Tony Shalhoub, generic Arab American

1monkmanholeYou can’t be a member of an Antiochian Orthodox Christian parish for very long — at least not one with strong ethnic roots — without learning that it isn’t easy to turn Arab names into names written in English.

Just because one person’s last name is spelled “Chalhoub” and someone else’s name is spelled “Shalhob” doesn’t mean that they are not related. It may simply mean that an English-speaking bureaucrat wrote the name down differently when their common ancestors arrived from Lebanon, Syria or some other corner of the Middle East in which Christians are persecuted to the point that they elect to flee.

I thought about this while reading the recent Los Angeles Times profile by Lynn Smith of cable-television superstar Tony Shalhoub, who is best known for his work as the obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk.

It’s a good piece, on the surface. The key is that Shalhoub doesn’t look, well, right. He doesn’t look American. He looks like he is from somewhere else and this makes him a bit of a mystery man. Here is how the story opens:

Before Tony Shalhoub broke through as the obsessive-compulsive detective Monk, the Lebanese American actor had compiled a long list of supporting characters with widely diverse names: Haddad (“The Siege”), Kwan (“Galaxy Quest”), Scarpacci (“Wings”), Reyes (“Primary Colors”) and Riedenschneider (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”). Now it’s the talent, not the ethnic look, that people notice. This year, he has again been nominated for a Golden Globe, and he won his third Emmy for “Monk,” USA Network’s highest-rated show, which will start Season 5 1/2 in January.

Lately, Shalhoub, 53, has been adding to his resume not only as an actor but also as a producer and advocate, reaching back to his Arab American roots. One of his projects, an upcoming independent film called “American East,” tells about ordinary Arab Americans in Los Angeles whose everyday lives and plans have been altered by 9/11.

Personally, I am fond of Shalhoub’s turn as a Russian literature professor-turned-American-janitor in the family flick Paulie, but that’s a long story (“I am Russian. I like long stories”). But I digress.

What hit me was the crucial fact that Shalhoub is “Arab American” and that this fact has complicated his life post-9/11.

I can understand that, at least to a tiny degree. I know some Shalhoubs, Chaloubs and Chalhobs because my family was active in an overwhelmingly Arab parish in South Florida at the time of 9/11 and I can remember the rip-tide effect that event had in many of their lives.

060202 altTV vmed 12p widecArab Christians are pulled in many different directions, when it comes to their beliefs and emotions about events in the Middle East. It is hard to put all of that into words, when planes start flying into buildings and a few thug kids start taking that out on your grandchildren in suburban American playgrounds, even though these young Arab Christians are wearing little gold baptism crosses around their necks.

That was part of the “Arab America” experience, too — a complicated part of it. Yet what percentage of the readers of this feature story, do you think, equated “Arab American” with “Muslim”? But what kind of Arab American is Shalhoub? Generic?

Later in the story we do find a few details of Shaloub’s family background, which one would think would be a crucial element of this searching-for-his-roots profile. We are told:

Shalhoub was “No. 9″ in a family of 10 children whose father emigrated from Lebanon at age 10, and whose mother was a second-generation Lebanese American. He was raised in Green Bay, Wis., where his father ran a sausage company from a truck. … Every summer, the family gathers in Wisconsin for a vacation.

Shalhoub was raised as a Christian; he doesn’t speak Arabic.

Was “raised” as a Christian? Does that mean he no longer is a Christian? Has he become a Muslim? Is he, well, totally secular now? Has he converted to some other faith? Has this affected his life, work and beliefs?

I am not saying that this needs to be a major part of the story. I am saying that when you write that a talented, famous “Arab American” man is trying to come to terms with his ethnic roots and that his life has been complicated by 9/11, it might be nice to know a bit more about who he is.

Not all Arab Americans have the same roots. The mystery of Tony Shaloub might be a bit more complex than the one sketched by the Los Angeles Times. This was a missed opportunity.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Tope

    I know Shalhoub was raised in a Maronite family, and as a Monk fan and a Catholic I’m very interested in knowing more about what he believes and practices today. Maybe another journalist will take it up.

  • George Conger

    Tony Shalhoub, his wife Brooke Adams and their children are parishioners of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, as per the 2004 annual report that lists pledging members. They may have moved on of course …

    All Saints has merited a story or two in this blog ….

  • James

    That odd. I’ve seen this guy since his time on Wings. I’ve never for a second thought he “didn’t look right” or “didn’t look American”. In fact, I’ve 1/2 a mind to find such lines bothersome. What’s an “American” now required to look like?

