American Renaissance

‘Little Arabia’ Gives Muslims Taste of Home

Kimi Yoshino, L. A. Times, Mar. 1

Looking back, Mohammad Abdalla can see things clearly: He was out of place — a Muslim Palestinian American operating a Mexican American market in Orange.

When he took it over, he stopped selling pork because eating it is forbidden by his religion. Customers understood, but it was an inconvenience.

Then one day, a man walked in and told Abdalla, “If you don’t want to have pork chops and ham for Mexicans, go sell halal food to your own community.”

It was a suggestion he took to heart.

Like dozens of other Middle Eastern business owners, Abdalla set up shop in Anaheim’s bustling Little Arabia, a portion of Brookhurst Street also known as Arab Town and Gaza Strip.

Abdalla’s Al Huda Meat & Deli is one of seven butcher shops to offer halal meat, the Islamic equivalent to Jewish kosher. Judging by the demand, there’s plenty of business to go around.

“They come from Ventura, Las Vegas, Riverside and Pasadena,” Abdalla said. “They drive 50 to 60 miles to come to Anaheim… They buy everything here. They eat here.”

Among Abdalla’s customers are Muslim families from Las Vegas and Arizona, who call in advance to place $1,000 orders for halal meat. He freezes it and they come toting ice chests for the long drive home.

They could find halal meat closer to home, Abdalla said. But his Arizona customers, for example, could pay prices as much as $1 per pound higher there.

Butcher shops aren’t the only thing Arab Town has to offer.

Beauty salons cater to Muslim women, offering private rooms for haircuts because they customarily do not remove their hijabs — their scarf-like head coverings — in front of men other than close relatives.

Travel shops specialize in vacations to the Middle East. Restaurants feature hummus, tabbouleh and shish kebab. Pastry shops offer so many different kinds of baklava — cashew, pistachio, almond and walnut, to name a few — they fill display cases.

On top of that, there are clothing stores, bookstores, video stores and grocery stores.

“For Muslims and Arabs, it’s very well-known,” said Sabiha Khan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Southern California, whose office is on the outskirts of Little Arabia.

“We’re a little bit spoiled here because we have a lot of these amenities that other communities don’t have. You can get everything you need.”

As a woman who needs specific attire to fit into Muslim requirements, Khan said it is easy for her to find beautiful, embroidered scarves — the kind, she said, “that you don’t find at Robinsons-May.”

The area is so popular among area Muslims that even the local Sizzler on Brookhurst offers halal items on the menu.

Khan said about 170,000 Muslims live in Orange County; 600,000 in Southern California and 1 million statewide. Nationalities include Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians.

Anaheim does not promote the neighborhood or keep figures on the economic benefits it brings to the city. But business owners such as Abdalla say the neighborhood is packed on weekends.

When Abdalla moved into the Brookhurst Plaza shopping center four years ago, his was the only business catering to the Arab community. Now, there’s a grocery store and salon on either side and a smoke shop, coffeeshop and bakery across the parking lot.

It is a melding of cultures and geography. At the Iranian-owned Versailles Pastry & Chocolate, there’s a wide selection of French pastries — eclairs and tarts and intricately decorated desserts.

But half the stores are devoted to Middle-Eastern sweets.

Baklava is sold by the pound. The honey-drenched phyllo dough treats come in a variety of shapes and flavors, from traditional diamonds to thin “fingers” to bracelet-shaped rounds.

During Muslim holidays, the bakery sells hundreds of pieces of baklava, cashier Michel Conley said.

At the Al Andalus Market, shopper Hakam Issa of Anaheim picked up an assortment of fresh vegetables, specialty cheeses and pita bread.

He can find everything he needs, he said, including Arabic cucumbers, small eggplants for stuffing and dolma.

The store also has a wide selection of nuts and grains, items that are offered at many grocery stores but that are cheaper in Arab Town.

“Every community has their own stuff,” said Issa, who appreciates Orange County’s other ethnic shops in Little Saigon and Santa Ana. “We are really lucky. The mix is very nice.”