Store signs written in Arabic, restaurants where you can get an authentic falafel sandwich and lounges where you can play cards, drink tea and listen to Arabic music – these aren’t just sights and experiences you can have in places like Egypt or Lebanon or Syria.
This place exists in America.
In fact, it’s on display every day right here in Orange County, along Anaheim’s Brookhurst Street, where small immigrant business owners came to carve out their own slice of the American dream and build a new life for their families in what has become locally known as Little Arabia.
And that place has been here for a long time.
Amin Nash, a fellow with Arab American Civic Council, and his family would drive hours every month to get there from Las Vegas to visit family and buy halal meat back in the 1990s when Nash was a kid. He later moved to Anaheim when he was older.
He said growing up in Vegas he often felt he had to explain his culture to people as an Iraqi American.
“When we came to Little Arabia and we came to Anaheim, it felt like the area was informing me. I got to understand my culture more, the language more, how to talk to people more and it just made me understand my heritage and who I was as an Arab and as a Muslim too,” Nash said in a phone interview last week.
Nash is now part of a push to get Anaheim to recognize its Arab American business community.
For over a decade, business owners and members of Orange County’s Arab American community have called on different rosters of Anaheim’s city council to officially recognize the stretch of Brookhurst street roughly between Katella avenue and Crescent avenue as Little Arabia with signs.
But in that time no city council in Anaheim’s history has been willing to publicly have a debate on officially recognizing the area.
Despite this, community members, residents and business owners have not given up.
Lately, they have been showing up to Anaheim City Council meetings and asking their elected officials when they’re going to have the long awaited debate.
“As an Arab American and immigrant, please, please recognize Little Arabia,” Riad Kotto, a resident, told the city council on June 21.
The renewed pressure comes following the resignation of Little Arabia opponent, Harry Sidhu, who vacated his seat last month amid an FBI corruption investigation into his city hall dealings and criminal charges against former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament.
Sidhu had also come under fire after an Arab American community leader previously told Voice of OC that Sidhu wasn’t interested in pushing for an official city designation of the area because some people in the community held a fundraiser for his opponent in the 2018 election.
About a month after Sidhu’s resignation, Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, who represents the district in which Little Arabia is located, announced she has been meeting with Arab American business and community members about the recognition.
Ma’ae said the next step is to have a community meeting on the issue but also called on her colleagues to hold off on bringing up a public discussion on Little Arabia until she does.
But Ma’ae’s comments lacked specifics on where and when the meeting would take place nor did she provide a timeline on when she might call for a discussion that people have waited for over a decade to have.
Nash said they want to collaborate with Ma’ae and the city to have an open discussion about designation.
“From our perspective, as Arab Americans and the Arab American Civic Council we feel that the Arab American community has done a lot of work and impacted the city in a way that actually has uplifted Brookhurst street,” Nash said.
“We exist. The businesses exist and we’re only going to grow, we want to collaborate. We want to be a part of Anaheim’s fabric and we want the city to recognize us and to respect us.”
Following a rule change earlier this month, it would only take one member of the city council to request a discussion on Little Arabia to happen and get a debate on recognition – and it doesn’t have to be Ma’ae.
When Ma’ae was first appointed to the city council last year by Sidhu and his council majority, she had a different stance to the issue – one that echoed Sidhu’s own statements on the issue.
“When you start creating more lines and division within an area, it creates more disunity,” she said when asked about Little Arabia at a Sept. 14 city council meeting shortly before being appointed.
“That Brookhurst corridor is a gem and we are able to take that area and do so much with it. But if you’re going to start creating pockets and divisions, that is going to hurt those other businesses along that corridor,” Ma’ae continued.
To watch the Sept. 14, 2021 meeting, click here.
Ma’ae has been closely associated with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and was a member of the political action committee, Support Our Anaheim Resort – both of which have fallen under intense public scrutiny since the FBI investigation came to light.
At the time of her appointment, questions swirled over whether Ma’ae’s selection was preordained.
Ma’ae refused to be interviewed by Voice of OC for this article and instead provided the following statement:
“I refuse to undermine the progress made in the Brookhurst corridor by allowing my words to be misconstrued or politicized for a newspaper article or for the benefit of individuals who seek to sow discord. I work for and with the community, and that’s who I am corresponding with on this issue,” reads the statement.
