Arab Americans: Making a Difference

By Casey Kasem

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Military Service

There are about 3 million Arab Americans, and as a com­munity, we’ve been demonstrating loyalty, inventiveness, and cour­age on behalf of the United States for over 100 years. Here are just a few of the famous and accomplished ones — people you may know!

You talk about courage … How about America’s and the world’s first jet ace? He was the Korean War hero, U.S. Air Force Col. James Jabara. In World War II, Army officers like Maj. Gen. Fred Safay fought alongside Gen. Patton, and Brig. Gen. Elias Stevens served on Gen. Eisenhower’s staff. In 1944, one of our Navy’s ships, the destroyer escort USS Naifeh, was named in honor of an Arab American hero, Navy Lt. Alfred Naifeh of Oklahoma. Retired Brigadier General James J. David served as Company Commander of the famous 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970.

More recently, West Point graduate and retired four-star Gen. George Joulwan was the NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, where he commanded both European and U.S. troops. Brig. Gen. William J. Jabour is the Director of the Air Force Program Executive Office for Fighter and Bomber programs in charge of the F-22 System Program Office (SPO). General John Abizaid was named Com­mander of U.S. Central Command in Iraq.



Some of us work in our nation’s capital, like veteran Congressmen Nick Joe Rahall II (West Virginia), Ray LaHood (Illinois), Chris John (Louisiana), Darrell Issa (California), Senator John E. Sununu  (New Hampshire) and former Congressman  John Baldacci who is now the Governor of Maine. Two Arab Americans were appointed to President George W. Bush’s Cabinet: U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mitchell Daniels.

The first Arab American ever appointed to a Cabinet secretary post was Donna Shalala, the nation’s longest serving Secretary of Health and Human Services, and now president of the University of Miami. Former Governor of New Hampshire John H. Sununu became the White House Chief of Staff under Pres. George Bush Sr., and later a political commentator on CNN. The late ambassador Philip C. Habib served as Special Presidential Envoy to the Middle East and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Feisty Helen Thomas, who served for 57 years as a correspondent for United Press International and was  dean of the White House press corps, is a Hearst newspaper syndicated columnist. In a class of his own, the late, warm-hearted Robert George por­trayed Santa Claus year-round for nearly 50 years and was a Presidential Santa at the White House. America’s longest-serving White House Chief of Protocol, serving seven-and-a-half years under President Reagan, was Ambassador Selwa Roos­evelt.

Thomas Nassif and Edward Gabriel both served as U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. Our Ambassador to Syria was Theodore Kattouf, and Marcelle Wahba is Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates through seven administrations. Others who have served in high elected office are: former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitch­ell, who brokered a peace deal in Northern Ireland and led a peace commission to the Middle East; former U.S. Senators James Abourezk and James Abdnor, both of South Dakota; and former Con­gressional members Pat Danner of Missouri, Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio, the late George Kasem of California, who was the first Arab American elected to the U.S. Congress, Abraham Kazen, Jr. of Texas, and Toby Moffett of Connecticut. Victor Atiyeh was the popular governor of Oregon. And in San Diego, city clerk Charles Abdelnour pioneered the legislation to create the “all-mail ballot” which set a national precedent and earned him an interna­tional reputation in election law.


San Diego Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie, who threw the “miracle touchdown” pass for Boston College, won the Heisman Trophy in 1984. He previously played for several NFL teams and was a superstar in the Canadian Football League. There’s also NFL player Jeff George, who quarterbacked several NFL teams, and former NFL coach Rich Kotite. Don’t forget former Chicago Bears linebacker and NFL Hall of Famer Bill George, or former Cleveland Brown Abe Gibran. Another NFL player is Drew Haddad of the Indianap­olis Colts. The former owner of the Miami Dolphins was Joe Robbie. UCLA’s fiery coach Jim Harrick took his team to the NCAA playoffs eight years in a row, winning the national championship in 1995.

The late George Maloof, Sr. owned the NBA’s Houston Rockets; today his sons, Joe and Gavin Maloof, own the Sacramento Kings. Major League baseball player Joe Lahoud played with the ( t. Boston Red Sox and Sam Khalifa played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And Fred Saigh once owned baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals. In auto racing, Bobby Rahal won the Indy 500 in 1986, later becoming the alltime earnings champ among Indy car racers. The founder of the Pro­fessional Bowlers Association was the late Eddie Elias. In the ring, Petey Sarron won the world featherweight championship in 1936-1937. Zuhair “Steve” Mansour was weightlifting’s Grandmaster of the World in 1990.

