‘You feel like you’re part of America’: California’s historic Little Arabia finally recognized

Show caption Rashad Al-Dabbagh, left, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, and research fellow Amin Nash, are photographed with a Hijabi Queens mural in Anaheim. Photograph: Christina House/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images California ‘You feel like you’re part of America’: California’s historic Little Arabia finally recognized After decades of activism, the neighborhood becomes the first Arab American enclave to get an official designation Yusra Farzan in Anaheim, California Wed 21 Sep 2022 08.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Amin Nash’s earliest childhood memory of Anaheim, California, was gripping his grandmother’s hand as they walked into Altayebat Market on Brookhurst Street. His grandmother, who had been visiting from Iraq, could not speak English. But at Altayebat, she could speak freely in her mother tongue, Arabic.

“This is for you, it’s just a reminder to you, you are not too far from home,” Nash recalled the owner of Altayebat telling his grandmother as he handed her a prayer rug.

Altayebat Market, which first opened in the 1980s, has long been more than a grocery store specializing in halal meats and Middle Eastern foods; it has also acted as a community space for the growing number of Arab Americans in Anaheim. New immigrants from Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon – many of whom were drawn to the large mosque nearby – settled in the areas around the market and transformed the neighborhood into what became known as “Little Arabia”, where storefronts advertise hookah; Arabic food items such as manakeesh, knafeh, shawarma; and traditional clothing like abayas. The area is now considered one of the largest Arab American neighborhoods in the US.

Nash, an Iraqi American who was raised in Las Vegas, grew up visiting family in Anaheim, the southern California city best known for being the home of Disneyland. He later moved to the area, and now, as a fellow at the Anaheim-based non-profit Arab American Civic Council, helped push for Little Arabia’s official recognition. Last month, following more than 20 years of community advocacy, the Anaheim city council formally designated a section of the city as Little Arabia, making it the first officially recognized Arab American enclave in the US.

“This means that this community is welcome here. It’s a safe place for the community,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council. “It builds the confidence for this community. We built this; we made this happen.”

As part of the official recognition, a sign marking Little Arabia will be put up on Interstate 5, and the city council has plans to commission an in-depth study of the businesses and population of the neighborhood. But for many residents and business owners, the designation means something deeper.

“With the designation, you feel like you’re part of America, your community is represented,” said Nizar Milbes, a community activist and longtime advocate for recognition. Milbes said he moved between Palestine and the US growing up, and remembered wondering “who we are, do we belong here”. But in Little Arabia, particularly in the hookah cafes, he said he found community among people who looked like him and spoke the same language as him.

The origins of Little Arabia’s official designation trace back to the late 1990s, when Ahmad Alam, a local property developer, first envisioned an Arab Town in Anaheim. He organized the annual Arab American Day Festival and encouraged Arab American business owners to set up shop in Anaheim. After 9/11, the celebrations ended, and residents and business owners of Arab Town, like other Arab Americans across the US, faced Islamophobia and discrimination, and the neighborhood was often derogatorily called the Gaza Strip. The community eventually embraced the name, calling itself Little Gaza, but years later, after talks with local businesses and residents, decided to change the name again to Little Arabia, which they felt was more inclusive of the diversity of ethnic backgrounds there.

One of numerous strip malls on Brookhurst Street feature a preponderance of Arabic-centric shops and restaurants in what is now officially Little Arabia. Photograph: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

From there, the campaign for designation took off, and despite facing some political opposition and funding challenges over the years, prevailed with the city council’s 23 August vote. Little Arabia is now the third officially recognized ethnic enclave in Orange county – where Anaheim is – after Little Saigon in 1988 and Koreatown in 2019.

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, witnessed the city council’s vote to approve the sign marking Little Arabia on the highway. “It’s not just about a sign in Arabic,” he said, “it symbolizes what the community went through to become a community.”

The celebration of America’s diversity makes it harder for “the racists to push their bigotry and bias”, he said.

Ayloush, who immigrated from Lebanon to the US in 1989, said that Little Arabia offers a sense of community, solidarity and protection. This recognition by the city council, he said, formalizes how Arab Americans and Muslim Americans feel about Little Arabia, particularly at a time when internalized Islamophobia has increased among Muslims.

Little Arabia is also a place where the community has gathered over the years to protest against the Iraq war and bombings in Gaza, Ayloush said, and “where the community got to celebrate its joy” during religious holidays and other festivals.

For Salaam Sbini, a social impact consultant, these protests in Little Arabia make up some of her earliest memories of Anaheim, where she said she had her first political awakening as an eight-year-old in 2003. Sbini’s parents settled in Anaheim after emigrating from Syria, and having grown up there is a source of immense pride.

Arab Americans there “just have a different type of consciousness when it comes to political activism”, she said.

Official recognition is even more important to the community, Sbini said, since some members of the Arab American diaspora cannot return to their home countries.

Mahmud Salem immigrated to the US in 1978, first settling in Detroit, Michigan, then in southern California. He said the main reason he moved to Anaheim was the community, and his desire for his children to grow up speaking Arabic and going to the mosque. Salem opened Sahara Falafel, Anaheim’s first shawarma and falafel restaurant in 1996.

“I was really busy. It was non-stop,” he recalled. “Sahara Falafel, Sahara Falafel, people would say it and come from all over, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Manhattan, Torrance. You name it, everybody came because I was the first.”

Nader Hamda, left, works at his family’s restaurant, Forn Al Hara, in Anaheim. Photograph: Christina House/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

On the same block as Salem’s 26-year-old eatery is Al-Amira jewelry store, which opened in February. Owners Odah Awad and Awad Abdelhamid say it’s the only shop in the area that sells Arabian-style 21-karat gold trinkets, and that they hope the official recognition will bring in more investors from the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Radwan Soueidan, 24, hopes the official designation will attract other youngsters like himself. Soueidan spent his formative years playing soccer outside his dad’s eatery, Al Amir Bakery. He recalled people staying up until two or three in the morning, smoking hookah on folding chairs that they brought to the bakery. In the Middle East and north Africa, people stay up late at coffee shops and hookah lounges, playing cards, smoking shisha and chatting. Little Arabia, Soueidan said, was just like that.

Al Amir still sees big crowds during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, when the cafe stays open late, serving flatbreads known as manakeesh topped with melted cheese and a spice mix called za’atar, and pastries known as fatayer filled with spinach.

These foods would bring Johanna Mustafa and her family to Little Arabia after they emigrated from Jordan. “I think of it as a sanctuary, not only for new immigrants but also people who are just moving to southern California in general,” said Mustafa, an Inland Empire resident. “The Arab American and even Muslim American community who lives in southern California, folks from the Inland Empire to Orange county or even if they’re visiting from the Bay Area, everyone goes to Little Arabia.”

They go there, like Nash’s grandmother, for a piece of home, to belong.

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