It is unclear what “progress” she is referring to or what public statements have been misconstrued.
When asked in a follow up email for clarification, Ma’ae did not respond.
While the current council has not brought up the designation, calls for recognition of Little Arabia came well before Harry Sidhu became mayor or Ma’ae’s appointment.
Little Arabia: A History
In the 1980s, Arab immigrant business owners started to set up shop on Brookhurst street after the creation of an Islamic school and Mosque.
One of the first to do so was the Khouraki family who opened a specialty grocery store on Brookhurst street in 1988 selling international goods.
The area started to grow significantly in the 1990s, according to the Designate Little Arabia website started by the Arab American Civic Council – a group that has been advocating for the recognition for years.
During this time, two Arab American business leaders, Ahmad Alam and Belal Dalati, started to buy homes and commercial real estate in West Anaheim and encouraged merchants to set up their shops there.
Those business owners helped convert a rundown and seedy part of the city into what today is a business hub and cultural oasis that attracts visitors from all over Southern California.
They did it without support from a city which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce including a recent $500,000 contract from federal COVID bailout money in 2020 and no-bid $425,000 contract in 2019, spearheaded by Sidhu, to promote business throughout the city.
According to the Little Arabia website, the idea of recognizing the area started to form in 2004 and by 2010 a social media campaign was launched to get the city to designate the area.
In 2014, former Republican Mayor Tom Tait encouraged people to visit Little Arabia in the state of the city address – the first mayor to do so in the city’s history, according to the Little Arabia website.
But even under Tait, a public discussion on recognizing Little Arabia never happened.
By 2016, every candidate for city council said they supported officially recognizing Little Arabia – including current councilman Stephen Faessel.
But Faessel stayed quiet when Councilman Jose Moreno tried last year to get the city council to agendize a debate on the issue.
Faessel did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Moreno said in an interview last week that Tait and much of the council back in 2016 were moving toward officially recognizing Little Arabia.
“We just frankly ran out of time because there was so much we were trying to do to bring back attention to neighborhoods and investments and have the city moved away from the special interests that we now know have been just so part of the decision making of the city for years,” he said.
Moreno said he is not sure what signage would cost for Little Arabia but doesn’t see why cost would be a major impediment.
“We have a 400 plus million dollar general fund,” he said. “We do invest in signage throughout the city, including in the downtown area called Center City you see signs and flags up.”
Small business owners say signs would help bring in more money not just for the businesses that have been a staple in the community for decades, but for the city as well, especially after the economic losses sustained during the pandemic.
The business owners also say a designation would recognize them for their contributions to the city – something other cities have done for Asian American communities in OC by recognizing Little Saigon and Koreatown.
It is not just business owners that support recognition.
A poll released last year and conducted by the Arab American Civic Council and the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego found that 58% of voters support or strongly support signage identifying the area as Little Arabia and 75% of voters who have visited the area back an official recognition.
The Fight for Recognition of The Arab American Identity
Little Arabia isn’t the only struggle for recognition Arab Americans in Orange County have found themselves fighting a long time for.
They, along with other Arab Americans in the U.S., have called for a Middle Eastern/North African category to be added to the U.S. Census for years now too.
Nash said there are a number of reasons why it is so hard for people to recognize the Arab American identity.
“The unique thing with Arab Americans and Middle Eastern, North African Americans, anybody from that region, is that we face constant misrepresentation, misunderstanding, where we’re kind of spoken about but we’re not spoken to,” he said.
Moreno said the push for recognition by the community is one others in the city can sympathize with.
“All of us who have at some point felt on the margins of a society or a city can appreciate and empathize when a community says we just simply want to be seen and we want to be recognized,” Moreno said.
As an Arab American, Nash said he and his community have always found themselves in a state of negotiation.
“We have to negotiate that we’re not terrorists, that we are Americans, that we’re contributors,” he said. “When it comes to Little Arabia – we’re negotiating our history and our community, essentially. And people keep asking us, well why should we designate you? What more can you give us? What more can you do?”
“But why should we have to do more?”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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