Little Arabia Grows Up
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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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.
The opinions of elected officials on the Anaheim City Council also differ, and there has been no solid statement of full support. "I've heard both sides of the arguments," says councilwoman Lorri Galloway. "Some people say it might be better for business; some people would rather be integrated, rather than segregated. To me, I would like to know what the majority of the Arab-American community thinks. I would love to take it to the community and understand the pulse of the community."
Mayor Tom Tait is more decisive. "Anaheim has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the nation," he says. "We celebrate the rich array of businesses that have thrived in our city, and designating one area of Anaheim for one group does not serve our city's efforts to encourage freedom—and impartiality—in our relationship with all our businesses."
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Across Brookhurst Street from Altayebat Market, past Ball Road, is Kareem Mediterranean Restaurant, Little Arabia's longest-standing Middle Eastern eatery, opened in 1996 by Mike and Nancy Hawari. Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape" plays on the kitchen radio as Mike, wearing a double-breasted black chef's coat and toque, brings a four-piece falafel plate with rounds of hummus and baba ghanoush. His falafels are browned and crispy on the outside, but reveal an emerald-green interior of garbanzo goodness when bitten into.
"As far as politics, I am not a politician, and I don't get into it," he says. "However, I do read stories about the Middle East and the corruption that's happening in the Arab world. Of course, I don't like it."
Born in Nazareth in 1962, Hawari has seen many restaurants in Little Arabia open and close, so he understands the benefit of an officially designated enclave. "Little Arabia will be good if we have it like Little Saigon," Hawari says. "If you go to Westminster, you will go to one shopping center, and you will see five or six restaurants—the same food, the same people, and they are all busy, and they all are making money. Our problem is that we are combined in businesses only. We do not have that many Arabs living in Anaheim."
Mainstream-media exposure helped to bring the restaurant a broader clientele—he has received accolades from the Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, OC Weekly and many other publications. Last year, he appeared on NBC's Today In LA's weekend show for a chef segment, after which his business increased dramatically. His base Arab clientele mostly missed it "because they watch Al Jazeera, or they have their own satellite," he says with a laugh. "But yes, we had a lot of American folks who came here. They loved our food, and they are coming back."
As the conversation comes to a close, a white gentleman and his female friend from Placentia are seated. They are the type of people who will make or break the Little Arabia movement: outsiders looking for a dash of culture, hold the internal politics.
Hawari immediately attends to them. He asks if it's their first time here. No, they reply, they were here about a year ago.
"Well, where have you been?" Hawari replies gently, before the two place their orders and enjoy the rest of the night.
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