A four-time U.S. National Chess Champion and Grandmaster is Seattle’s Yasser Seirawan. Women’s International Chess Master Jennifer Shahade won the 2002 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship. The late Dr. Elias Gha- nem, former chairman of the Nevada Athletic Commission and Las Vegas’own physician to the stars, once treated celebrities like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, and Paul Anka. In track and field, the world record holder for the marathon is Arab American Khalid Khannouchi.


Among America’s activists, can you think of two people who have saved more lives than America’s foremost consumer advocate and Green party presidential candidate Ralph Nader and the founder of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) Candy Lightner. MADD is the largest crime victims’ assistance organization in the world, with more than 3 million members and supporters. Back in 1960, Ralph Johns, an active participant in the civil rights movement, encouraged the famous Woolworth “sit-in” at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.


The founder of an international, billion-dollar engineering firm, Jacobs Engineering Group, is Dr. Joseph Jacobs. A former chem­ist with dozens of patents became Armand Hammer’s successor as chairman of the board, president, and chief executive officer of Occidental Petroleum — Dr. Ray Irani. The late Najeeb Halaby, former head of the Federal Aviation Ad­ministration, was CEO of Pan-American Airlines. His daughter, Lisa, married King Hussein of Jordan and became the only Arab American to be queen of a foreign country, Queen Noor. Jacques Nasser was formerly the president and CEO of Ford Motor Company. Richard Caleal cre­ated the “revolutionary” 1949 Ford car design, a design that some credit with saving the com­pany.

The chairman of the board of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is Samir G. Gibara. The late Stephen Yokich served five terms as vice president of the International United Auto Workers union, then became its president. Ned Mansour was formerly the president of Mattel, Inc., maker of Barbie dolls and other toys. The founder and president of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the larg­est world-wide distributor of the Bible, is Sam Moore. John Mack is the CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston and was formerly the president of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, one of America’s largest investment banking firms. Dr. Raymond Jallow is an internationally respected economic advisor to governments and institutions, lecturing in financial capitals around the world. Youssef A. Nasr was the president and CEO of HSBC USA, a lead­ing financial services organization and the third largest depository institution. William Hanna is the founding president and CEO of Cedars Bank, a wholly Arab American owned commercial bank headquartered in Los Angeles.

The chairman of the board and CEO of Fresh Del Monte Produce, Inc. is Mohammed Abu-Ghazaleh. Farouk Shamie is the CEO and founder of Farouk Systems USA, a premier hair and skin care company that introduced environmen­tally safe products for hairdressers. Lebanese-American Richard E. Rainwater built his reputation managing investments for * Texas’ wealthy Bass family and earned millions for himself as a result. He recently set up a $120 million trust for Stanford and the University of South Carolina. George Shaheen is credited with founding Andersen Consulting, now called Accenture, and served as CEO and managing partner as part of a 30-year career at the world’s biggest consulting firm. Roger Farah is president and chief operating officer of Polo Ralph Lauren and previously served as chairman of the board of Venator Group, Inc., the parent company of Footlocker.

The “new economy” has its share of Arab American heroes as well: Simon Assad is the co-CEO of, a music site that was nomi­nated for a Webby, the Internet’s highest honor. One of America’s preeminent pollsters, keeping tabs on public opinion and other statistics, is John Zogby of Zogby International. Paul Orfalea founded the world’s biggest international chain of copying service stores, Kinko’s; while the late Waleed Ali and his brother Malik founded MPI, the world’s largest’home-video dis­tributor of documentaries. The Palms, a Maloof Casino Resort in Las Vegas, is operated by George Maloof, Jr. Entrepreneur Tony Ismail founded the Alamo Flag Company in Dallas and built it into the largest retailer of flags and related items in the U.S. today.


