What Are Arabs Supposed to Look Like?


Justin Abdelkader, the 22-year old rookie center for the Detroit Red Wings, scored two consecutive insurance goals in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Abdelkader, who was called in as a replacement for an injured Tomas Kopecky, plays on Detroit’s fourth line and is making unexpected headlines with his first, and timely, NHL career goals.

As you can probably tell by his surname (which NHL commentators hilariously mispronounce) there is another exciting fact about Justin Abdelkader: He is of Jordanian descent. The last time I heard about an Arab ice hockey player was when Ramzi Abid (a Muslim of Tunisian descent) played for the Nashville Predators. Abid no longer plays in the NHL, so from what I understand, Abdelkader is currently the only Arab in the league.

As I ran searches to learn more about Abdelkader’s ethnic background, I came across many comments on internet forums and fan websites that said, “He doesn’t look Arab at all” or he is the “least-Arabic looking person with an Arabic last name.” These comments reminded me of an article I read a few years ago called “What Does a Muslim Look Like?” by Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American Muslim, where she writes about the stereotypical images of Muslims that many non-Muslims expect to see based upon limited media coverage and representation. I saw one comment on a forum that read, “[Abdelkader] definitely doesn’t look Muslim.” No, Abdelkader is not Muslim, but even so, what is a Muslim supposed to look like? Islam is a religion open to all people, regardless of ethnicity. There is no such thing as a “Muslim look.” In response to those who say Abdelkader “doesn’t look” Arab: What is an Arab supposed to look like?

Confusion regarding Abdelkader’s appearance and Arab background stems from the stereotype that all Arabs are dark-skinned. What seems to be overlooked (and perhaps unknown to many people) is that the Arab world consists of 25 countries populated by cultural, religious, and genetic diversity. It’s not uncommon to see some fair-skinned Arabs like Justin Abdelkader in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. For history buffs out there, this shouldn’t come to a surprise since those regions were colonized and ruled by Western imperialism and empires several times throughout history (Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, French colonialists). On the other hand, Arabs from North Africa (like the aforementioned Ramzi Abid) and the Gulf areas tend to be darker-skinned.

Of course, this is not to say all Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan are light-skinned. For instance, there are some Syrian Muslims at my Mosque who are blonde-haired and light-skinned, and there are some who are dark-skinned. What also needs to be factored in is the possibility that Justin Abdelkader’s grandmother is not Arab, since it is only reported that Justin’s grandfather is Jordanian. Regardless, when we make statements like, “He doesn’t look Arab,” we’re reinforcing the stereotype that Arabs have a certain or specific “look.” It also underlines the immense amount of influence that the media has played in shaping our perception of Arabs.

At the 2009 CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) banquet in Springfield, Pennsylvania, Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah, pointed out that since he doesn’t fit the stereotype of how an Arab is “supposed to look like,” many people have made racial slurs about Arabs around him. When he told them he was Arab, they replied, “You don’t freakin’ look like it!”

On a positive note, it’s great to see an Arab-American like Justin Abdelkader making a notable presence in the NHL. The recent spotlight on him is an excellent way to break stereotypes about Arabs, especially for those who may not personally know or interact with many Arabs.

Enjoy watching his awesome first goal in game 1:



  1. Joseph said,

    June 2, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Great post Jehanzeb. You know I had to comment here, because I hear comments like this (“you don’t look like an Arab” etc…) ALL THE TIME.
    Me = Lebanese, fair skin, green eyes…

    It took me a long time to say to people “Actually, I look exactly like what I am.” When I was a kid I used to wish I was darker, partly because I like the way brown skin looks and partly because I thought it would make my life easier. Constantly explaining yourself is exhausting.

  2. brokenmystic said,

    June 3, 2009 at 4:38 am

    Thanks Joseph! I have some Lebanese friends who hear the same things. I hear you on the exhaustion part. I get exhausting explaining certain things about myself too. People tend to get surprised when I tell them I’m not Arab (I guess it’s because they think Muslim is synonymous with Arab).

