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With his work in real estate, Dalati began buying distressed homes and selling them to Arab and Muslim immigrants; thanks to the reasonable building prices at the time, an influx began. Another pioneer immigrant was Ahmad Alam, a Lebanese native who came to the U.S. in 1971 to study at Cerritos College. He ended up buying Brookhurst Plaza, with a location for the offices of The Arab World Newspaper, which began publishing in 1996 and was Orange County's first Arabic-language newspaper. As did Dalati, he envisioned something more for incoming Arab merchants—but he is a bit more boastful than Dalati.
"I started the idea and the project of Little Arabia," Alam says, claiming he started in earnest in 1989. "I brought all the merchants to it. The Arab World Newspaper had a big campaign for four years advertising and encouraging people to move to that area. We had free ads for every new business that opened there. That's what started it all, and it's still going on now."
Alam says he personally recruited 150 families to relocate to Anaheim during the 1990s, and his boosterism continues: Six months ago, he arranged for a Middle Eastern market to buy a 45,000-square-foot building on the corner of Katella Avenue and Euclid Street; it is expected to open soon.
512 S. Brookhurst St., Ste. 3
Anaheim, CA 92804
512 S. Brookhurst, Ste. 5
Anaheim, CA 92804
1208 S. Brookhurst St.
Anaheim, CA 92804
As Little Gaza experienced a rebirth, the Arab-American community began creating institutions that would help establish a positive public profile. Alam and other Arab-American businesses founded the Arab American Council in 1996, the same year he helped to start the Arab-American Day Festival, a yearly carnival of rides, booths, music and food held in Garden Grove. After 9/11, merchants met with the Anaheim police chief over police harassment of their patrons; chatter emerged that one of the community's own should run for a seat on the City Council, a proposition Dalati acted on in 2006.
"I wanted the Arab-American community to become more civically engaged and to give back to Anaheim, which has given so much to me," he says of his motivation to run. Over the years, Dalati had worked with the Arab American Council, the Arab American Day Festival and the social-service agency Access; served on the board of the Eli Home; and was involved in Anaheim's Cultural & Heritage Commission. His City Council candidacy, however, encountered immediate controversy. Former state GOP chairman Shawn Steel sent a letter to local Republican officials labeling Dalati an anti-American with sympathies for "extremist" groups, pointing to his support of the Council on American Islamic Relations, whose Southern California office is located on Brookhurst Street.
The move brought national attention of the wrong kind, and Dalati lost. Dejected by the lack of support in the face of such accusations, he left the Republican Party and re-registered as a Democrat. "I learned that the true Americans are open-minded," he reflects. "Then, there are people who are racist. For someone like me, who is an Arab Muslim from Syria, it is very tough. Here in Anaheim, as there are many patriotic Americans; there's also the other side that looks at me with suspicious eyes, as if I'm the Manchurian candidate."
He tried again in 2010, holding a campaign rally at Brookhurst Plaza. With Little Arabia gaining increasing media attention, the community became a campaign issue on which he was often pressed. "As a politician, I kind of didn't like the idea of the city getting involved in it, and I was against the idea of Little Arabia being named officially," he says of his stance. "But right now, I'm opening to the idea. [The younger generation] have made it so attractive. I might just jump on board and support it."
Alam minimizes the role Dalati has played in legitimizing the enclave. "He did participate in it, but he did not build it," Alam says. "He came in and opened an office and became one of the merchants over there. That's all he did."
Once friends, the two pioneers are no longer on speaking terms because of what brought Little Arabia its recent mainstream attention.
"The Arab Spring has always been a dream of ours as Arab immigrants," says Dalati. "The reason we left our countries is because our governments were so corrupt and our dreams were dull and futureless. When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, we supported that big time as Syrians. When it moved to Egypt, we were even happier. We thought it was going to spread all over the Middle East. Alam, I and everyone else supported every other revolution."
When the wave of discontent reached Syria last year, Dalati initially wanted to play it cautiously from the middle. He hosted a meeting in his office for loyalists and the opposition, and an attempt was made to find five common agreements that would keep the community bound together. "I was stuck in the middle for the longest time, even though my family and I were always on the opposition side," he says. "But yet, I wanted to be in the middle and make sure we didn't lose one another as a community because we've known one another for years and always worked together until this revolution came about and separated us."