The Texas lawyer who won the biggest business settlement in U.S. history, on behalf of Pennzoil ($10 billion dollars!), is one of this country’s most successful attorneys, Joseph D. Jamail. In the famous “zoot suit” trial of the 1940s, George Shibley defended unjustly ac­cused Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. In the late 1990s, Edward Masry and Erin Brockovich filed a direct action lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric for polluting the drinking water of Hinkley, CA. Their efforts secured the largest toxic tort injury settlement in U.S. history, $333 million in damages, and was chronicled in the John Zogby blockbuster film starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney.


Canadian-born singer-songwriter Paul Anka be­came one of America’s first pop teen idols. The late ukelele-plucking, falsetto-singing Herbert Khaury became famous as “Tiny Tim.” And in the world of rock, there was the late, legendary Frank Zappa. On the West Coast, Dick Dale is the “King of the Surf Guitar.” Singer-dancer-choreographer Paula Abdul has had two number-one albums, six number-one singles, a Grammy award, and worldwide album sales exceeding 30 million records. And the first teenage singer ever to have her first two singles both hit number one is Tiffany, born Renee Darwish. Pop star Shakira, of Colombian and Lebanese descent, has scored on the U.S. charts and is a multiple Grammy winner. Speaking of music, three of America’s landmark music shows on radio were created by Arab Americans, Don Bustany and me — “American Top 40,” “American Top 20,”and “American Coun­try Countdown.” Diane Rehm is host and executive producer of “The Diane Rehm Show” on National Public Radio (NPR). George Noory’s talk show “Coast to Coast AM” can be heard on over 500 stations nationwide.

The man who pioneered the concept of a radio programming consultant in 1958 is Mike Joseph, who’s helped organizations like ABC, CBS, and NBC, among others. On Broad­way, playwright Fred Saidy wrote two classics, “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Bloomer Girl.” Opera prima donna Rosalind Elias hit the high notes at the Met. And for avant-garde “Dancer of the Year” in 1992, the New York Times picked a 20-year Broadway veteran with the Paul Taylor Company — Elie Chaib. David Yazbek wrote the lyrics and score for “The Full Monty.” Turning to television, Lucie Salhany became the first woman to Shakira head a television network, as chair of Fox Broadcasting Co., then of United Paramount Network. Tammy Haddad, the creator of “Larry King Live,” is Executive Producer of “Buchanan & Press.” CNN senior editor and anchor Octavia E. Nasr has been named CNN’s first senior editor for Arab affairs. Hoda Kotbe is a correspondent for NBC’s “Dateline” and Jim Avila, who is of Leba­nese and Mexican descent, is a national correspondent for NBC News.

Among TV directors, two Arab Americans have each helmed over 300 episodes for the networks. Asaad Kelada has done numer­ous series like “Family Ties” and episodes of “The Facts of Life,” “Dharma & Greg,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” etc. After direct­ing Broadway hits like “Sweet Charity,” “Mame,” and “The Unsink- able Molly Brown,” John Bowab switched to TV and has directed episodes of the classic hit “The Cosby Show” as well as “My Wife & Kids” and “Life with Bonnie.” Did you know…that the highest-rated’episode in television his­tory was the last episode of “M*A*S*H”? And who played the role of not-so-crazy Corporal Klinger for its entire 11 -year run? A talented Arab American from Toledo, Ohio, Jamie Farr. On NBC, “Saturday Night Live’s” bandleader for many years was guitarist G.E. Smith. (His family’s Lebanese name, Haddad, means blacksmith).

