Famous Arab Americans, Heritage and Culture

Paula Abdul

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The month of April marks Arab American Heritage Month. It’s a time to recognize the contributions of Arab Americans in music, film, television, politics and other fields. Many famous Americans, including Paula Abdul, Rami Malek, Ralph Nader, and Salma Hayek are of Arab ancestry. Get to know more about the achievements of famous Arab Americans with this overview of notable figures in a range of professions.

In addition, learn more about the Arab population in the United States. When did immigrants of Middle Eastern descent first begin to arrive in the U.S. in large waves? To which ethnic group do most members of the U.S. Arab population belong? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

Arab American Heritage Month

Arab-American Heritage Festival

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Arab American Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of people in the United States with Middle Eastern roots as well as for the public to become informed about the history of Arab Americans in the U.S. While Middle Eastern people in the United States are often perceived as foreigners, Arab Americans first began to arrive on American shores in the late 1800s. About half of Arab Americans were born in the U.S., according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The plurality of Arab Americans, approximately 25 percent, are of Lebanese descent. Significant portions of the Arab population also have Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian heritage. Because the federal government classifies the Arab population as whites, it’s been difficult for demographers to collect information about this group, but there’s mounting pressure for the U.S. Census Bureau to give Arab Americans their own racial category by 2020.

Arab Americans in Politics

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader

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In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama faced rumors that he was of “Arab” ancestry. While that’s not true, it may not be unrealistic to imagine an Arab American in the White House. That’s because politicians such as Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent, have already run for president. In addition, a number of Middle Eastern Americans have served in presidential administrations.

Donna Shalala, a Lebanese American, served as the Health and Human Services secretary for two terms under President Bill Clinton. Ray LaHood, also a Lebanese American, served in Congress and was the secretary of transportation in President Barack Obama’s administration. A number of Arab Americans have also served in the House of Representatives, such as George Kasem and Darrell Issa.

Arab American Pop Stars

Singer Shakira

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Think there’s no such thing as an Arab American pop star? Think again. A number of musicians of Middle Eastern descent have topped the music charts in the United States. Crooner Paul Anka was a major teen idol during the 1950s, and he continues to make music in the 21st century.

Dick Dale transformed rock music in the 1960s with his Lebanese-infused surf rock. Pop star Tiffany, born Tiffany Darwish, was a teen sensation in the 1980s. Paula Abdul, who’s of Syrian descent, cranked out one hit after another in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 2002, Abdul embarked on new territory when she became a judge on the hit show “American Idol.” During that same time frame, Colombian pop star Shakira, who’s of Lebanese descent, began to top the Billboard charts in the U.S.

Arab American Actors

Actor Rami Malek

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Arab American actors are no strangers to the film and television industries. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif won a Golden Globe for his work in 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago.” Rami Said Malek, of Egyptian heritage, won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Actor. Marlo Thomas, daughter of Lebanese comedian Danny Thomas, became a star in the 1966 TV series “That Girl” about the trials and tribulations of a young woman trying to become a famous actress.

Other television stars of Arab American background include Wendie Malick, who is half-Egyptian, and Tony Shalhoub, a Lebanese American who won several awards for his role in the USA Network show “Monk.” Salma Hayek, a Mexican actress of Lebanese descent, rose to fame in Hollywood in the 1990s. She received an Oscar nomination in 2002 for her portrayal of the artist Frida Kahlo in the biopic “Frida.”