What did it take to get Anaheim City Council members to have a public conversation on officially recognizing Little Arabia?

More than 30 meetings with officials, workshops, countless news articles, a petition and hours of public comment in the span of two decades, three mayors and 13 council members, if you ask Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the Arab American Civic Council.

2022 is the year the community’s efforts and their persistence finally paid off for a stretch of road Arab business owners have turned into a cultural hub of shops, restaurants and a grocery store – all with no city subsidies. 

In August, the council members voted to recognize the area along Brookhurst Street from Ball Road to Broadway as Little Arabia following over two hours of public comments.

[Read: “Little Arabia Exists”: Anaheim Officially Recognizes America’s First Arab American District]

“It was a historic moment. It felt great. Finally, after many years, our community is being recognized. After many years of advocacy, we are now being seen. We are being heard. We are here.” Al-Dabbagh said.

Maher Nakhal, an Arab Business Owner in Anaheim, signs a petition to get the city to officially recognize the Little Arabia district where his bakery is located. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

The city council’s 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.

Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council of American Islamic Relations- Los Angeles (CAIR-LA) based in Anaheim, said in an interview that it was great to see the fruition of the community’s organizing after all those years.

“The community came together from activists to business people, to shoppers and did what our democracy allows us to do and that is engage, advocate and make their voice heard,” he said. 

“It’s a great lesson of civic engagement and democracy that we witnessed throughout that process.”

As someone who has worked in Anaheim for 30 years, Ayloush also said it was great to see the city finally recognize the community that has developed, grown and contributed to OC’s largest city for years.

“Everyone else has recognized the community for many years. People have come to visit Little Arabia and enjoy what it offers,” he said. “They’ve come from all over California to meet up with people and eat. It was a relief to witness our own city council recognize what everybody else has recognized.”

Little Arabia: Decades in the Making

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.

By the early 2000s, Arab American community members and business owners started to seriously float the idea of officially recognizing the area that has grown into a community hub as Little Arabia.

Families gather during Ramadan in a restaurant located in Little Arabia on April 22, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

But various rosters of the city council 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.

Until the FBI came to town.

In May, federal agents made public sworn affidavits in which they accuse former Mayor Harry Sidhu – an opponent of Little Arabia – of trying to get $1 million in campaign finance from Angels Baseball executives to ram through the now-dead Angel Stadium land sale.

Al Dabbagh said the FBI’s corruption probe was a turning point.

“The rules changed after that and council members were able to agendize items without getting a second and a third,” he said.

Following that change, Councilman Jose Moreno called for the long awaited discussion even though former Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae – who represented the district encompassing Little Arabia – called on her colleagues to hold off from bringing up the issue until she laid out the next steps.

She also called for a study of Brookhurst Street, but never once used the words “Little Arabia” – raising concerns from business owners and merchants.

Ma’ae was appointed to her seat following the resignation of Jordan Brandman in 2021 and spoke out against recognizing Little Arabia the night her former colleagues voted her on to the council.

In the end, Ma’ae supported the designation of Little Arabia.

Anaheim councilwoman Gloria Sahagún Ma’ae at a city council meeting on Aug 9, 2022.

Months later, Anaheim voters elected Carlos Leon to replace Ma’ae and represent District 2. They also voted in Ashleigh Aitken as Mayor – the first woman to be elected to the position – over former Councilman Trevor O’Neil who abstained from the Little Arabia vote. Aitken is the daughter of Wylie Aitken, chair of Voice of OC’s board of directors. 

Both Aitken and Leon have publicly supported recognizing Little Arabia and Leon has expressed support in extending the boundaries of Little Arabia to Voice of OC.

What’s Next?

There are still no city signs officially recognizing the Little Arabia area and newly elected council members are expected to take over Ma’ae’s requested study of the street. 

City spokesman Mike Lyster said in an email that applicant proposals to lead the study will be coming in by the end of December and that staff expect to bring a recommendation before the council early next year.

“A study would then play out in the months following any Council action,” Lyster wrote. “There are no signs up at this time, and we would look to the study to help guide us on that.”

The study could lead to the council potentially expanding the boundaries of Little Arabia.

An initial proposal defined the boundaries for the district as the area along Brookhurst street from Katella Avenue to Crescent Avenue – where the CAIR office is – but was shrunk to Ball and Broadway.

“The designation ended up excluding two important areas of presence in Little Arabia and that is the CAIR office, one of the oldest community centers for the community there and the mosque, the West Coast Islamic Society, which is on Katella,” Ayloush said.

He said he would like to see an expansion to the current boundaries but more importantly a partnership between local business and community organizations with the city to promote the area.

Ayloush would also like to see a cultural center built that would teach people about Little Arabia and the Arab community in general.

Meanwhile, olive and palm trees have been planted in a median near Ball road since the designation.

“The landscaping is an example for consideration of what we could do on a longer stretch of the street. The trees are drought tolerant and also complementary to the area and the Little Arabia designation,” Lyster wrote.

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

Al-Dabbagh said working with the city on getting the signs up and getting the study done are the next immediate focus for the civic council, which helped push council members to officially recognize the area.

“It’s proof that civic engagement works,” he said. “When we mobilize, when we work hard we are powerful, we are capable, and good things will happen.”

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.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.