Little Arabia: A piece of home in deepest California

Little Arabia: A piece of home in deepest California
Feature: Growing as a hub of Arab commerce and culture since the 1980s, Little Arabia is now trying to draw in some of Anaheim's millions of tourists.
4 min read
25 June, 2015
Anaheim's Altayebat Market is much like any traditional Arab food store [Anadolu]

Disneyland may be "the happiest place on Earth", but a neighbouring attraction in the southern California city of Anaheim may, for many, rival even Mickey Mouse's home.

The Little Arabia district took its name from its substantial Arab-American population, its Arab speciality food stores, clothes shops, cafes and restaurants. Its Arab lawyers and doctors attract Arab visitors from across California and from other states.

Arab migrants arrived in southern California in the early 1980s, with many settling in Garden Grove city, which neighbours Anaheim.

The presence of an already well-established Vietnamese immigrant community there encourage the many in new Arab community to move to Anaheim, where rents were cheaper.

Setting up shop

Sami Kharaqi was one of those first immigrants to establish a business in Anaheim. He opened a small grocery store, which has now become Altayebat Market, run by Sami's son Rami, who was just three years old when his father arrived in the US.

"When my father left Syria in 1982, there weren't any Arab stores here and only a few Middle Eastern food distributors," said Rami.

     When my father left Syria in 1982, there weren't any Arab stores here and only a few Middle Eastern food distributors
 - Rami Kharaqi, storeowner

"My father decided to open a small grocery store and with time we developed it until it become an established market not only for Middle Eastern food but also for Bulgarian, Romanian, Latin American and Chinese goods."

Altayebat Market is like any traditional Arab food store, selling items not found in average US shops, such as fresh Arab bread, cheeses, pulses, nuts and halal meat.

"We only sell halal products. We deal directly with cattle and poultry farmers," added Rami.

Kareem's Restaurant is located just across the street. Famous for its falafel, it has been featured in a number of US newspapers, including the LA Times.

Nisreen al-Omary visited California from Nazareth with her husband in the mid-1980s. They decided to stay and open a small restaurant. It was one of the first Arab restaurants to open in the area. Three years ago her husband passed away, leaving her to run the business.

"My husband always wanted to open a restaurant. His family in Nazareth owned one and he loved cooking," she said.

"After he passed away, I went through a really rough period and closed the restaurant for a while, but then I decided not to give up and to continue the journey we had started together. My children helped me make the restaurant a success again."

Tempting tourists

The city of Anaheim encourages tourists to visit Little Arabia district to enjoy Arab cuisine and hospitality. 

 "We want to attract tourists to the area," said Rashad al-Dabbagh, a local activist who works on the city's marketing campaign.

"Millions of people visit Anaheim to go to Disneyland and other attractions in the city. They spend lots of money in restaurants and cafes. We want to introduce them to the city's Arab area where they can have a different experience."

The aim of the campaign is to support Arab businesses, and work with the city council to get Little Arabia recognised as a special area - such as Little Saigon, Little Bangladesh and Little Korea, Dabbagh explained.

The Arab population of southern California is not exclusively concentrated in Anaheim, but the Little Arabia district plays an important commercial, cultural and political role in the lives of Arab-Americans from surrounding cities.

In recent years, there have been demonstrations in the district in support of uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria - and celebrations when Arab dictators were toppled.

     Millions of people visit Anaheim to go to Disneyland... We want to introduce them to the city's Arab area
- Rashad al-Dabbagh, activist

Cultural centre

Arab immigrants to the US initially prioritised establishing businesses to make money and survive, rather than trying to create a cultural or educational hub.

But as time went by, the need for such centres, mosques, churches and Arabic schools grew. Arab immigrants started establishing them in the 1980s.

The Arab community also began organising social events, usually on Muslim or Christian religious holidays or on US public holidays.

Abu Jihad, an Arab immigrant who arrived in the US in the 1980s, believes these activities help minimise the culture clash between the new and old generations.

"The culture clash is usually worse when both parents work, because their children are being raised in American schools. When they become teenagers, the parents realise how import it is for them to learn Arabic, and that's when there is a clash of cultures," said Abu Jihad.

He said he and his wife raised their children "with Arab and Islamic values". They went to Arabic classes each week and attended a mosque.

"We also took them back to our home country during the holidays," he added.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.