California's Little Arabia: Anaheim gives Arab-Americans big recognition

A vibrant community neighbouring Disneyland is celebrating its official district designation

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Not too far from the spires of Cinderella's Castle in Disneyland is Little Arabia, a vibrant community that is getting some long-overdue recognition.

Now an official district, the designation is a formal nod to Anaheim’s thriving Arab-American community, with its bustling shops, markets, restaurants, schools and houses of worship.

The decision was the result of years of tireless work by local Arab-American business owners and activists, led by Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council.

“This designation — which took about two decades of advocacy, education and outreach — gives the community a sense of belonging,” Mr Al-Dabbagh told The National.

“It says that Arab-Americans, Arab immigrants and immigrant communities in general are welcome in the city of Anaheim.”

A home away from home for Arabs in southern California, Little Arabia joins the ranks of regional government-sanctioned cultural enclaves such as Little Saigon, Little Armenia, Chinatown and Little Tokyo.

What over the years has grown into a vital community began quietly in the early 1980s with a small core of businesses centred around Anaheim’s Brookhurst Street corridor.

Mr Al-Dabbagh credits Altayebat Market, a Middle Eastern grocery, as the rallying point for the emerging community, where Arabs living in southern California and beyond would congregate to gather hard-to-find ingredients for traditional recipes.

Now home to more than 100 Arab-American-owned businesses — including doctor’s offices, barber shops, fashion boutiques, hookah lounges, cafes, halal groceries, and celebrated restaurants and bakeries — Little Arabia is thriving, and its roots in Anaheim have been strengthened by the success of its hard-fought campaign to become an official district.

“It gives confidence, hope and optimism to this community,” Mr Al-Dabbagh said. “It’s a tool for us to fight apathy — those who say, ‘They don’t like us’ or ‘It’s never gonna happen’ or that voting and civic engagement isn’t a good use of our time.

"It’s a tool for us to mobilise and engage more people — proof that this work is valuable and that, when we are engaged, when we advocate, we will see results.”

Arab-American businesses in and around Little Arabia praise the city’s recent steps, many of them already benefiting from the added attention on social media and in the press.

Forn Al Hara

When Palestinian immigrant Nader Hamda first visited Little Arabia in 2009, it was a revelation. Up to that point, he’d been living in Boston, Massachusetts, and was feeling isolated given the city’s relatively small Arab population.

Mr Hamda’s uncle, Mohammad “Mo” Alam, a Lebanese immigrant, had opened a bakery and restaurant, Forn Al Hara, a few years earlier in the Little Arabia shopping centre and needed help running it.

Since Mr Hamda had been the proprietor of a kebab shop and grocery back home, his uncle offered him a job. Mr Hamda jumped at the chance to move himself and his family across the country to Little Arabia, where they would be close to their own culture, joining a tight-knit community with shared traditions and values.

“The businesses here, we stick together, we advertise to each other, we help each other with ideas,” Mr Hamda told The National.

Forn Al Hara in Anaheim's Little Arabia. Photo: Steve LaBate

“If a new restaurant comes in, as a community, we help a lot — money-wise, business-wise, commercial-wise. When I first came here and saw how people treated each other, I was proud.”

Mr Hamda sees Anaheim’s Little Arabia designation as a boon for the neighbourhood. In the two months since the motion passed, he’s welcomed scores of new customers to Forn Al Hara, some of them coming from as far away as Santa Barbara County, almost 200 kilometres up the Pacific coast.

“It’s a big step for the whole community,” Mr Hamda said.

During a typical Sunday at Forn Al Hara, the line stretches out the door, with loyal customers coming in for fresh-baked Lebanese flatbreads topped with the popular herb blend za’atar, akawi cheese or lahm bi ajeen, a hearty mix of ground beef, tomato and vegetables.

The bakery also serves up fatayer — triangular hand pies stuffed with spinach, cheese or spicy sujuk sausage — as well as maamoul, traditional cookies filled with pureed dates, chopped walnuts or pistachios, dusted with powdered sugar.

Mr Alam opened the precursor to the restaurant — a tiny dessert shop called Tripoli Pastry — at the same location in 1998. By 2005, to meet growing demand, he expanded the menu and capacity, rebranding as Forn Al Hara.

