Anaheim has recognized what may be America’s first, formal Arab American cultural district. 

For about two decades now, Arab American leaders, business owners and community members have been calling on Anaheim city councilmembers to officially recognize an area of Brookhurst Street as Little Arabia – a name it has been popularly called for years.

“Our community has been asking for recognition so that we can uplift our small businesses together, support our immigrant families and honor this community,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the Arab American Civic Council who spearheaded the push for years, at Tuesday’s Anaheim city council meeting.

“We’ve spoken to the last three mayors and 13 council members over the course of two decades about our desire to designate Little Arabia.”

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the Arab American Civic Council

On Tuesday, all that organizing and activism finally paid off.

Anaheim City Councilmembers voted 5-0-1 at their meeting that night after much debate to recognize the area along Brookhurst street from Ball road to Broadway as Little Arabia – even though for a while it seemed most officials weren’t going to support recognition until after a study of the corridor. Councilman Trevor O’Neil abstained from the vote.

“This creates another marker for us in Anaheim. It’s another marker that can bring Anaheim up and uplift Anaheim, beyond the resort and a baseball team and a hockey team,” said Councilman Jose Moreno who agendized the long awaited discussion and pushed for recognition Tuesday.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh (left), founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, and Maher Nakhal, owner of Le Mirage Pastries in Anaheim. Members of the civic council and volunteers met with business owners in Little Arabia to see if they will sign their petition to officially designate the area. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Even Councilman Jose Diaz, often on the opposite side of votes with Moreno and who initially spoke against recognizing Little Arabia when elected, passionately changed his position Tuesday night and spoke on the importance of recognizing the area, noting he was swayed by the community’s own passion to be recognized.

Indeed, it was Diaz’s second to Moreno’s motion that gave the designation life on the governing dais with a request that they don’t use the word “district” until the study is complete.

“For many this is home,” he said. “The Arab community exists. Little Arabia exists.”

“At least tonight, let’s make Christmas for these people.”

Little Arabia was initially proposed to stretch from Katella to Crescent Avenue but was changed at the request of Councilman Avelino Valencia in order to seek support from other council members and move forward with recognition.

“I do believe a study is needed but I’m also open to moving in this direction now to make sure that we provide a safety net to the community and a good faith effort,” Valencia said.

The area between Ball road and Broadway is where a lot of the businesses are, according to city staff.

The vote was met with applause, cheers and zaghreet or ululations from audience members who have long waited to have their elected officials even bring up the idea for discussion.

Juju (center) and Wafaa (left) work at the Koftegi restaurant in Anaheim’s Little Arabia. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

“It feels amazing,” Amin Nash, with the Arab American Civic Council, said in a phone interview after the vote as he headed to Little Arabia to celebrate.

According to Nash, this is the first Arab American district in American history.

Business owners, community leaders and residents have been fighting for that recognition from the city after the idea really started to take shape around the early 2000s.

Voice of OC toured Little Arabia last week and entered businesses along Brookhurst street to talk to business owners about what designation will mean to them.

They say it will not only acknowledge their contributions to the city and make them feel appreciated but will also help bring in more business.

[Read: Will Anaheim City Leaders Recognize Little Arabia Tonight?]

Ahmed Abu Zaed is one of many Arab American business owners on Brookhurst Street hoping city council members will officially recognize Little Arabia. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

O’Neil, who is running for mayor, abstained from the vote stating for the first time publicly that he supports officially recognizing Little Arabia but not until a study of the Brookhurst corridor was complete.

“I want to see this designation happen. There is a process to make it happen and I’m not ready to make that determination tonight,” he said.

He was also one of the council members who initially supported the rushed and now botched Angel Stadium land sale despite calls for greater community engagement and transparency.

The deal was scrapped after the FBI alleged in a written affidavit the city’s former mayor, Harry Sidhu, worked with his council majority to ram through the now canned Angel Stadium land sale and tried to score at least a $1 million in campaign contributions from the Angels.

Sidhu has resigned and now Angels Owner Arte Moreno may sell the team

Councilmembers also voted on Tuesday to put out a request for proposal to hire contractors to study the Brookhurst corridor that includes Little Arabia at the request of Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, the district representative.

Ma’ae had resisted calls for a designation for most of the year, instead favoring private meetings with organizers and asking them to wait on her for designation.

In the end, they didn’t.

And their voices caught the attention of the other council members. 

It is expected to take 6-9 months for a firm to complete the study and could potentially lead to the expansion of Little Arabia’s boundaries.

Some business owners have raised concerns about the study worrying that it would be used to push them out or impose greater taxes on them. Some community members have also called it out as a delay tactic.

[Read: What’s in the Future for Anaheim’s Little Arabia?]

Ma’ae responded to some of those concerns at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We want Arab American businesses in Anaheim. No one is trying to push them out,” she said.

