Arabs can be a tricky sort of people. At least if you’re into racial profiling. The trouble lies in the immense spread of geography which contributes to major differences in skin tone and facial features. Go to Sudan and most will assume they are speaking to a black African. But to some Sudanese, they identify primarily as Arab Africans. From Morocco to Syria, the spectrum of appearance plays out almost within its entirety. Like Islam, this cohesive, multi-ethnic layer is something most Arabs, and most Muslims, are incredibly proud of.
However, for those unfamiliar with Arabs outside of Aladdin, this does lead to a fair amount of confusion. When you’re light-skinned and you tell somebody about your ethnicity a fair amount of, “but you look Italian!” or, “I thought you all had brown skin” is bound to come up. So, because I’m having a day, I’d like to go over a few celebrities that you might never have known were Arab or at least part Arab. Some might shock you, some may not, but I do hope at the very least, it opens your eyes to the level of integration and conformity that most of the Arab and Arab-American world lives in. That is, rather than being outsiders in strange embroidered robes, there’s a good chance that the Arabic speaking, Qur’an reading man of the desert you past on the street corner looked like your average Barnes and Noble customer. Shall we begin?
Since most people I know think Arab Americans are a new phenomenon, why don’t we hop in the way back machine and explore some famous Arabs of yore. Like for instance… James Gilmore Backus. Born in Cleveland in 1913 to Lebanese parents, he went on to star as Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island. He also starred opposite actors such as Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Known for his upper-crust New England cantor, Backus also voiced the near-sighted character of Mr. Magoo.
F. Murry Abraham, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1939, and later went on to play the infamous Salieri in the film Amadeus, was born to a Syrian father. Teri Hatcher, who was the most downloaded woman at the advent of the Internet, has a Syrian mother. Kristy McNichol from the family show Empty Nest is Lebanese, and Emmy-Award winning television actor Tony Shalhoub of Monk fame is also an Arab of Lebanese ancestry.
Arab women who are almost always given roles in popular American lore as poor oppressed, sexless, victims are no such thing when you consider the Arab-American women who have worked in the cinema. The sex bomb of my youth, Shannon Elizabeth who was born in Houston, Texas in 1973 is from Syrian and Lebanese parents. Salma Hayek, who most identify as Mexican is actually only part Mexican with her other ethnicity coming straight out of the Land of Lentils (Lebanon, to be exact). Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development is born to a Kurdish Iraqi father. Legendary actress and comedienne Marlo Thomas was born in Detroit in 1937 is also half Lebanese, with her father, Lebanese American comedian Danny Thomas, (real name: Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yakhoob) bringing the Middle Eastern roots.
Other surprising additions to the Arab American celebrity list include teenage heartthrob Wentworth Miller of Prison Break fame, who has a lot of multi-racial makeup, with a mother of French, Dutch, Syrian and Lebanese ancestry. Another is Kemal Amin Kasem, who of course is not known by any such name but by his popular American moniker, Casey Kasem. Kasem is of Palestinian origin and also changed the face of American radio, counting down the Top 40 and doing voices for such popular television programs as Scooby Doo, Sesame Street and Transformers. Vince Vaughn has some Arab in him, Frank Zappa has a touch of the orient and singer Mika was born in Beirut, Lebanon.
If we were to expand the list to include the entire Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent (i.e. the “untrustables” according to American Cinema) the list would expand to include such notables as Freddy Mercury from the band Queen, Danny Pudi of Community, Sarah Shahi of The L Word, and Nasim Pedrad of Saturday Night Live.
However this list of American actors and actresses does show an inherent bias towards the more light-skinned members of the Arab world. Very rarely do you find darker-toned Tunisian actresses or women from the Gulf Peninsula on American television. Part of this does have to do with the mobility of the Eastern Mediterranean region of the Middle East. It’s not that people from there are particularly wealthy and can afford to move to the U.S. more than, say, a woman from Dubai. But the more liberal views of the eastern Mediterranean mixed with their ability to look “Italian” or “Latina” does offer a certain amount of privilege to the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities on an international level.
Currently the main area of contention within the United States regarding Arabs (read: the main complaint on Fox) is the innate “otherness” that is carried along with the traditions. Many Americans see Arabs as non-integrating, minaret building, halal-store opening intruders. But we’ve been here for a long, long time. Most of us are so well entrenched into the American system that we simply go by unnoticed. I worked side by side with an Egyptian for six months before I realized that he too spoke Arabic. We were folding sheets and he got a cellphone call from his cousin. “Yallah, masalaama,” I heard him mumble into the receiver. I asked him in Arabic if he spoke it and suddenly it was like a surprise welcome home party. We commiserated about Ramadan coming up and asked about each others’ families as if we’d grown up down the street from each other.
“I figured you were Italian,” he said to me as I walked out the door.
“I thought you were too,” I called back. “I guess we’re so sneaky we trick ourselves.”
“No,” he yelled as the sliding glass doors began to close, “not sneaky, we’re just motherfucking Americans.”