10 influential celebrities you didn’t know were Middle Eastern

Published April 20th, 2014 - 08:02 GMT

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Zoe Saldana
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Image 1 of 10: Zoe Saldana is best known for her roles in Avatar and as the new Uhura in the resurrected Star Trek franchise. The proudly black Latina actress from Dominica has been broadcasting her other DNA, confirming in a recent TV interview that she is also part Lebanese, loves Lebanese cooking and is uber-proud of her Middle Eastern roots.

Wentworth Miller
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Image 1 of 10: Wentworth Miller is a multi-ethnic “everyman” with a dad who is African American, Jamaican, Jewish & Cherokee & a mom who is Syrian & Lebanese. The actor, who appeared in TV show Prison Break and was scriptwriter for horror thriller Stoker has said his lineage: “Kind of makes me a racial Lone Ranger, caught between communities."

Julia Sawalha
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Image 1 of 10: Julia Sawalha is best known as the straight-laced daughter Saffron in Brit comedy Absolutely Fabulous. In 2006, she participated in the genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? tracing her roots, which are Jordanian Bedouin on her father's side, and French Huguenot on her mother's. Her father is Jordanian actor Nadim Sawalha.

Vince Vaughn
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Image 1 of 10: Vince Vaughn came on stage in the late 90s via Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Jennifer Lopez's The Cell before moving to big box office comedies and bro-mance films. With his paternal grandma hailing from Lebanon, Vince stands tall above his countrymen - he’s one of the tallest leading men in Hollywood at 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m).

Murray Abrahams
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Image 1 of 10: Murray Abrahams is best known for his Oscar-winning role in Amadeus and for parts in The Name of the Rose, 13 Ghosts and Star Trek: Insurrection. The actor is half Assyrian Christian, half Italian American. He’s laughed off being confused with other famous Arab Americans such as Tony Shaloub and Sayed Badreya. (Do all Arabs look alike?)

Catherine Bell
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Image 1 of 10: Catherine Bell was born in London to a Scottish father and Iranian mother, moving to California when she was a toddler. The actress attended UCLA to study biology, but dropped out to model in Japan, later starring in American TV series JAG and a string of hit movies. She’s fluent in Farsi.

Bob Marley
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Image 1 of 10: Bob Marley - Jamaican music icon - traced Syrian bloodlines through his paternal granny, a Syrian Jew who migrated from the Middle East to the UK then to Jamaica. Marley remains the most widely known and respected performer of reggae music, credited with popularizing Jamaican music and the Rastafari movement worldwide. But could he play the oud?

Teri Hatcher
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Image 1 of 10: Teri Hatcher got her big break on the 1990’s Superman-themed TV show Lois and Clark. Most people know the former Bond Girl (in Tomorrow Never Dies) for her role in hit series Desperate Housewives. Hatcher is half Syrian - we wonder what she thinks of the revolution?

Yasmin Le Bon
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Image 1 of 10: Yasmin Le Bon was a second-tier supermodel in the Golden Age of uber-mannequins (think shoulder-padded 1990s), but she was most notable as the wife of 1980s pop star Simon La Bon from the group Duran Duran. The excellent genes bestowed by her Iranian father and English mother have her still modelling today.

Dick Dale
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Image 1 of 10: Dick Dale was a 1950’s surfer and guitar legend who’s probably way off your radar, but you’ve absolutely heard his music - iconic film Pulp Fiction opens to the tune of his epic recording Misirlou. (YouTube it for a memory flash-back.) A star in the mid-century southern California beach party scene, he had a Lebanese father & Polish mother.

When things get tough, who’s got your back? There’s power in numbers, and when people align behind a cause - mountains move. Wake up Hollywood - Western entertainment is overdue for an Arab awakening!

Last month, an exciting new drama penned by an Arabic-speaking US army veteran was cleared to “pilot” on American television channel ABC family. Alice in Arabia was scrapped four days later after advocacy groups (incited in part by a Buzzfeed article) raised concerns that the series - about an American teen who's kidnapped by her relatives and taken to Saudi Arabia (KSA) - would perpetuate negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.

Writer Brooke Eikmeier anticipated controversy surrounding the storyline which centered on an teen who, after her mother’s death, must adjust to living with her maternal family in KSA.  Caught between cultures, the mixed-race girl is more familiar with her American side, as her audience would be, allowing viewers to participate in her enlightenment and growing appreciation of the Middle East. Brilliant!

ABC issued a synopsis saying, "Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must...find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil."  That clumsy description included inflammatory words and wrongly described Saudi women as wearing “burkas”, destroying the series’ credibility and inciting strong opposition from anti-defamation groups such as The Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Eikmeier intended that, as the series progressed, her predominantly Arab cast would achieve a goal sought by many in the US Muslim community: create a series that showed them fairly, with respect and complexity.  It may have sparked greater understanding and tolerance, much like TV’s “Cosby Show” did for US black/white relations in the 1980s.

Undeterred, Eikmeier will now shop the drama elsewhere.  She emphasizes that the show will give opportunities to Arab writers and Arab actors.  So why aren’t Middle Eastern professionals in Hollywood backing her?  Other than Omar Sharif, can you identify many Arabs who made it big in Western entertainment?  

Here’s a list of 10 celebrities you may not have known were Middle Eastern. Not just born in regional zip codes, but actually boasting Middle East lineage.  Lights, cameras, and let’s see some action for an entertainment industry uprising!  (And leave us your comments if we’ve missed any!)

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