The best-known Lebanese in America was also the founder of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hos­pital — the late, great comedian and actor Danny Thomas. His son is a television and film producer and multi-Emmy winner for “The Golden Girls” and other TV shows — Tony Thomas. Danny’s daughter, Emmy Award-winning Mario Thomas, was the first actress ever to play a single, independent young woman in the TV series, “That Girl.” She currently appears on TV’s “Friends” as Rachel’s mother and published a book, “The Right Words at the Right Time.” Crusty but soft-hearted Mel in TV’s “Alice” was portrayed by the late Vic Tayback. One of the co-stars of the series “Empty Nest” was Kristy McNichol. A star of TV’s “Head of the Class” was once picked by People Magazine as one of the “50 most beautiful people in the U.S.” — Khrystyne Haje. Two other fine movie and television actors who also starred in popular TV dramas are James Stacy, who played the main role in “Laramie,” and Michael Ansara, who played Cochise in “Broken Arrow.” An award-winning comic actress from San Diego, Kathy Najimy, played a fun-loving nun in the “Sister Act” films. Wendie Malick played Nina Van Horn on NBC’s hit show “Just Shoot Me.” The leading man who starred in the movies “Flashdance” and “Finding Forrester” was Mi­chael Nouri, who also starred in TV’s “Love and Wendie MaLick War” sitcom. Tony Shalhoub, now starring in USA Network’s series “Monk,” and Amy Yas- beck appeared in the hit sitcom “Wings” — the first time two Arab Americans have been featured in the same TV series. Amy has also starred in films including Mel Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” Tony has moved to the big screen as well, in both “Men in Black ” films, “The Siege,” “A Civil Action,” and “Thirteen Ghosts” (with fellow Arab Americans F. Murray Abraham and Tony Shalhoub.  Kathy the voice of Peggy Hill on Fox-TV’s animated hit “King of the Hill.”  Shannon Elizabeth of “Ameri­can Pie,” “Scary Movie,” and “Tomcats” is of Leba­nese and Syrian ancestry.

The former head of Carolco Pictures, handling the “Rocky,” “Rambo,” and “Terminator” films, was “billion-dollar producer” Mario Kassar. The producer of the epic “The Message: The Story of Islam” (a biography of the Prophet Mohammed) and “Lion of the Desert,” not to mention all the blockbuster “Halloween” chillers, is Moustapha Akkad. Lovely Salma Hayek, who is of Lebanese and Mexican descent, is another actress who has lit up the small screen (in cable TV’s movie “The Hunchback,” as the gypsy Esmeralda) and the big screen (Oscar-winning “Traffic,” “Desperado,” “Wild Wild West,” and “Fri­da,” about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo). The direc­tor of Jim Carrey’s loony comedy hits “Ace Ventu­ra: Pet Detective” and “Liar, Liar,” Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor,” and Robin’Williams’ “Patch Adams” is Tom Shadyac. Together, these films have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. The Pulitzer Prize for biography (“Jackson Pollack: An American Saga”) was shared by the author of three other national bestsellers: writer-publisher Steven Naifeh of South Carolina. The book was later adapted into an Academy award-winning film (best support­ing actress). Elie Samaha is chairman and owner of Franchise Pictures, which produced such films as “The Heist,” “Angel Eyes,” “The Whole Nine Yards,” and “Battlefield Earth.” Academy Award-winning film pro­ducer Ronald Schwary is best known for his work with “Tootsie,” “Meet Joe Black,” and “Scent of a Woman.” Jehane Noujaim co-directed and co-produced One of show business’ legendary talent managers was the late George “Bullets” Durgom, who, through the years, managed Jackie Gleason, Sammy Davis Jr., and Marilyn Monroe, to mention a few.

Two of today’s top recording stars’ husband-managers are of Arab descent: Rene Angelil, discoverer and manager of wife Celine Dion, and Cuban-born Emilio Estefan, manager and producer of wife Gloria Estefan. Emmy Award-winning cinematographer-director George S. Dibie is president of the International Photographers Guild. Fouad Said was the cinematographer who designed Cinemobile, the first custom­ized van for filming on location, while working on the TV series “I Spy.” For this achievement, he received a Technical Academy Award in 1970. Other Arab American Oscar winners include F. Murray Abraham, who won Best Actor for the movie “Amadeus.” Screenwriter and novelist William Peter Blatty won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Exorcist,” a huge box office hit based on his novel of the same name. Recipient of an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Thelma and Louise” and director of the “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is Callie Khourie. The late composer Paul Jabara won an Oscar award for Best Song, Donna Summer’s ’’Last Dance” from the movie “Thank God, It’s Friday.”

Set decorator Emile Kuri won two Oscars for his splendid work on “The Heiress” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” He received a total of eight Academy Award nominations and later designed many exhibits at Disneyland. The late Edward Said was a Columbia professor and well-known literary and social critic, as well as a respected music reviewer, and wrote a column appearing in “The Nation.”


