Before starting college in the fall, my cousin Mikey and his friends had planned a ten-day backpacking trip through Greece to launch their next life chapter. As we’d always been close, Mikey invited me along. Mikey knew I was always up for an adventure, and I wanted to spend time with him before he went off to school. My father agreed to let me go and covered the cost of my trip. One of his friends, Naldo, gave me a thousand euros for spending money, and Grandmother Faten and Aunt Nadia added heavily to the fund, telling me to have a great time.
I flew from Cairo to Athens a day ahead of Mikey and his friends, Lindsey and Rob. When they arrived, the fun began. We went sight- seeing, enjoyed traditional Greek dishes, and hit the bars and clubs. The next thing on our itinerary was a ferry to Mykonos, one of the Cyclades islands. When the ferry docked, I couldn’t wait to explore. We walked the narrow streets, spent time on the beaches, grabbed lunch, and took everything in. It didn’t take long before I realized that Mykonos was an alluring paradise for gay men. People were carefree and happy—I’d never seen anything like it. No one had to hide—they were out in plain sight, holding hands, kissing, and showing affection for one another. It didn’t matter where we went—there weren’t any shadows.
I was sure by now that Mikey had heard rumors about me, but my cousin didn’t mention them or even hint at anything. Mikey didn’t judge me. He just let me enjoy being myself and free. After we went to a couple of straight bars that first evening, I ventured off solo so I could discover more. For the next few nights, I could feel myself breathing serenely.
After leaving Mykonos, we took the ferry to Santorini, another of the Cyclades islands. The rugged landscape was shaped by a volcanic eruption, and the city was built on a downward slope facing the Aegean Sea. There were charming and picturesque homes, white with blue rooftops, resting on the cliffs. The colorful sunsets were painted with the most perfect strokes I’d ever seen. Its breathtaking views made Santorini the ideal place for lovebirds and honeymooners. But even with all its beauty, it didn’t compare to Mykonos. Mykonos felt like a community—a home I’d never known.
The next day, the four of us were in line to board a ferry to the party island of Ios. Our plans were to enjoy a few days there and then head home. I glanced around, observing my surroundings while we waited, and a small waterplane caught my attention. The sign in front of it read MYKONOS. I turned to Mikey with the widest grin imaginable and said, “This isn’t my island . . . that’s my island,” pointing excitedly at the sign. I gave Mikey a big hug, said bye to his friends, and without further explanation, I slung my large orange and black backpack over my shoulder, jumped out of line, and made a dash toward a makeshift booth near the airplane. Sounding as though I was trying to escape someone, I asked the middle-aged guy behind the counter, “Do you have room for one more?” Folding the newspaper he was reading, he said, “You’re the last.” I paid him fifty euros, took my ticket, and boarded the plane. I was going back to paradise.
I didn’t have a hotel reservation or a place to stay, but I knew I’d figure it out. I hadn’t planned to return, but the island called me back like a siren beckoning a lost sailor. When I arrived, I went from one hotel to another, looking for a room until I found one. I checked in, put my backpack in the comfortable seaside room, and set out on adventure. I stopped at the receptionist’s desk and asked him where to begin. He pulled a small flyer out of his pocket, handed it to me, and pointed. “I recommend that you go here. There’s a party at Super Paradise this afternoon; I’m sure you’ll make some friends.” I rented a Vespa and drove toward my destination.
I parked the Vespa, followed the music toward the beach, and removed my sandals as soon as I stepped off the paved path. The vibe was chill and relaxed, the way I wanted the rest of the world to be—whole and one. There were gay and straight people partying together on the beach and sexuality was a non-issue. People didn’t stare or point, whisper or gawk. Everyone was equal—LGBTQ and allies alike.
After taking a swim in the bay, I laid my towel on a lounge chair as my toes sank into the pebbles of sand. I stretched out to bask in the warmth of the sun, but before I was settled, a slim, toned guy wearing a dark blue Speedo helped himself to the other chair under my umbrella. Until then, I’d only seen other guys wear board shorts, but when I looked around, I realized I was the only one wearing them on this beach.
“Hi,” I replied.
“I’m Adrian. And you are?” he asked, seductively scanning my body.
“Nice to meet you, Omar. So, what brings you to Mykonos?”
I wanted to say, “The same thing that brought you here,” but I didn’t. I said, “Initially, I came here to hang out with friends.”
