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An onshore flow sways the palm trees of Anaheim's Brookhurst Plaza, a cul-de-sac of one-story strip malls surrounding a parking lot. The breeze gently flaps through the flags of Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries that fly on poles around the shops. Nearly three years ago, a fire erupted here, damaging five businesses and severely affecting the bottom line of those that survived. But today, Brookhurst Plaza is a hive of commerce: The parking lot is chronically full, and the businesses hum with continuous activity.
Above the tables outside Olive Tree (named the county's best Middle Eastern restaurant the past two years by the Weekly), a green canopy provides shade from the unseasonably warm noontime sun. As the ululating rhythms of Arabian music play from two outside speakers, Rashad Al-Dabbagh places an order for chicken shawarma while discussing his vision for this section of Anaheim, where Brookhurst Plaza isn't a hidden treasure, but rather the norm: an officially designated cultural destination called Little Arabia, complete with freeway signs and city approval, that will make it something as large and nationally known as Little Saigon.
"It should be viewed as a positive thing for Anaheim, not 'Arabization' or 'Islamization,'" says Al-Dabbagh, communications director for the Syrian American Council. "In fact, we're more interested in bringing non-Arabs to these restaurants. There are a lot of reasons why people visit Anaheim. They come for an Angels game, to watch a hockey game or to go to Disneyland. The idea is when someone is coming to Anaheim to watch an Angels game, let's have them stop by Little Arabia and have lunch."
512 S. Brookhurst St., Ste. 3
Anaheim, CA 92804
512 S. Brookhurst, Ste. 5
Anaheim, CA 92804
1208 S. Brookhurst St.
Anaheim, CA 92804
Brookhurst Plaza stands at the northern end of this unofficial Middle Eastern district of Orange County that stretches along Brookhurst Avenue between La Palma Avenue and Garden Grove Boulevard in Anaheim, spills west toward Magnolia Street and east toward Euclid Avenue (with spillover in Stanton, Garden Grove and Fullerton). The community is one of the largest of its kind in the United States, with dozens of grocery stores, halal meat markets, hookah lounges, bookshops and clothing stores, many opening within the past decade and drawing regular customers from as far away as San Diego, Fresno and the Inland Empire. Arab and Muslim professionals have set up nonprofits and other offices in the area, and in the classic American narrative of immigrants asserting themselves in their new country by establishing an ethnic enclave, the sector has also attracted more and more residents.
As part of a younger generation of Arab-Americans picking up on what an earlier business class started in the late 1980s, Al-Dabbagh and others have turned to social media as a means to promote the idea of Little Arabia. But even in Brookhurst Plaza, with its flags representing Arab countries flapping in the wind, there is trouble in the oasis.
Two storefronts down from Olive Tree Restaurant is Forn Al Hara, a bakery serving Middle Eastern-style pizzas and pastries. Its affable owner, Muhammad Alam, allows sit-down eaters to dine first and pay later. His establishment flew an Egyptian flag alongside Valentine's Day decorations last February. During 2011's Arab Spring, Little Arabia became a gathering point for numerous celebrations, with spontaneous rallies attracting hundreds of participants and the attention of media outlets across the world as regime after regime fell, including Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year reign. It was the Main Street of Arab America, a place where a reporter could parachute in for an easy quote or photo opportunity.
But by September, the bakery would find itself a pariah, blacklisted by activists upset it wouldn't pull its ads from The Arab World Newspaper, published by Ahmad Alam, Muhammad's brother and a major property owner in the area. The newspaper and its editor in chief were accused of being supportive of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad as his regime violently cracked down on the ongoing 10-month challenge to his rule. Soon, other businesses became subjects of rumors, graffiti, boycotts and threats based on loyalty or opposition to the corrupt rulers of the Middle East.
The very uprisings that have brought the prospect of freedom to the Arab world now threaten to fray Little Arabia's own movement at mainstream acceptance. "With Egypt, we were all united," says Al-Dabbagh, "but after Syria, everything changed."
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Prior to the arrival of Arab merchants and families, the section of West Anaheim that activists hope to officially designate Little Arabia was popularly known as the Gaza Strip—not because of suburban solidarity with the Palestinian cause, but because of an unincorporated area called Garza Island. Rising from agricultural fields in the 1950s post-World War II building boom, the Gaza Strip hosted a collection of dive bars, restaurants, and mom-and-pop stores on the main streets, with tract housing and apartments in the neighborhoods giving it a distinctly working-class feel. The area's most famous business is Linbrook Bowl, a legendary bowling alley that Huell Howser has profiled and whose Googie-style sign, complete with rotating pin, still lights up every night.
But by the 1980s, white flight left the Gaza Strip mostly abandoned or replaced with seedy businesses. "When we moved to the strip here in Brookhurst, it was drug-infested," says Belal "Bill" Dalati, a brawny, 6-foot, Syria-born businessman who moved to Anaheim in 1987 and runs a real-estate agency. Dalati's Inc. is located roughly in the middle of Little Arabia, across the street from a Sizzler that advertises halal meals. "There was prostitution all over and a lot of empty businesses. Arab-Americans played a big part in improving it."