Shalhoub sees anti-Arab tide ebbing in U.S.

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Despite several chances to take the bait and swallow it whole, Tony Shalhoub painstakingly resisted.

The star of "AmericanEast" was on hand Monday in Dubai to tub-thump the indie movie, which focuses on Arab-American immigrants in post-Sept. 11 Los Angeles and specifically their relations with their Jewish neighbors. The film screened Monday afternoon at the Madinat Jumeirah during the fourth annual Dubai International Film Festival.

Like most news conferences at film fests around the world, there inevitably are questions from the floor that tend to go for the jugular.

In this case, the discussion, in both Arabic and English, focused on whether the American public and the American media and entertainment industry were changing their attitudes toward Arabs.

"So many times," Shalhoub told the 50-odd reporters, "Arabs have been shown in a negative light." But, he added, "things are beginning to change."

The six years since the Sept. 11 attacks have prompted a lot of people to be "proactive and to push back," Shalhoub said.

As a model for what might be done for the image of Arab immigrants, he was inspired by the efforts his friend Stanley Tucci undertook years ago to foster Italian-American movies that weren't just about Mafiosi.

But asked specifically by an unidentified Arab speaker whether an Arab-American lobby was being created stateside to counter "the Zionist one in Washington and in Hollywood," Shalhoub was circumspect.

The Lebanese-born actor stressed that perceptions take a long time to shift, and that in any case the problem is not limited to the Arab-American question but encompasses "all kinds of prejudices and ignorance."

"I can't really give you a timeline," he said. "A lot of people have to be educated or screamed at or coerced, but I think we are seeing the beginning of change."

Shalhoub is actively involved stateside in a couple of ongoing initiatives dedicated to fostering greater understanding, including the nonprofit Journeys in Film, which links foreign film viewing to high school curricula, and an Arab-American Filmmakers Award for budding screenwriters.

The actor — best known in the Middle East for his starring role in "Monk," which has been widely licensed in the region by Universal — also let slip that he is mulling another film role, playing the Arab poet Khalil Gibran in a biopic that is being written.

"In a business driven by money, we have to invest in ourselves," he said. "(Changing things) is a long-term play."

Asked specifically if his career was hampered by his Arab origins, Shalhoub said he was hampered by being "ugly and ignorant, not by being Arabic."

The other actors in "AmericanEast" had somewhat differing experiences, with one of them, Sayed Bedreya, suggesting that 60%-70% of the roles he's played over the years were some sort of terrorist. The film's director, Hesham Issawi, said that such TV shows as "24" and "Sleeper Cell" perpetuate those negative stereotypes. "They take us in directions we don't want to go," he said.

On the other hand, the female star of the movie, Sarah Shahi, pointed out that NBC's "Life" features various criminals, but so far none of them has been of Arabic origin. She herself is a Texan of Arab origin but grew up being routinely mistaken for Mexican.

Low-budget movies like "AmericanEast" rarely make it into the American heartland these days, Shalhoub admitted when asked by The Hollywood Reporter if TV series might be a more fertile ground for changing hearts and minds.

As far as such series being hatched back in Los Angeles, "there are people trying to pitch such shows here and there, both sitcoms and dramas, but it's slow going," he said.

A wry comedy from Canada called "Little Mosque on the Prairie" apparently was pitched to CBS as a potential comedy format but was passed on.
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