Anaheim's Little Arabia District doesn't just offer immigrants, tourists and locals the best Middle Eastern cuisine in Southern California. Inside many of its restaurants are majestic murals rich with history and personal meaning. The portraits are part of the ambiance giving patrons from the Levant and beyond more than just dishes serving up a taste of home. From Arab Bedouin tents to the Old City of Jerusalem markets to Islamic holy sites, the restaurant murals of Little Arabia are a captivating tour of Arab and Islamic art history for all. They span modern-day Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and beyond.
Rida Hamida, an Anaheim Cultural and Heritage Commissioner, guided the Weekly through some of the various spots as we spoke to owners, waiters and bakers about the stories behind their murals. "Little Arabia is a journey in time, through the Roman Empire to the present day," she says. "We want people to celebrate our contribution to the art and culture of Anaheim."
Eyan Alamraysee at Al Sanabel Bakery & Restaurant
The most beautiful seaside images in all of Little Arabia come courtesy of Al Sanabel Bakery & Restaurant, which has been a staple in Little Arabia since 1998. The main dining area hosts connected portraits of Lebanon by the sea separated only by arches. The portraits were taken from a calendar and placed on the walls three years after the place opened. "This is the fishing area where I grew up in Eyan Alamraysee," says owner and baker Nadeem Eldeek. "I used to be a lifeguard." Eldeek left Lebanon for the United States at the start of the 1976 civil war.
A few years ago, a highway paved over much of what his restaurant portraits captured. "All of this is now gone," he says. Eldeek points to other arches noting the YMCA, American University of Beirut and American Embassy buildings. "Some people come in and, yeah, they remember all of this," he says.
Al Sanabel Bakery & Restaurant, 816 S. Brookhurst St, Anaheim, (714) 635-4353; www.alsanabelbakery.com
Nablus at Knafeh Cafe
Asem Abusir came to the U.S. from the West Bank in 1980 and worked as an engineer for 27 years before deciding to follow a family tradition. "The theme of Knafeh Cafe is the city of Nablus, which is the origin of knafeh," Abusir says. The bakery specializes in the namesake salty-sweet cheese pastry topped with crushed pistachios. "The Abusir family is one of five that are famous for knafeh–actually one of the first people to make it," he claims. A beautiful mural depicts the birthplace of knafeh. "The circle has been there for many, many years," Abusir adds. Customers at Knafeh Cafe share their stories about Nablus and take pictures next to the mural painted by Jordanian artist Franko.
Knafeh Cafe, 2941 W. Ball Rd, Anaheim, (714) 442-0044; www.knafecafe.com
Roman Pillars of Baalbek at Al Wadee Bakery & Restaurant
Al Wadee Bakery & Restaurant makes its home at a modest Anaheim strip mall along Brookhurst Street. The murals lining the arched walls of the main dining area depict Lebanon and have been a part of the restaurant since its opening in 2006. Badrie Elhajj had her friend Mahmoud Al Amiri, a Jordanian artist, transform the canvass of the walls. Within one arch is a painting of Baalbek, home to the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon. "I've gone there just one time," Elhajj says. "I didn't believe what I saw. It's something amazing."
She experienced the wonders of Baalbek about 20 years ago. "I needed to put these paintings in the restaurant," she adds. Aside from pillars marking where Jupiter was once worshiped, other arches depict an old mosque in Lebanon (which Elhajj hasn't visited) and beachfront scenes that bring the baker back to her birthplace of Beirut.
Al Wadee Bakery & Restaurant, 311 S. Brookhurst St, Anaheim (714) 956-2997; www.alwadee.net
Old City of Jerusalem at Fresh Choice Marketplace
Fresh Choice Marketplace is a global grocery store selling everything from Egyptian rice to the biggest Mexican conchas around! It also boasts an international food court and that's where you'll find a new take on old Jerusalem. Hovering above is a wallpaper portrait of a cobblestone market with vendors selling their goods.
"Those are the streets we used to walk through as kids and that my grandfather and grandmother would sell the vegetables they picked at the farmer's market," says Nancy Kaskas, whose family owns Fresh Choice. The food court's floors mimic the cobblestone ones in the portrait as do the string of lights above that typically go up during Islam's holy month of Ramadan. "It reminds the people where they come from, especially those who have been in Jerusalem," adds part-owner Ibbrahim Oudeh.
Fresh Choice Marketplace, 9922 Katella Ave, Garden Grove, (714) 539-9999; www.freshchoicemarkets.com
The Sahara Desert at Sahara Falafel
Sahara Falafel is one of Little Arabia's oldest Middle Eastern eateries, standing on Brookhurst Street since 1996. With its art, the restaurant pays homage to some of the oldest Arabic traditions.
"Our walls are about Arabian culture and how people used to live in the Sahara," says Jehad Arqawi pointing out the Jellabiya attire of the Arab Bedouin. The Jordanian has been the manager for the past six years. "In Jordan and Saudi Arabia, some people still live that way," he adds.
On another wall is the Kaaba of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam where religious pilgrimages date back to the times of Abraham. Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the first revelation of the Koran. "In the old days, Muslims took a camel all the way from Mecca through North Africa to Andalus (modern-day Spain) and back," Arqawi says, "It took them three or four months to get there."
Sahara Falafel, 590 S. Brookhurst St, Anaheim, (714) 491-0400; www.saharafalafel.com
The Dome of the Rock at Olive Tree
"The Dome of the Rock is a holy site for us and it's actually a symbol of Palestine," says Olive Tree owner Alan Abdo. The restaurant, which takes its name after Palestinian olive tree groves, had the artwork painted by his ex-mother-in-law in time for its opening in 2006. She's actually doing touch-ups soon. The painting is as close as Abdo's been to the real thing. He was born in U.S. but hasn't visited Palestine. Muslims believe that the shiny rotunda is where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) ascended at night into paradise accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel. The area around the Dome of the Rock is home to sites sacred to the other Abrahamic religions. The painting shows the Christian Church of the Nativity and the Western Wall important to the Jewish faith. "A lot of Palestinian Christians come in here and we get all faiths," Abdo says. "We try to include everybody."
Olive Tree, 512 S. Brookhurst St #3, Anaheim, (714) 535-2878; www.facebook.com/OliveTree.AnaheimCA
Finally, comes one of the best and saddest…
The Citadel of Aleppo at Aleppo's Kitchen
Aleppo's Kitchen is Little Arabia's best-kept secret, nestled in a back lot of small businesses. It's there you'll find the Citadel of Aleppo, its grandest mural stretching the length of the dining room. The painting by Jordanian artist Frank Haddadin of the ancient Syrian city's historic monument was commissioned by restaurant owner Nidal Hajomar.
"Most of my of Middle Eastern customers know about it," he says, "but if somebody doesn't know, we explain it to them." Waiter Yamel Gahzal does just that, saying the Citadel was built in 1190 and that it takes a good 6 hours to tour. Gazhal studied chemistry in Syria but fled Aleppo just last year due to the ongoing strife. "Now because of the war, part of it is destroyed and all of the buildings around it are destroyed," he says. "It was really nice, but not anymore."
In the dining room of Aleppo's Kitchen it remains intact, stunning and pristine.
Aleppo's Kitchen, 513 1/2 S. Brookhurst St, Anaheim, (714) 991-5000; www.facebook.com/AlepposKitchen
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2