  • Tisco

    What’s even worse about the line that Shalhoub was “raised a Christian” is that many readers might take this to imply that it was Shalhoub’s parents who rejected his presumably Muslim heritage. The fact that many Arabs (and especially Arab Americans) are Christians by heritage is little known in this country, and inexcusably absent from this article.

  • HokiePundit

    …although to be fair, “Kwan” was meant to be an ironic name for a crew member obviously not East Asian

  • Tim G.

    The key is that Shalhoub doesn’t look, well, right. He doesn’t look American. He looks like he is from somewhere else and this makes him a bit of a mystery man.

    Ouch. I know you didn’t mean any malice (I’m a loyal reader!), but this quote hurts. How does a normal American look? Am I, with my dark brown skin, an abnormal looking American? (rhetorical question)

    Shalhoub was raised as a Christian; he doesn’t speak Arabic.

    This line serves to dispel some of the stereotypes that Tony inherits by being classified as an Arab.

    According to Issawi, Shalhoub was not involved in Middle Eastern culture as a child.

    Why was he not involved? Was it because there were not many Lebanese in Green Bay? Or was it because the Arabs in Green Bay were predominantly Muslism, and any cultural events had Islamic overtones? I wish the author could have gotten a quote from Tony. Instead, it sounds like Tony purposely rejected his heritage as a child.

  • Roberto Rivera

    I don’t know if it’s still the case but at least in the mid-1990s, the large majority of Arab-Americans were Christians. My Paterson, NJ neighborhood growing up was basically Puerto Rican, Syrian and Lebanese and virtually 100% Catholic.

    Similarly, most American Muslims aren’t Arabs; they are from, well, everywhere.

    Ouch. I know you didn’t mean any malice (I’m a loyal reader!), but this quote hurts. How does a normal American look? Am I, with my dark brown skin, an abnormal looking American? (rhetorical question)

    Ditto. I am regularly stopped and asked questions in Arabic or Farsi. Getting through airports post 9/11 has been all sorts of fun for me. In his novel, “The Cardinal of the Kremlin,” Tom Clancy described a Latino Army officer as having a face that was at home anywhere from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Khyber Pass. That’s my face.

  • tmatt

    TIM and others:

    “The key is that Shalhoub doesn’t look, well, right. He doesn’t look American. He looks like he is from somewhere else and this makes him a bit of a mystery man.”

    This was my description of the top of the LA Times report, which was trying to sum up Hollywood’s struggles to place this man.

    So I hope that your offense was not with me. If so, sorry for the blunt statement of the Times thesis.

  • Raider51

    Much of this is not new. My maternal grandparents always insisted, when asked about their heritage, that they were “Americans.” It was later, that I learned that they were both descended from German immigrants. (And they had two sons killed by the Germans in WWII).

    Similarly, my wife had a maternal grandmother whose family changed their name during the first WW, from a distinctly Germanic-sounding name to a more Saxon-ish name. (Yes, I’m aware of the relationships between the tribes.)

    Perhaps Mollie, the resident Lutheran, could expand on this…

  • Will

    Funny you should run this when I was just thinking about Shalhoub’s performinace in SIEGE as the token Good Moslem cop. Although the character is supposed to be a Shia from the Lebanese hills, we never see him doing anything religous…. Only the bad guys are visibly observant. Of course, equating this with a blanket condemnation of Islam would be PARANOID.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Actually, the short shrift given to Tony’s faith could stem from one of two things. The journalist’s assumption that faith does not constitute a fundamental aspect of a person’s character, but is just an appendix (something they do once in a while on holidays). Or perhaps the journalist discovered in the course of his/her research that faith really didn’t figure very largely in this person’s life.

    If I were the journalist and I had to write about someone for whom faith was a superficial thing, I would probably avoid it too. I would consider it a pretty harsh insult to describe that sort of attitude. Better to just let it pass.

    So… does anyone have any idea what part Tony Shalhoub’s faith plays in his life?

  • Mattk

    He certainly looks like a Californian. We are not a majority white state.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Middle Eastern Christians are in a horrible position. Millions have fled or are fleeing the Jihadists, the fanatic hate-filled political hacks and clergy using Islam to persecute and destroy the other 2(Judaism and Christianity) ORIGINAL monotheist faiths in the Middle East.
    Here in the U.S. it seems that only Middle Eastern Moslems get 99% of the media coverage–leaving people who fled here to escape Islamic oppression to be now persecuted out of sheer ignorance in the lands they fled to for safety.
    There are many stories out there about Middle Eastern Christians which could be covered including the burgeoning growth of the Coptic (Egyptian ) Church here.
    Each year I go on my annual retreat– mandated for deacons of the Latin Archdiocese I am part of by taking that reatreat at a Maronite monastery in Petersham, Ma.