April Celebrates National Arab American Heritage Month

5 min read

| By Carol Brennan |

April is National Arab American Heritage Month, an opportunity to honor the contributions of a diverse and especially resilient class of American immigrants and their descendants. Each month, Gale In Context: Biography is refreshed with new names from the fields of entertainment, science, politics, sports, the arts, and social activism. We’ve singled out notable Americans from the Arabic-speaking diaspora, a list that represents a fraction of the intriguing figures in Gale In Context: Biography

One of the most celebrated Arab Americans of the 1950s and ’60s was Najeeb E. Halaby (1915–2003), the son of a Syrian-born father. Halaby graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law School before becoming the first American to make a transcontinental jet flight in 1945. He went on to serve as head of the Federal Aviation Administration and chief executive officer of Pan American World Airways; his daughter is Noor, Queen of Jordan (born 1951), who was the Princeton-educated Lisa Halaby when she married Hussein, King of Jordan, in 1978. Working on the terrestrial-transportation sector was consumer advocate Ralph Nader (born 1934), a Lebanese American graduate of Harvard Law School who emerged as a vociferous critic of the U.S. automotive industry with his 1966 bestseller Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. Later that same year, Nader successfully lobbied Congress to pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which required automobile manufacturers to phase in lifesaving features like seat belts, airbags, and shatterproof windshields. 

American technology executive Steve Jobs (1955–2011) cofounded Apple Inc. and was the guiding force behind both the iPhone and Pixar animation studio. Jobs was adopted as an infant but was the biological son of a prominent Syrian scholar enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, Abdulfattah (John) Jandali, who later married Jobs’s biological mother and became the parent of the novelist Mona Simpson (born 1957), whose 1986 novel, Anywhere But Here, was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name. 

On the science frontier, Dr. Michael DeBakey (1908–2008) is revered as the father of modern cardiovascular surgery. Born in Lebanon, he came to the United States with his family and, during his long career at the Baylor University School of Medicine, pioneered coronary artery bypass surgery and the use of the external heart-lung pump to enable extended surgeries to repair damaged cardiac tissue. Pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (born c. 1976) was born in Britain to Iraqi parents but grew up in suburban Detroit, Michigan. In 2015, she alerted media outlets about the significant levels of lead in Flint-area children, which became one of Michigan’s worst environmental-health scandals of the modern age. 

Fashion models Gigi Hadid (born 1995) and Bella Hadid (born 1996) first appeared on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills via their mother, the ex-wife of Palestinian American real estate developer Mohamed Hadid. Another prominent refugee from the 1947–49 Palestinian War with Israel was the scholar Edward W. Said (1935–2003), a Columbia University literature professor whose 1978 book Orientalism ushered in the postcolonialism era of cultural studies. DJ Khaled (born 1975) also hails from a Palestinian immigrant family. The Miami-based musician and producer collected the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for his single “Higher” with Nipsey Hussle and John Legend.

Haifaa Al-Mansour (born 1974) is the first person to direct a feature film inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her Wadjda won multiple awards at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. In the years since that achievement, she made the 2017 film Mary Shelley and settled in the Los Angeles area, where she works as a television director. Rami Malek (born 1981) grew up in an Egyptian immigrant family in California and won an Emmy Award in 2016 for his role in the USA Network series Mr. Robot. Three years later, he became the first actor of Arabic heritage to win an Academy Award, taking the Best Actor honor for his portrayal of rock singer Freddie Mercury of Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody. In 1992, Lebanese American screenwriter Callie Khouri (born 1957) became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay without a male cowriter for the film Thelma & Louise and went on to create the hit ABC series Nashville. Another Lebanese American screenwriter to win an Oscar was William Peter Blatty (1928–2017), who won for the 1973 film The Exorcist, the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

We have left out many outstanding Americans, from the poet Khalil Gibran (1883–1931) and veteran journalist Helen Thomas (1920–2013) to NBC anchor Hoda Kotb (born 1964) and Rashida Tlaib (born 1976), one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. All of them, and so many more, ensure that Gale In Context: Biography serves as the most comprehensive resource for exploring the lives and achievements of notables who have made significant contributions to a genuinely diverse America.

You can read more about these people and others in Gale In Context: Biography.

About the Author

Carol Brennan has been writing biographical entries for Cengage/Gale since 1993. If she’s not writing, she is either at yoga or walking her dachshund. Carol consumes an alarming volume of podcasts and audiobooks weekly.

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