  3. Chiara said,

    June 27, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Time to add Nazem Kadri, of Lebanese descent, taken by Brian Burke for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 7th round of the NHL draft, described as:
    “London Knights forward [2- way centre] Nazem Kadri, a speedster who overcame a broken jaw early in the season to score 25 goals in 56 games. ”

    From another article:
    Off the ice, he hopes to have an impact too, given his Lebanese background.
    “I don’t think there are any (Lebanese) playing in the NHL right now,” Kadri said. “I feel I can be a role model in that sense. That’s important to me.
    “When kids look up to you, it makes you feel a lot better about yourself.” Kadri comes from a huge clan, estimating there are about “40 in my immediate family.”

    Ah, but is he a Muslim, some want to know, YES:
    “Being a role model is an important thing for me,” said Kadri, who hopes Muslim kids are inspired to take up hockey because of him. “Hopefully these kids can look at me and use me as a role model.”

    Kadri is likely to remain with the London Knights for another season. His arrival in Toronto coincides with a time when some teams in the GTHL are struggling with enrolment. In Scarborough, the youth from a heavy immigrant population aspire to play cricket and soccer, leaving youth hockey rosters barren and teams forced to fold or merge.

    “A lot of Muslim kids are going to start playing hockey because they see someone like them be successful in that area,” said Kadri.

    There are about 250,000 Muslims living in Toronto, and the drafting of Kadri was welcomed.

    “That’s good news,” Wahida Valiante, chair and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress told the Star’s Kenneth Kidd. “I hope he plays well, because we’ll be cheering.”

    But while Kadri’s faith is important, he’s also “just Canadian,” she said. “It speaks very loudly that we live in a healthy society.”

    Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment worried in 2008 that hockey might lose its grip as the top sport in the city with the changing demographic.

    GM Brian Burke acknowledged Kadri has leadership skills – he was the president of the Muslim Student Association in his high school – and the teenager’s maturity showed in pre-draft meetings. Burke said he’d be happy if Kadri’s career as a Maple Leaf inspired others to take up the sport.

    Go Leafs! or Habs! (depending on who’s playing whom) LOL 🙂

    • junaid said,

      December 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      ok lets make it simple kadri bas justin good abid bad me good

  4. Joey Wicklin said,

    August 4, 2010 at 1:44 am

    Thanks for taking the time to talk about this, I feel strongly about it and I benefit from learning about this topic. Please, as you gain facts, please add to this blog with new information. I have found it extremely useful. If you wanted to go from Ho-chi-Minh city, the capital of Vietnam to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, in a hurry for example, it always had to be a bus ride, and it always has to be hell: unless you wanted to shell out a week’s pay on a plane ride.

  5. junaid said,

    December 6, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    wow im impressed. i was huge fan of the red wings and i always thought justin was muslim. Being a muslim,it`s good to know how people are representing us ,yet i still don`t if he`s a real muslim

  6. KGBSovietKid98 said,

    February 1, 2012 at 2:21 am

    Lebanese ARE NOT ARABS. They loved the Lord before Arabs conquered the cedars.

  7. joey said,

    February 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Arabs are usually brown and sometimes black although rarely white i agree with you in Syria and Lebanon their are a lot of whites mainly because they are of European descendent same thing goes in Jorden and Palestine but in those countries their is not a lot of white folk Palestinians look a lot like Egyptians and are very dark in the south e.g Gaza strip but a little bit lighter up north but white Arabs are actually of European descendent.

  8. August 11, 2012 at 7:13 am

    It’s true that Arabs are brown and black too. I’ve been to Yemen and Oman and ppl there are very dark. In general the khaleejis (gulfes) are dark skinned and you know what? That’s bcoz they are the real Arabs. I’m of Saudi and Yemeni descent and I’m light brown with Arabic features. I know many Lebanese and they don’t look like me at all same with all the levantines. So, yeah they are very light skinned with European features and they look much better than the us khaleejis.

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