how I saw myself. That trip left me hopeful that I would see rebirth after devastation. Despite challenges and political upheaval, spring always follows winter, the light comes after the darkness, and hate can turn to hope. It was clear to me that people can overcome anything. Maybe this, too, is what Omar always meant when he said, “Put your losses behind you; tomorrow we win!” Omar and Bubbie were optimists, and I was learning how to be one, too.

On the ten-hour flight home from Israel, I was sitting in an emergency exit row of the 747 aircraft. Midflight, a handsome El Al flight attendant in his mid-twenties named Tomer caught my attention. He was sitting in the jump seat directly facing me, and he made sure I noticed him by appearing to accidentally brush his foot against mine. At one point, I got up and went to the back of the plane to ask for some water. Most of the students were asleep. Without warning, the flight attendant grabbed me around my waist, pulled me into a lavatory, and kissed me. I had never kissed or touched another man in that way. He undid his pants and placed my hand inside them. I was too panicked to be excited; literally everyone I knew from high school was on the plane. Not worth the risk! I said in Hebrew, “I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.” I made him pull up his pants and open the door. When he did, I stood face-to-face with the most popular and gossipy girl in school. I stepped out of the bathroom, followed by the flight attendant, and a giant grin ripped across her freckled face. Rumors were swirling by the time the plane landed. I didn’t think anyone actually believed her and, fortunately, I didn’t have to go to school and deal with it, because I found out I had mono soon after. I didn’t know if it was stress or if I caught the so-called kissing disease from the first guy I ever kissed. I stayed home from school for a month and went back the final week before graduating—but by then, the rumors had multiplied.

On the last day of school, I was walking down the hall, and a group of guys walked past me. One of them snickered, “Homo.” Another asked, “Why are you so feminine?” For the first time, I responded, knowing I was about to graduate and wouldn’t have to see them again. I said, “Maybe because I was raised by a single mother.” I turned around and walked away. An hour later two of those boys came up and said, “We’re really sorry. We shouldn’t have said that.” I stood in the corridor wondering if I should have defended myself earlier. Maybe all this time, they hadn’t known that their words actually hurt me.

That night, I sat out on the balcony waiting for Mom to come home. I looked out into the darkness, wondering how many others were hiding secrets so that they could feel accepted by those around them. Bubbie’s mother had once reassured her, “My child, if you live, there will one day exist a free world for us.” I had to live to see this free world my great-grandmother spoke of. One day, perhaps I could be free of fear, of ridicule, free to live in the open, and free from thoughts of suicide and death. If Bubbie and Zadie had survived so much worse, I could survive this.

Excerpted from A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring. Omar Sharif Jr., © 2020. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press.

Omar Sharif Jr. is an Egyptian-Canadian actor who currently lives in the United States. He is the grandson of Omar Sharif, the actor.

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