“Initially? Are they still here with you?” he asked, looking around to see if anyone was approaching.
“Not anymore. My cousin and his friends went to Ios, and I decided I wanted to be here. I like this island,” I admitted, as I watched the ocean spill onto the shore with its own rhythm and timing.
“I like it here, too.” After a brief pause, he added, “You’re quite handsome.”
I didn’t respond, because that wasn’t something I was used to hearing. Adrian was handsome, Australian, in his early twenties, and built like a soccer player. I listened to Adrian tell me about himself and his job as a flight attendant for Emirates. He seemed to be worldly, friendly, and good-natured. When he spoke, it was refreshing to hear him talk openly about whatever he wanted. He didn’t have to say he was gay, because there was no reason to hide or explain it. He wasn’t shy or uncomfortable with his sexuality, either—at least not on Mykonos. Unlike me, Adrian didn’t appear to be hiding a secret at all. At sixteen, I hadn’t reached that level of comfort, and I wasn’t sure I ever would. But the island didn’t have closets, and until I left, I was free to explore being me.
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” I lied. “But I’m going to university soon,” I added, realizing I had just admitted I was a minor but failing miserably to make myself appear more mature.
Adrian suddenly got up and said, “Let’s go!”
“You’re on school break. It’s hot out here, right?” I nodded in agreement. “So, let’s get some ice cream and explore.”
As the day progressed, I grew more comfortable with Adrian. He bought us some ice cream, and we walked the beach until the heat became unbearable, forcing us to take a swim to cool off. When we emerged from the ocean, we stood there with the waves flushing over our feet. Adrian moved closer to me until I could feel his breath on my lips—as if he was asking for permission. With the warmth of the sun on my back, I leaned in, and he kissed me. I abandoned any thoughts I had and really let myself go for the first time. We went back to my hotel, and long story short, we found out exactly what I was willing to do for a Klondike bar . . . and it was wonderful.
The next morning, I headed down to the lobby to ask the concierge if he knew about anything exciting happening on the island that day. Thoroughly prepared for my question, he recited a variety of activities and parties taking place on the beaches and at some of the local bars. When I turned around to leave, I ran into a group of guys who were staying at the same hotel. After some casual conversation, they asked if I was with someone. When I told them I was alone, they invited me to hang with them and explore the island. After getting to know them, I gravitated toward Rayan, a good-looking Jordanian in his late twenties. He told me a lot about himself, including that he worked as a dentist. The more we learned about one another, the more drawn to each other we became. I think it was mostly because of our shared Arab background, but his brawny and rugged appearance wasn’t a deterrent, either. A few hours later, my phone vibrated. I glanced at the message, realizing that I’d forgotten about Adrian.
He invited me to hang out with him, but I didn’t know what to say, because I was exactly where I wanted to be at that moment. I really liked Rayan and had wanted to get to know more about him since he’d captured my attention—and when I looked up at him, he still had it. I put my phone away without sending a reply. Following a long day of activities, dinner, and dancing, I was sure I wanted to spend the night with Rayan. And that night turned into another.
I found myself in an emotional triangle with both Adrian and Rayan. My interest was unquestionably in Rayan, but I didn’t feel right ignoring Adrian’s message. I wanted to be polite to him, as he was the first guy I’d met on the island—and the first guy I’d ever slept with—so I agreed to hang out with him again.
On the fourth night, while Adrian and I were heading into a restaurant for dinner, we ran into Rayan, and his disappointment was palpable.
“I tried to reach you,” he told me.
“I was planning to call you tonight.”
“I’m sure. It seems you’ve been enjoying the island today,” he said, eyeing Adrian.
“We were just sightseeing. Nothing else, really.”
Rayan tucked his hands into his pockets, kind of shrugged, and then he was gone.
In the end, nothing worked out with either Adrian or Rayan. I didn’t expect to leave Mykonos with a boyfriend, but I accomplished more than I’d ever thought possible. I had discovered and freely explored a whole new side of myself. Maybe I didn’t find love, but I did find within myself permission to love.
After I returned to Egypt, Dad and I went to see Omar in France before I flew home to Canada. In my world, I’d become a little more comfortable with who I was, although no one knew any different.
Excerpted from A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring by Omar Sharif, Jr., courtesy Counterpoint Press.