Millions of people descend upon Anaheim every year to see the “small world, after all” amusement park, Disneyland. However, a few miles beyond the fanfare of roller coasters and hotels that shuttle people to and from the park, another small world is trying to bond together in order to have city officials recognize a strip along Brookhurst Street as “Little Arabia.”
The history of Arabs in Anaheim spans back to around the 1980′s when the area was considered very seedy. Arab immigrants came here and began to build up the neighborhood. By the early 1990′s and the first Gulf War, a large influx of Iraqis gave this area a definitive Middle Eastern flavor. They settled in Anaheim perhaps because the weather reminded them of the climate in their home country. They also set up businesses that provided them with creature comforts from home: Arabic bookstores, Halal butcher shops, Islamic clothing stores and Hookah lounges. Today, the area teems with speciality restaurants, hair salons and mechanics who advertise outside their establishments in Arabic script.
California Arabs: The Statistics
California has the largest number of Arab Americans in the country with an estimated population of 272,485, according to the Arab American Institute. Arab Americans tend to be better educated with 45% having BA’s or higher compared to 28% for Americans at large. They also have a slightly higher median income ($56,331) than Americans at large (at $51,369). The largest population of Arabs live in the Greater Los Angeles Area and the largest ethnic group is Lebanese at 24%, but they comprise a highly diverse group who descend from over 22 countries and who practice several different religions. Most Arab Americans are Christian (about 63%), although the other two pre-dominant religious affiliations are Jewish and Muslim.
How Do They Get Along?
According to Gabriel San Roman in the OC Weekly who, as far as I can tell, has written the only history of Little Arabia and presents a variety of today’s voices in the neighborhood, residents here might have a hard time getting along because they represent so many different cultural backgrounds. What’s more, this neighborhood is in a period of historical flowering due to a current inflow of Syrian immigrants as well as other ethnic groups in the wake of the Arab Spring. The demographics are in a state of flux.
Home-Country Politics Is On People’s Minds
While the Armenians I wrote about value their Noah’s Ark churches, the business owners in Little Arabia tend to have politics on their mind these days.
When I visited, many stores had fliers on their counters advertising: “Love For Syria: A Sunday Brunch Benefit For Families Devastated by the Conflict In Syria” with proceeds going to the Islamic Relief Fund. At Al-Farah Fashion, the friendly Egyptian shopkeeper was happy to let me take pictures and when I said I’d been to Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring, he commented that I had visited during the lowest point of Egyptian history. (During the protests in Egypt, residents here held demonstrations to show their support.) At Brookhurst Plaza, outside the Halal meat store, several newspapers written in Arabic were also available for free including Nile News USA, Beirut Times and the Anaheim produced newspaper, The Arab World.
In-And-Out Burger Is More Popular Than Arabic Language Bookstores
While awareness of what’s happening in their home countries may be important, reading Arabic books is on the wane. Al Bayan, the only bookstore in this area, is shutting it’s doors within the next few weeks. It has existed here for 14 years. The owner also manages a bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia and has traveled back and forth for years in order to provide residents with Arabic-language books that range from Korans to cookbooks about Indian cuisine. The owner explained that Arabs in Southern California, like their American counterparts, would rather eat a hamburger than read a book. Before I leave, he hospitably gifts me an Iraqi Family Cookbook written in English by Kay Karim. Sure enough, along Brookhurst Street I do indeed pass an In and Out Burger.
Ahhh, And Then There’s The Food & Things To Do
But there’s far more to eat than hamburgers in Little Arabia. Sahara Falafel advertises shawerma, tabuleh, falafel and gyros. Across the street at Dalati Plaza you can even eat what’s advertised as: Thai Food and Sushi Halal. At Little Arabia Plaza, you can go to the Halal meat butcher shops where they cut the meat right in front of you or stop at the Olive Tree, which has received positive reviews even in the Los Angeles Times. Baja Fresh is also in this Plaza along with Fly America Travel agency, World Smoke Shop with its bevy of hookah pipes and the Arab World Newspaper headquarters.
At little closer to Katella Street, Al Tayebat Market (open since 1988) sells international groceries, Halal meats and freshly baked goods. The pictures on the outside of their establishment display delicious ‘awamaaat dumplings, circassian cheese and date ghraybeh, among other delights. A few blocks from here, The Islamic Center has a marquee outside with announcements of their upcoming events. The Center, for example, every year participates in the West Coast Catholic-Muslim Dialogue Meeting. Like the American economy in general, some businesses stay and some go. Adjacent to the Islamic Center, the Islamic Super Store that purportedly sold Oriental Magic has a for lease sign covering its windows.
A few shops carry brochures, such as from the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects for “The Birth of Prophet Muhammed” program at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, which celebrates the birth of the Prophet and also offers a Mawlid car giveaway.
For Muslims who want adhere to their traditional dress, the clothing store Al Anwar: Islamic Fashion sells Hijabs, Abayas, headscarves and more. For those who want to enjoy an East-West blend, Le Mirage on the corner of Brookhurst and Licoln offers French Pastries (a few Syria knick-knacks inside reveal where the owners are from originally). Here you can eat Rasberry Chocolate Mousse and have an assortment of Baklava. They also sell Orangina.
Little Arabia, perhaps appropriately, ends at about Crescent Street where a worn down Hookah store advertises its tobacco. Off a side street, the Gendershe East African Somali International Cuisine, which offers even more diverse “Arab” flair.
Should ‘Little Arabia’ Become An Official Designation?
To visit here is to witness “the small world, after all” beyond the small world. An amalgam of people coming together with their businesses and, under one umbrella, living in what they hope will officially be known as “Little Arabia.” While some residents protest that the name shouldn’t be granted to this strip of Brookhurst Street because Anaheim should represents all people and all businesses fairly, the fact is, a name like “Arabia” precisely denotes diversity. The most charming evidence I found showing Little Arabia’s diversity was this sign outside First Class Hair & Nails:
The establishment is owned and operated by a proud Native American Choctaw Indian.
One Prayer: Peace.
One Hope: Harmony.
One Dream: Understanding.
God Bless us, one and all, and especially… God Bless America!
Three Other Interesting Arab Communities in California:
The Arab Cultural and Community Center of San Francisco promotes Arab art and culture by hosting cross-cultural events to all residents of the Bay Area and beyond.
The Arab American Cultural Center of the Silicon Valley was founded in 1989 to serve the needs of the expanding Arab American Community in the South Bay Area.
The Levantine Cultural Center of Los Angeles presents the arts and cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, making sure to include majority and minority cultures stretching from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east.