Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The debate over Little Arabia: What’s in a name?

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Drive along Brookhurst Street in West Anaheim, and dozens of storefront signs in Arabic crop up amid logos for Starbucks and Jack-in-the Box.

Known informally as Little Arabia, Arab-owned bakeries, restaurants, clothing stores and hair salons have been taking root on this roughly two-mile stretch of Brookhurst since the 1980s.

Customers have been known to travel hours for delicacies and wares they can’t find elsewhere in the western US, such as Aleppo’s Kitchen’s nine varieties of kibbeh — a dish made of finely-ground meat, spices and pureed onions.

Given the area’s growth and popularity, some community activists and business leaders are pushing to make the Little Arabia moniker official. The area has become a point of pride, and an important part of identity for the city's Arab-Americans.

“We want to share our culture, we want to celebrate our culture with everyone that lives here,” said community activist Rida Hamida, part of a group advocating for an official designation.

It's an idea that has floated around in recent years, and failed to catch on. Some long-time residents are outspoken in their opposition.

But the idea of branding Little Arabia is gaining traction with city leaders eager to give visitors another taste of Anaheim aside from Disneyland or the convention center.

Little Arabia, the brand?

In his state of the city address last month, Mayor Tom Tait called for an “ambitious marketing plan” for Little Arabia, which he praised as “a cultural destination in our city.”

"Whether you are stopping by Olive Tree for delicious lamb or picking up some baklava at Papa Hassan's, Little Arabia gives visitors a different experience than a typical convention city," Tait said in his speech.

The Anaheim Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau is moving in that direction by including Little Arabia for the first time in the newest visitor guides coming out in April, said spokeswoman Elaine Cali.

"Anaheim is what you think it is — Disney and all that — and it might be a lot of things that you don’t know that it is," Cali said.

No Little Saigon

Still, the idea has created debate in town, with some residents of West Anaheim contending Little Arabia should not receive an official designation.

Trucker Anthony Carmona said that Brookhurst doesn’t have the critical mass of ethnic businesses seen in L.A.’s Koreatown or Orange County’s Little Saigon which is so sprawling it spills into several cities.

“Those are very condensed areas and I just don’t think that much has changed here (in Anaheim) that it should be dubbed that title,” Carmona said.

Leaders of the West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council have also expressed reservations about an official designation. They are particularly concerned about the hookah lounges that have sprouted up along Brookhurst, which they say are noisy and damaging to lung health.

Andre Beck, a retired quality engineer and member of the neighborhood council, added that he doesn't feel comfortable in Arab-owned businesses.  

“They have their own way of doing things,” said Beck who's called West Anaheim home for about 50 years. “If you go into there to shop, they just kind of ignore you. And that’s part of the problem we have. They just don’t want to meld in with the community.”

The "Shawarma Summit"

Hamida said it’s possible for a resident to have had one bad shopping experience. But she said all the businesses she knows welcome customers of all backgrounds, and want to be part of the community.

"We want everyone to feel like we value the American culture and we want everyone to see us as part of this fabric," Hamida said. 

Fellow community activist Rashad Al-Dabbagh said that the point of official designation is not to create a "ghetto" but to promote businesses — Arab and non-Arab.

"When you’re driving on a freeway and you see a sign that that says Little Arabia that attracts more people," Al-Dabbagh said.

To build ties between the Arab-American community and other residents, Al-Dabbagh and Hamida last year co-founded the Arab-American Civic Council. (Its work also will include boosting voter registration beyond the approximately 7,000 Arab-Americans currently registered).

The two recently organized a lunch at a Lebanese restaurant for Arab-American business leaders, the mayor and neighborhood council members. It was dubbed the "Shawarma Summit." 

Hamida called it a step toward building trust and friendship that she hoped would one day lead to an official Little Arabia that everyone can get behind. How long that would take, neither Hamida or Al-Dabbagh could say.

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