In Little Arabia, Community Begins and Ends at its Roots

By Kelly Kimball and Summer Wong

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Photos Courtesy of Kelly Kimball and Summer Wong

Upon entering the charming 800-square-foot hookah bar in Anaheim, guests are hit with a strong, sweet smell of smoke lingering viscously in the air. It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night and the crowds inside Hidden Cafe are already burning through their first rounds of hookah. The thirteen-year-old establishment nestled in the back of a small Orange County outdoor mall hosts a special viewing party of Kobe Bryant’s final game of his career. Family and friends wore their Laker jerseys, sweatshirts, pants and hats in support of the legendary Kobe. Customers’ eyes glued to one of the five 36 inch, flat screen TV’s in Hidden Cafe, cheering enthusiastically whenever Kobe Bryant made a basket.

Next door is a Lebanese Bakery which provides food for the event, while the hookah lounge provides drinks and hookah. Across the way is an Arabic pizza parlour, its employees soon to close shop and join the crowds that have funneled into Hidden Cafe in effervescent droves. Eighteen to twenty small circular tables lace around its main lounge, which easily harbors over 100 people on a busy evening like tonight.

Casually-clad waiters routinely walk around with metal cone-shaped baskets carrying hot, cubed coals to replenish those on top of the silver pipe tray that had burnt out. Cascades of sparks spew wildly from out of these canisters as guests slouch back in comfy leather seats, skillfully blowing perfect rings of white smoke into the air. It’s 7:40 p.m. right now, and the score is 2-6. By the end of the night, Kobe Bryant will finish out his last game with a win, scoring 60 points for a 101-96 final against the Utah Jazz.

Hidden Cafe, like other nearby mom-and-pop businesses in Anaheim, has made its home in a tight-knit ethnic enclave known as Little Arabia. In the 1980s, Arabian home buyers and entrepreneurs were attracted to the enormous amount of room for opening up potential businesses. Soon, Little Arabia turned into a thriving Arabic business district. The Arab American Council was created in 1996, the Arab World Newspaper began publishing that same year and restaurants began to open their doors in rapid succession. This neighborhood consists of over two decades of refugees, immigrants and multi-generational Arab Americans, occupying what was once a drab shopping plaza in the late 70s and making it into a vibrant cultural hub and transformative community center. It is also considered the biggest Middle Eastern domain in the United States outside of Detroit. However, not only is Little Arabia a cultural hub with authentic, delicious Middle Eastern cuisine and a hotspot with tourist allure, it has also historically been a place for social activism and transformative community leadership — a space leveraged by cultural celebration and pride in a time where islamophobia is at its utmost.20160413_195429

In 2011, this neighborhood showed support of pro-democracy revolutions during the Arab Spring, a revolutionary movement aimed to express a deep resentment towards oppressive Arab dictatorships, corruption of the elite, a falling economy, unemployment and protestation of security brutality. Little Arabia was the place of rallies, demonstrations and pro-democracy protests in support of numerous Arab countries such as Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Cafes throughout the region hosted community engagement meetings and was the founding space of several organizations, including the Arab American Civic Council.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, president of the Arab-American Civic Council, is well-versed in the type of activity that has happened throughout Little Arabia’s history — a history that is often overshadowed by the touristy, foodie allure of its authentic cuisines.

“Little Arabia has always been a hub for Arab community activism in the Greater Los Angeles area,” said Al-Dabbagh.

Organizations based in Little Arabia include: Access California Services (which aids Arab immigrants and refugees); CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), the leading Muslim civil rights organization; annual Eid Festival committee meetings; the Arab American Community Center; as well as  various Arab, Palestinian and Syrian organizations. Additionally, Little Arabia is home to three mosques.

Asem Abusir, owner of Knafeh Cafe in the heart of Little Arabia, is not only a proud small business owner, he also has an active hand in some of the most transformative community leadership providing for Middle Eastern, Arab and Muslim advocacy in Southern California. He is a member of the Arab American Civic Council as well, and serves on board for the CAIR – one of the largest Muslim organizations in the United States with 34 chapters nationwide. He also volunteers and serves on board for Access California Services, an OC nonprofit that serves immigrants coming in from Arabic countries.

