Little Arabia Grows Up

Can one of the country's largest Middle Eastern neighborhoods patch up its rivalries to become OC's next famous ethnic enclave?

The meeting was for naught: Dalati's office was vandalized with pro-Assad graffiti soon after. Weeks later, a Garden Grove travel agency was spray-painted with pro-opposition messages.

Attention soon turned to Alam and The Arab World Newspaper. "He was on the loyalist side," Dalati says matter-of-factly, "and we're not on good terms anymore."

The very periodical that published an early map of "Arab Town" in the mid-1990s, long before it became a viable reality, became a target for anti-Assad organizers. Not only did they call for a boycott of businesses that didn't pull their ads from the newspaper, but they also targeted Assad's Arab American Festival. A Facebook page stated Alam "shamefully stood against our fellow innocent Syrians by supporting the brutal Assad regime which is KILLING SYRIANS peacefully demanding freedom."

Ready for its close-up
Mary Pastrana
Ready for its close-up
Omar Masry sits at a shopping center in Little Arabia
Mary Pastrana
Omar Masry sits at a shopping center in Little Arabia

Location Info


Olive Tree

512 S. Brookhurst St., Ste. 3
Anaheim, CA 92804

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Anaheim

Forn Al Hara

512 S. Brookhurst, Ste. 5
Anaheim, CA 92804

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Anaheim

Kareem's Restaurant

1208 S. Brookhurst St.
Anaheim, CA 92804

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Anaheim

But Alam takes issue with his critics' characterization. "We don't want to bring the problems of the Middle East to our life here. This is what we're against," he says. "Some of those who protested, they want us to be against the regime in Syria, as far as my newspaper. What goes over there has nothing to do with our lives, but we do care about people getting killed. We feel sorry for them, but we're not going to pick sides because picking sides is politics."

On that note, Alam chastises Dalati for his opposition sympathies. "The guy is forgetting he is a U.S. citizen and that he ran for office a few times," he says. "He should really be taking care of his country, the United States, not taking care of Syria."

Dalati brushes off the critique. Earlier this month, he departed on the Liberty Convoy for Syria, a humanitarian mission aimed at delivering food and medical supplies to distressed areas that was stopped at the border. "The Syrian conflict is going to be over soon, and I'm hoping that we can get back together as a community," he says, predicting the regime's fall. "Those people who are encouraging the killing, I can't get along with anymore."

On Jan. 6, his cousin Samir Dalati was shot and killed in Zabadani, a suburb of Damascus. YouTube videos showing his corpse, a gaping hole below his armpit a graphic reminder of Assad's iron hand, went viral across Little Arabia via email.

* * *

While the older generation bickers, the younger generation dreams.

"I don't think [the Syrian conflict] should affect our ability to work together on the Little Arabia project, or other local issues that are important to the Arab community," Rashad Al-Dabbagh says. "Personally, I don't have a problem coordinating with others to advance this project, even if I have a completely different take on the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime than the one they have."

Born in Saudi Arabia to a Palestinian father and an Armenian mother from Lebanon, Al-Dabbagh moved to Pasadena in 1999 to attend college. "For a while, I didn't know [Little Arabia] existed, but I had an uncle who lived close, so I visited and eventually learned about these shops and grocery stores," Al-Dabbagh recounts. "Eventually, I moved to Anaheim. . . . When you're away from home, especially when you're new, you want something to remind you of home."

Al-Dabbagh has teamed up with Omar Masry, an Iraq War veteran born in Glendale to a Lebanese father and Saudi mother who works as a city planner for Irvine. "I'm a little more on the assimilated side, if you will, of the Arab-American community," he readily admits. Masry got into the idea of Little Arabia after reading a February 2010 profile in Sunset magazine of Artesia's Little India section and wondered why Anaheim didn't create a similar site for its Arab neighborhood. "Official designation helps to put you on the map, literally and figuratively. Short of that, we've got a couple of major challenges," Masry says. "If you look just down the street at Little Saigon in Westminster, they have some natural advantages in having an overwhelming and mostly unified population. We're a disparate group. We've got Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Arab Christians and Arab Muslims. It isn't unified or homogenous."

Masry and Al-Dabbagh broached the idea with other young Arabs, talking up the idea at mixers for Orange County's Network of Arab-American Professionals, many of whose members have businesses in Little Arabia. They also launched a campaign during the 2010 Census to encourage people to write "Arab" on the form's race question, as well as a Facebook page and Twitter account to send out links and updates on the latest businesses to open in the district. "Let's create an official 'Little Arabia—Anaheim' to recognize the Arab-American community centered on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim!" reads the Facebook page. "Soon enough, we will be asking everyone to contact Anaheim City Council to support an official recognition motion."

The ambition for official recognition, however, faces numerous obstacles beyond the divisions within Little Arabia. First, as Masry notes, no formal organization is behind the idea. "For now, the whole idea is to get the property owners and merchants organized and look at things like improving property together," he says.

There is also much pushback from residents who've lived in the area for decades, since before the Arab influx of the 1990s. During the 2010 election cycle, the West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council (WAND), held a City Council debate at which it questioned all the candidates on the idea of an official designation of Little Arabia. "They were not for the idea," says Masry.

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