The American Dream is alive and well if you ask Ahmad Abu Zaed, who runs A&Z Barber Shop in Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
He has lived it first hand.
Abu Zaed is now one of many business owners along Anaheim’s Brookhurst street who hopes
Business owners, community leaders with the Arab American Civic Council and residents have been fighting for that recognition from the city after the idea really started to take shape around the early 2000s.
Beyond the feel good factor of such an official welcome, Abu Zaed says recognition by city leaders offers local businesses the kind of help they really need.
“I’ll make money,” Abu Zaed said, adding that recognition would bring in business and people who are looking to explore Arab culture, eat Arab food or want an Arab barber to line up their beards or handle their curly hair.
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.
Business owners say an official designation is the only kind of help they’re asking from city hall.
Abu Zaed points to the success other designations have had in other parts of the country and Southern California like Chinatown, the various ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles or Little Italy in San Diego.
Even in other parts of Orange County there are these designations like Koreatown in Garden Grove and Little Saigon in Westminster.
For Abu Zaed, who has owned his barber shop since 2018, a designation is not about segregating a community but celebrating it.
“Why in Anaheim we don’t have it?” he asked.
Various rosters of the city council have resisted even talking about designating Little Arabia with a sign on the 91 freeway as well as a couple signs on Brookhurst Street at a public meeting for close to two decades since the idea was first floated by Arab American community leaders.
Tonight, city officials are expected to finally take up the debate Arab American business owners have long awaited to hear: will they be recognized for the contributions they’ve made to Orange County’s largest city?
And while these business owners in Little Arabia have weathered the economic impacts from COVID-19 in recent years, they insist they aren’t looking for any large government handouts to come with that recognition.
“I don’t like the government to give me money. I like to work. If my kids want something I will provide it for them,” Abu Zaed said, adding he chose to come to the U.S. over other countries because of the opportunities here to build an independent life.
He himself had to shut down for seven months because of COVID.
Business owners want a couple of signs put up in a city where elected officials poured $6.5 million bailout dollars into Visit Anaheim back in 2020 to advertise the Disneyland-resort area at a time when the theme park was closed because of COVID.
City council members also gave the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce a $500,000 contract from federal COVID bailout money in 2020 and a no-bid $425,000 contract in 2019 to promote business throughout the city.
Signs for Little Arabia would cost substantially less.
Lena Maiah, a spokesperson for Caltrans, told Voice of OC in an email back in January 2021 that the cost for a sign on the freeway depends on the size and labor but estimated that it would cost $1,500 to install.
The Faces of Little Arabia
Abu Zaed, a 43-year-old Palestinian and now American citizen, sat outside near his barbershop on Thursday wearing a black shirt with sunglasses hanging off the collar, an Airpod, red shoes and a wristbrand with the Palestinian flag on it.
He jokingly asked a journalist to take a photo of him and then welcomed reporters into his shop.
He told them he got his start cutting the hair of friends and family and left Jerusalem more than a decade ago to make his way to America because he didn’t want to raise his children under Israeli occupation.
“It’s not a life,” Abu Zaed said, showing reporters a picture of a young man that was killed recently in Palestine.
He himself is a father of five kids – three boys and two girls – one of which has a birthday today.
Abu Zaed left Palestine to head to Chicago back in 2009 before the cold weather there pushed him west to start his shop in Irvine. From there, cheaper rent drew him to move his shop to Anaheim.
He was one of several Arab American business owners and merchants around the Brookhurst corridor Voice of OC reporters spoke to on Thursday about why this type of recognition matters to them.
Like Abu Zaed, they all pointed to the economic benefits they say an official recognition would bring to the businesses on Brookhurst.
But they also point to feeling welcomed and appreciated for their contributions to the city.
“I also want it for the recognition of my people,” said Mak Rajab, 26, a manager for World Smoke Shop. “It shows diversity.”
He said it would change people’s negative perceptions of Arabs and Arab Americans.
Rajab’s family is Palestinian and Jordanian and he was born at a hospital a couple streets down from the shop. He grew up in Anaheim going to Savanna High School and works at his uncle’s smoke shop on Brookhurst which sells hookah tobacco from Jordan.
“I guess I wasn’t meant to leave,” he said.
His uncle, who Rajab called the “Don of Hookahs,” started a hookah shop in Amman before moving to the U.S. and starting his business here in 2002 as well as a distribution warehouse.
