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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