An inattentive driver may cruise down Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, California, and recognize nothing remarkable. It's an ugly stretch of road, one bordered on both sides by one grey strip mall after another. But upon closer inspection, one may start to notice a few curiosities—storefronts advertising cheap airfare to the Cairo, Amman, and Jeddah; business signs rendered exclusively in Arabic; and an endless array of Middle Eastern restaurants, sometimes located right next door to each other.
This is Little Arabia, where even the local Baja Fresh and Sizzler offer halal meat choices to their Muslim customers. This improbable corridor of Orange County houses a thriving community of Arab-owned bookstores, clothing shops, halal butchers, and hookah lounges. Over the years, since Arab immigrants began settling here in the 80s and 90s in waves, this side of town has been the stage for Palestinian anti-occupation protests and Syrian anti-regime marches. But nothing defines this neighborhood more than the restaurants that populate every shopping center, places where the smell of hookah smoke and the voice of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum waft out open doors and windows.
"Restaurants are what make Little Arabia," says Rashad Al-Dabbagh, a community activist. "It's not like there's a landmark here, or a museum or a community/cultural center. So the food—the shawarma, the falafel—is what makes this area Little Arabia."
For years, Al-Dabbagh has been part of a campaign to get Little Arabia officially recognized by the city. The city council has been reticent in its support, but Al-Dabbagh and others have wasted no time erecting signage announcing Little Arabia's presence and printing out tourist brochures with maps of the neighborhood. Over the years, Little Arabia has had many names—from Little Gaza to Arab Town. But "Arabia" is a far more romantic notion than the connotations of the Gaza Strip, evoking Orientalist images of flying carpets and magic lamps—no surprise, as Disneyland lives right around the corner here in Anaheim.
As far as borders go, Little Arabia has none. Although the restaurants and grocery stores cluster along Brookhurst, they spill out onto the side streets and into other main streets, stretching out so far they overflow into neighboring Garden Grove and Buena Park cities. Little Arabia extends to as far as the smell of spit-roasted lamb and beef travels. The culinary topography of the neighborhood is as varied as the Middle East (and North Africa) itself. But it's syncretic, too—a melding of national traditions across those Sykes-Picot borders. For tourists, this is a place of fantasy and a playground for adventurous eaters. But for Arab-Americans, the main commodity is nostalgia.
Take the shawarma sandwich at Sahara Falafel, one of the oldest food institutions in this area. It's been here for more than two decades. Like many Little Arabia establishments, the walls are covered in murals. The ones here depict images of Jerusalem and desert tents. The owner is Jordanian, but the shawarma sandwich he serves claims no national heritage. A person behind the counters carves small, glistening chunks of beef off a rotating spit, and arranges it in a roll of pita bread with tahini, tomatoes, and parsley.
The resulting sandwich could have easily come off a street cart in Benghazi or a restaurant in Beirut. The flavors here are familiar enough to remind you of home, wherever home may be, but not complicated enough to be specific to any geographical territory. This shawarma sandwich is the emblem of an imagined homeland, one that does not accurately reflect the realities of the Middle East but indulges, instead, in the rose-colored rearview of memories. Like Little Arabia itself, it's a cultural composite, loyal not to nation but to people of all nations.
Across the street, the Syrian restaurant Aleppo's Kitchen offers an alternative narrative, one that is deeply invested in national heritage. The restaurant has been open for a little over two years, but it has already become a neighborhood mainstay. The menu's headliner is the kibbeh—a dish of crispy cracked wheat stuffed with meat—and customers here can order it ten different variations. On Ramadan, the restaurant is often booked full for all 30 nights. "We have the patio," says Nidal Hajomar, one of the owners. "Arabs—they love patios. When I get American customers, they want to sit inside. But Arabs, even if it's raining, they want to sit on the patio." Muslim customers flock here to break their fast to the sound of the adhan, or call to prayer. Painted on the walls are depictions of Aleppo's citadel. On regular nights, Arabic folk and pop music plays jovially over the speakers.
But it's the flavors that are engineered to taste like home. Hajomar, a refugee himself, employs others like him in the kitchen in the back, cooks who fled Syria as a civil war devastated their homeland. They cook family recipes, the kind of food they grew up with. "When we have trouble with the food, my wife, she calls her mother back home," says Hajomar. "The food, it has to be connected to Syria."
Like most of the Arab-Americans in this neighborhood, Hajomar did not arrive here by choice. Little Arabia was built on the dreams of immigrants like him—displaced and homesick, they forged new conceptions of home with food and memory. But in the process, they managed to carve out a space of their own, in a city and a country that has not necessarily been welcome to them. Little Arabia may not exist on official city documents, but it exists, unavoidably, in the kitchens of these restaurants, and on the plates they send out to customers who are yearning for a taste of home.