“The purpose [of community activism that has localized in Little Arabia] is to build bridges between Arabic, Middle Eastern and Muslim communities,” said Abusir. “My kids were born here; [the efforts are an attempt] to remove any misunderstandings or misconceptions of our culture for a better future in our next generations.”

His hope is to build positive relations with media and government officials in efforts to cultivate better understandings of Islam. Beyond serving authentic, delicious food out of his cafe, the kind of work that emboldens him is advocating on behalf of people in his community who have been wrongfully discriminated against.

When asked what kind of discrimination Middle Easterners experience in Orange County specifically, Abusir noted employment discrimination as well as discrimination in other public spaces such as supermarkets, airports and shopping centers. Abusir’s community activism works to overcome the multitude of employment discrimination issues in Orange County.  

“[The local mosques around here] host workshops, educating people to know their rights and any changes in any racial laws, how these laws affect refugees in society and ways others can help out and support refugees.” said Abusir.

He explained that these educational spaces are continuous and have been going on for many years.

“I’m a small business owner in the middle of Little Arabia in Anaheim,” he reaffirmed, as if the statement itself was enough of an explanation. “Some people come by for jobs [and they’re] probably new immigrants who have just moved to the country. So we try to point them in the right direction, give them ideas on how to find a job, how to work with the labor laws here, what to be careful of. If I can help them in any way, I do. We want them to find opportunity, work hard just like everybody else and be part of society in general.”

In the neighboring city of Garden Grove, a Syrian-Mexican American landscape designer named Sara Abed has founded The Refugee Gardens, a community gardening project that is growing plants native to the countries of Syria and other countries experiencing an exodus of refugees so that they are readily accessible to new immigrants. It’s an effort made to bridge the gap between the refugee community with the rest of the community in Orange County.

Abed is working with the Arab American Civic Council, PAX Manifesto and a nonprofit called World Relief to develop this garden. Her project would not have been a possibility without the support and connections made with community members originating from Little Arabia and other nearby neighborhoods whose roots are very much a part of this community.

In an online Landscape Architecture podcast by Mike Todoran, Abed shares the intentions behind this project.

“In lieu of current events, I’ve been frustrated with all the things I’m hearing about on the news about people putting Muslims in a negative spotlight and the refugee community getting a backlash and all these negative things, and I felt like I really needed to do something — not just for these people, but for all of us to really strengthen what it means to be united and to embrace humanity. Any project like this, even at a small scale, sends a really powerful message out there to the rest of the world.”

Abed hopes to gain legitimacy with the City of Garden Grove and is in the process of writing a grant to gain sustainable funding and launch this project for the long term.

Back at Hidden Cafe, its owner Tareq – who only gave his first name – shares the origins of his business. Opening the Hidden Cafe in 2003 was not a walk in the park. It took dedication, determination and a fierce resolve to not give up on his passion that helped him eventually open up a booming business.

“I’m not going to lie. It was a struggle when I opened up,” said Tareq. “Back then, there was no social media. There were some days when it was really, really dead. There would be four to five customers the entire day. People would just come in, look around, then go.”20160413_205728

Despite his discouraging situation, Tareq refused to believe that his dreams could be shot down so easily. Grabbing some hookah from his store, Tareq would close early so that he could go to club nights at a nearby Italian restaurant. He would then try to get people interested in his products and encourage them to visit the Hidden Cafe for more. Tireless efforts to give his restaurant a fighting chance were rewarded as the Hidden Cafe started to receive more attention, and the number of customers per day started to increase one by one.

Tareq’s vision of having a hookah lounge came true, with the public giving rave reviews on Yelp, Tripadvisor and Zomato. For the past thirteen years, Hidden Cafe has been a destination for customers to quietly enjoy hookah, finish their homework, have casual business meetings, relax, watch TV and enjoy the dim lights.

“I always look at other businesses nowadays and envied on how easy they have it now,” Tareq commented, “They post on social media now and the next day, they have customers. However, I’m happy I had it the hard way because I really know what it’s like to open up a business.”

Little Arabia is a lot more than a hotspot for tourists where they can enjoy authentic Middle Eastern cuisine. Underneath that layer, Little Arabia is a historical space where people engage in social and political activism, and where Arab Americans are able to celebrate their unique culture in a society that fears Muslims. It is a haven for immigrants and refugees to build new lives for themselves in America, learn about a new country and build new connections.