When it first arrived on the scene, there were no other Lebanese bakeries near by and the shop filled a void in the burgeoning community, as did Mr Alam’s long-running Arab American Day Festival, which he launched with his brother Ahmad, publisher of local newspaper The Arab World, back in the 1990s. During its near two-decade run, the annual cultural event went a long way to solidify the identity of Little Arabia and promote it as a destination.

Now, for many Arab immigrants and refugees arriving in the US, their first choice is the Anaheim area.

“Every day, I meet Arabs who have just moved here from Michigan, Texas, Arizona,” Mr Hamda said. “We have groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, and people ask which is the best state where new refugees can live with our families, our kids. Ninety per cent answer ‘California, Orange County'.”

House of Mandi

Also located in the Little Arabia shopping centre is House of Mandi — the first Yemeni restaurant in southern California — which offers authentic food with a distinctive flair.

Inside their iron front gates, the full experience includes removing your shoes and piling into one of the raised booths along the wall with traditional floor seating. Many of the meals — consisting of heaped platters of rice seasoned with saffron and turmeric as well as succulent slow-roasted meats — are served family style, although you can also order individual plates if you’re dining solo.

“This is our daily food,” general manager Omar Alsameeai, a Yemeni immigrant, told The National. “With Yemeni cooking, there are a lot of spices and just as many choices — you can make it familiar or you can make it unique.”

Omar Alsameeai, a Yemeni immigrant, said that Little Arabia has many different cultures that all share being Muslim. Photo: Steve LaBate

Three years ago, when Mr Alsameeai first moved to the US, Little Arabia made perfect sense for him because of the strong sense of community and the cultural connections.

“It makes you feel like you are back home,” he said. “You can find all the different cultures that are also Muslim.”

Mr Alsameeai is keen to point out the uniqueness of Little Arabia and how there is nothing else like it in California.

Since the district designation came through, he said, the neighbourhood is being sought out not only by Arab immigrants and visitors, but by a diverse array of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, all looking to immerse themselves in the rich traditions of the Arab world. House of Mandi, he said, is a reflection of this.

“We just want to share our food, our culture, our Yemeni experience.”

It’s a notion House of Mandi takes to heart. The restaurant’s giant discs of house-made flatbread are simple but perfect — the thinnest parts cracker-crispy; the thickest soft and satisfyingly chewy, perfect for dipping in the accompanying cucumber-yogurt sauce.

Other highlights from the menu include the aromatic chicken Mandi, a traditional oven-roasted chicken dish from the Hadhramaut region of eastern Yemen, and the flavourful lamb galaba, a staple of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, featuring diced lamb cooked with tomato, green pepper, parsley and spices, and served sizzling hot in a stone bowl.

Sababa Falafel Shop

The pitas at Little Arabia’s Sababa Falafel Shop are handheld works of art — custom built, gorgeously arranged and undeniably photogenic. The vibrant green of the parsley and deep reddish-purple of the pickled cabbage make them perfect for social-media posts.

Underneath the bursts of colour, the pillowy flatbread is stuffed full of either marinated chicken or crisp falafel, slathered in hummus and tahini and piled high with cucumber-tomato salad and chopped pickle.

Owned by Palestinian-American entrepreneur Salah Othman, and managed by his daughter Samantha, the space where Sababa operates was previously a Subway sandwich shop.

The pita falafel from Sababa at Anaheim's Little Arabia are works of edible art and custom made. Photo: Steve LaBate

“So we took it over and made it like a Palestinian Subway,” Ms Othman told The National. “You use falafel or chicken as your protein and build it as you go.”

Despite opening two years ago during the pandemic, the counter-serve family restaurant was an instant success, with socially distanced lines often stretching out the door, around the edges of the parking lot, spilling out to the street.

“As soon as we opened our doors, the community was amazing,” Ms Othman said. “They welcomed us with open arms.”

Sababa is at the far south edge of Little Arabia and is emblematic of the neighbourhood's growth and expansion.

Ms Othman sees the recent official designation as a sign that the city really cares about its Arab community.

“It helps a lot. It allows small businesses that aren’t as well known, or maybe don’t have the money to do marketing, to make a name for themselves, too. And it brings the community closer together.”

Updated: October 28, 2022, 12:00 PM
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