Down the street from Rajab, Wasim Bakour runs the Koftegi Turkish Grill & Bakery with his family. He has run the business for a year and he too says recognition would be good for business.
“I would love to see that. Most people call it Little Arabia,” he said. “It’s the same when you go to Koreatown.”
Bakour and his family left Syria to escape the war. He now lives by Angel Stadium.
For him, Little Arabia is a reminder of home.
Voice of OC has also spoken to other Arab business owners in the area over the last two years, all of whom support the designation.
Support For Little Arabia Grows
The merchants and business owners on Brookhurst aren’t the only ones in support of recognizing Little Arabia.
A poll conducted by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego and Arab American Civic Council that was released last year 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 idea has also gotten support from the Congressman representing the area – Lou Correa and Sharon Quirk-Silva, the State Assemblywoman representing the area.
Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno has expressed support for the designation and called for Tuesday’s discussion on recognition.
“Now more than ever, it is vital to support our local business community. Businesses in Anaheim have felt the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting this economic district will aid in Anaheim’s economic recovery,” he wrote.
Still, some city officials have been resistant.
But they have never publicly pointed out any specific individual or group that is against the designation. In addition, there hasn’t been any comment against designation from the public comment dais in recent memory.
Councilmember Jose Diaz has spoken out against designating the area in the past saying it was too soon for the designation and the area is too diverse.
His remarks echoed that of Former Mayor and Little Arabia opponent Harry Sidhu, who resigned earlier this year after the FBI revealed he was the subject of a corruption probe in Anaheim.
Rashad Al-Dabbagh, a leader in the push for recognition, also has told the Voice of OC previously that when meeting with Sidhu on the Little Arabia the former mayor pointed out that members of the Arab American community held a fundraiser for his opponent.
Gloria Ma’ae, the representative for the district encompassing Little Arabia, spoke out against recognizing Little Arabia the night she was appointed following the resignation of Jordan Brandman.
Earlier this year, she publicly stated she was in discussions with the Arab American community about recognition and called on her colleagues to hold off on agendizing any actions in the area.
Ma’ae never called for the recognition of Little Arabia to be brought up for discussion; instead she called for a study of the Brookhurst corridor and in her request not once used the words Little Arabia.
Her proposed study has sparked concerns from business owners and is expected to take 6-9 months to complete. The cost of the study is still unclear.
Both the study and recognition will be discussed at the meeting today at 5 p.m. Council members are also expected to recognize August as American Muslim Appreciation and Awareness Month.
The proposed designation would stretch from Crescent Avenue along Brookhurst Street until Katella Avenue.
“There is a concentration of Middle Eastern serving business on the corridor, higher than any other commercial corridor in the City. A significant concentration of Middle Eastern restaurants and retail stores are located between Ball Road and Broadway Avenue,” reads a staff report.
The Arab American Civic Council is calling on business owners and residents to show up to the meeting and speak in support of the designation.
“On Tuesday,” Abu Zaed said. “I’ll go.”
Some Southern California Cultural Districts
Cultural districts have been recognized all over Los Angeles and in Orange County – most recently in Garden Grove in 2019 when the city voted to rename the Korean business district to Orange County’s Koreatown and approved a sign change paid for by the Korean American Chamber of Commerce.
Below is a list of some of the cultural hubs in Los Angeles and Orange County:
Orange County’s Koreatown
Located on Garden Grove Boulevard between Beach Boulevard and Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove
Located in Westminster and Garden Grove along Bolsa Avenue and Brookhurst street.
Located at Westwood Boulevard and Wilkins Avenue in Los Angeles.
Located in Central Los Angeles between Hollywood Boulevard, Vermont Avenue, Santa Monica Boulevard and the 101 Freeway.
Located on Fairfax Avenue between Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive in Los Angeles.
Located in East Hollywood encompassing the area between Normandie and Western avenues along Hollywood Boulevard.
Located around 3rd Street and Alexandria Avenue in Central Los Angeles.
Located in downtown Los Angeles.
Located in downtown Los Angeles bordered by San Pedro Street, First Street, Requena Street and Central Avenue.
Located in Los Angeles bordered by Glendale Boulevard, Beverly Boulevard, Hoover Street and the 101 Freeway.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.