She, herself in the past, had spoken out against officially recognizing Little Arabia and for a while on Tuesday seemed as though she would not support designation until the study was completed but ended up voting for the recognition along with other council members.

Ma’ae also has never made herself available to answer Voice of OC questions or other media outlets on the issue in the past either.

Forn AlHara Restaurant on Aug. 18, 2022. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Community Shows up For Little Arabia

The designation came after over two hour and 20 minutes of public comments from Arab Americans and Non-Arabs that were overwhelmingly in support of recognition.

For many in Orange County and Southern California’s  Arab American population – some who immigrated from the Middle East – the area is where they feel home the most and is why Anaheim is dear to them.

On Tuesday, residents and business owners shared their experiences in Little Arabia and their connections with the area. They were vocal throughout the meeting as they waited for the vote.

Some said it was where they could buy the Arab goods and the foods they love, others met friends there and Al-Dabbagh said he met his wife there.

Almost all found a community.

Mustapha Alam at Forn Alhara restaurant in Little Arabia on Aug. 18, 2022. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Mohammad Abdel Haq, a Palestinian American sociology professor at North Orange County Community College District, said he was drawn to the area ever since he first moved to California 15 years ago.

“It allowed me to mingle with people that looked like me, that spoke my language and shared my traditions and food,” he said.

Members of the local branch of the Council of American Islamic Relations based in Anaheim including executive director Hussam Ayloush and Doris Bittar, the Southern California Organizer for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, also spoke in favor of recognition.

““It seems everybody sees the Arab community and celebrates the Arab community and Little Arabia, except the city itself,” Ayloush said “It’s about time.”

Support for designation has also come from the State Assemblywoman representing the area – Sharon Quirk-Silva, the Congressman representing the area – Lou Correa and the State Senator representing part of the area Josh Newman who sent a representative Tuesday.

“Little Arabia has served as an economic engine for what had previously become an underutilized retail area. Official designation by the city council would commemorate the tangible investments and resulting benefits that the Little Arabia business community has brought to the City,” Nathan Bass, the representative, read from a letter Newman wrote to council members.

A man lays out Islamic prayer rugs on April 22, 2021 outside the Desert Moon restaurant in Anaheim Little Arabia, right before Muslims are able to break their fast for the day amid the holy month of Ramadan. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Arab American owned businesses started to pop up in this part of town back in the 1980s and as more opened in the 1990s, they helped convert a rundown and seedy part of the city into a business hub and cultural oasis that attracts visitors from all over Southern California.

All that development happened without subsidies from city hall or local taxpayers.

“Little Arabia’s merchants, business owners and institutions have proven their commitment towards the City of Anaheim,” Cecile Sarruf, a first generation Egyptian American said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It is now time for the City of Anaheim to show their commitment towards a community whose economic contributions have served the city very, very well.”

For Sarruf, the area is a reminder of her mother who passed away missing Cairo. She said she wants a cultural center to be built in the area.

Why Recognition Matters

Councilman Moreno spoke about why recognition was so important in a community that often feels invisible.

He pointed to the census and how people of Middle Eastern and North African descent are characterized as white which makes data about the community inconsistent. He also pointed to the discrimination Arab Americans faced and continue to face following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“For our city to say, we see you, we’re going to name you and we’re going to be proud to do this is critical,” he said.

Many of Tuesday’s speakers spoke on how the recognition was important and how it would  make them feel.

“If I saw a Welcome to Little Arabia sign, I’d be so happy and filled with joy. As an Arab American I will feel acknowledged like I mattered. It will mean a lot to me and a lot to the community to see Little Arabia designated.”

Salma Maaytah, a fifth grader who spoke at the meeting.

Her aunt, Fatinah Judeh, a Palestinian American and local educator, said as a daughter of immigrants experiencing and witnessing a thriving Arab community gave her a sense of belonging and pride in her cultural identity.

“It allowed our families to adjust to living here in America, it created a support system, and helped alleviate feelings of otherness that I experienced,” she said.

Ayah David, an Arab American, said that the designation was not only for Arabs.

“It’s for the whole world, it’s for all of the United States, to truly see who Arabs are, to see us, to see our faces, to hear our language and to eat our food and to know that we’re more than what you see on the news,” she said.

Owner Sammy Khouraki working at Altayebat Market, a store he and has family started in the 1980s.

Nash, from the Arab American Civic Council, said on the phone Tuesday night one of his first experiences in Little Arabia was when his grandma first came from Iraq and didn’t speak English.

“We went to Altayebat, Sammy Khouraki handed her a sajadah (prayer rug) and he said look this sajadah is going to remind you that you’re not far from home,” he said. “This is a memory of how people upheld each other.”

Nash said the designation is only the beginning.

“We have a lot more work to do.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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