The late Edward Said was a Columbia professor and well-known literary and social critic, as well as a respected music reviewer, and wrote a column appearing in “The Nation.” Jack Shaheen, emeritus professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University and author of books like “The TV Arab” and “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” has also been CBS News’ consultant for the Middle East. David Ada- many was the longest-serving president of Wayne State University in Detroit and currently serves as Temple University’s president. For an inspiring success story, try that of writer-lecturer on busi­ness and success, Nido Qubein. When he came to the United States as a teenager, he could barely speak English. He went on to become president of the National Speakers’ Association and the youngest member inducted into the International Speakers’ Hall of Fame.


The prestigious CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award for 1989 and 1990 went to Arab American Joseph Abboud of New York. He’s the only designer to win the award two years in a row. Supermodel Yamila. Diaz-Rahi, who is of Lebanese and Spanish descent, landed the coveted Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover in 2002. She has also graced the covers of “Marie Claire,” “Elle,” “GQ,” and “Shape.” One of America’s most sought-after hairstylists, Frederic Fekkai, boasts clients such as Claudia Schiffer, Kim Basinger, and Renee Zellweger. Lebanese immigrant J.M. Haggar started Haggar Clothing Co. in 1926. It became one of the world’s best-known brands in men’s apparel. The company is now a multi-million dollar enterprise that is headed by J.M. Haggar III, who serves as chairman and CEO.

In addition, Farah Brothers manufactures men’s and women’s slacks, and Maloof Brothers manufactured Mod-O-Day women’s dresses. Norma Kamali, who designs everything from clothing and cos­metics to eyeglasses, is of Arab ancestry. Reem Acra is one of the world’s preeminent designers of bridal fashions and is known for her elaborate embroideries. Hair accessories and jewelry designer Colette Malouf began her rise to the top in 1987 with the “Malouf Poof.” She is known for her innovative use of exotic materials and her celebrity clientele.

Art & Literature

Arab Americans also have made significant contributions to the art world. America’s most honored woodworker, Sam Maloof is an award-winning artisan whose creations have appeared in the White House, the Smithsonian Institution, the Metro­politan Museum of Art, the Vatican, and other renowned exhibit halls. Retired heart surgeon Dr. Hussam A. Fadhli is an award-winning sculptor whose work is displayed around the world, includ­ing the Bush Presidential Library. Prolific indus­trial designer Karim Rashid is among the major talents of 21st-century design with work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The first woman to design a major American art museum, Cincin­nati’s $34 million Contemporary Art Center, is Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid. Hadid is the winner of the 2004 Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize, and is the first woman ever to win this award. Artist Ghada Amer’s hand embroidered paintings were selected for the Whitney Biennial 2000 and the Ven­ice Biennale in 1999. Naomi Shihab Nye is an award-winning poet and author of children’s literature.

Science & Medicine

One of America’s most famous pioneers is Houston surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who invented the heart pump. Today he’s chancellor of Baylor University’s College of Medicine. Algerian-American Dr. Elias Zerhouni is the director of the National Institutes of Health. Two winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry are Arab American. Dr. Ahmed H. Zewail, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology (CIT), is the 1999 winner. The 1990 winner is Harvard’s Dr. Elias Corey. Also at CIT is Dr. Charles Elachi, who was selected to head up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A pioneer in the field of electrical engineering, inventor Hassan Kamel Al-Sabbah worked for the General Electric Company (GE) in.the 1920s and 30s. His research led to 52 patent applica­tions, among them innovations in solar energy and television tubes. Geologist George A. Doumani’s explorations helped prove the theory of continental drift; he has a mountain peak named after him in Antarctica. Another American geologist, Dr. Farouk el-Baz, born in Egypt, helped plan all the Apollo moon landings and later pioneered the use of space photography to study the Earth.

Finally, the courageous astronauts who lost their lives aboard the space shuttle Challenger represented several racial and ethnic groups: African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, Anglo-American, Jewish-American — and Arab American: school­teacher Christa McAuliffe. We have all heard this quote before: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — a famous quote by an Irish-American president, John F. Kennedy, that inspired an entire generation. These words were first written by, among others, the Arab American author of “The Prophet,” Kahlil Gibran. And that sentiment, so beautifully expressed by Gibran more than 70 years ago, has inspired Americans of all heritages.

We Arab Americans are proud of our heritage and proud to be Ameri­cans. It’s this pride that keeps us all asking, “What can we do for our country?”— the good old U.S.A.