where the writers are
Who'll play Omar in the movies...?
In New York for a UN conference, Omar Yussef uncovers a suicidal assassination plot. The suspect: his own son. Omar's most personal investigation yet.
Tony Shalhoub

On the My Book, The Movie blog, I was asked to muse about who I'd choose to play Omar Yussef in the movies. Well, musing I can do -- it's about as solid as the actual movie business itself, so why not. Here's what I wrote:

I didn’t need to think of an actor. Not until I’d finished my book. Then the thinking really started.

The Palestinian detective hero of my books, Omar Yussef, is based on a real Palestinian friend of mine who lives in the Dehaisha Refugee Camp on the edge of Bethlehem in the West Bank. I had no problem visualizing him when I wrote about Omar, because I saw him most days. We spent a lot of time together and, with a gentleman as frequently cantankerous as my real-life chum, believe me, I got the full tour.<!--more-->

Then came publication of the first of my Palestinian crime novels, The Collaborator of Bethlehem. The estimable Marshal Zeringue invited me to write a post for this blog. Instead of having a famous actor always in mind, I had to run through potential candidates.

My wife insisted Pacino was just right for Omar. But I preferred the quiet, gentle Swiss actor Bruno Ganz – who proved he could do cantankerous when he played Hitler a few years ago in Downfall.

At the Leipzig Book Fair last year, my Berlin-based film agent chatted with me about some negotiations with a German tv channel which wanted to make a series based on Omar. As we talked, crowds of local kids dressed in “Manga” costume milled about (apparently this is some Japanese animation thing that has cult dressing-up status among people young enough to make me feel very old.) He asked if I had an actor in
mind for Omar. I mentioned Ganz.

“No, it won’t work,” Roland said.

“Why not?” I asked, as I was bumped from behind by some German kid dressed up as a vampire samurai.

“He’s not Arab. It really ought to be an Arab. But it’s difficult to find an Arab actor who’s well-known enough to carry a production and also speaks German.”

“So Pacino’s out too, I guess.”

“Well, movies are different from tv,” he said, “and if it sold in America, things might be different, too.”

I think they might be different now that The Fourth Assassin has been released. In this new installment of my Palestinian series, Omar comes to New York for a UN conference, only to uncover an assassination plot. The suspect: his own son.

I’d guess the New York setting might make the series seem just that little bit less dauntingly foreign – without betraying its core and making it into just another American detective story.

Which leaves me free to name names.

So here it is: Tony Shalhoub. He showed great dramatic range in The Siege, which was written by Lawrence Wright, a journalist colleague of mine who later won a Pulitzer for The Looming Tower, a nonfiction account of the story behind the 9/11 terrorists. Shalhoub had a nice cameo in 1408, an otherwise typically over the top Stephen King thing. I don’t really watch tv, but I gather Monk is great.

Oh, and I forgot to mention: Tony Shalhoub’s an Arab. He’s descended from Lebanese immigrants.

I hope that’s good enough. I mean, don’t make me find an actor big enough to carry a Hollywood movie who’s actually Palestinian…