Little Gaza Community Thrives As Arabic-American Mecca

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Chants in Arabic boom across the tables at Dalal Muhtadi's Jerusalem International Restaurant. Live images of Ramadan prayers from Mecca in Saudi Arabia fill the big-screen television, and occasionally, a guest nears it and joins in worship.

Muhtadi welcomes dinner guests into a Middle Eastern ambiance. A copper kerosene stove sits atop a short plaster column. Brass jugs with tulip-stemmed spouts decorate the room designed with Arabic arches.

This Anaheim restaurant is an Arab community center, sitting in a shopping plaza where most of the dozen stores are Arab-owned, in an area called Little Gaza.

On Brookhurst Street near Ball Road, an Arabic salon provides a private place for Muslim women to get a haircut, a nonprofit organization works to help Middle East orphans, and a supermarket offers everything from Lebanese sesame-seed paste to sweetened vanilla from Malta.

As the small Orange County Muslim community grows - estimates range up to 200,000 - some hope the businesses will help erase Arab stereotypes, promote goodwill, offer understanding of Arab ways and be a conduit for Arab involvement in civic and political life.

Prominent in the nucleus of this growing Arab enclave is Sami Khouraki's grocery store. "Shoppers, welcome to Al Tayebat Market," the Syrian immigrant announces over the store's intercom. He wishes a "Ramadan Mubarak" or a blessed holiday to shoppers in his bustling store with narrow aisles jammed with food from all over the Middle East, Far East and many European countries.

Ramadan is Islam's holy month when Muslims fast during daylight hours to mark the revelation of their holy book, the Koran, to Prophet Mohammed.

Going into the grocery business 15 years ago in a county with few Arab-Americans, the religious Khouraki, 54, took a gamble. "There were no Middle Eastern stores in Orange County," recalls Khouraki, 54. "It was very risky business, but the investment was not too much and with the help of Allah, we felt such a business would prosper."

In the past five years, Arabic signs have sprouted on marquees, advertising more markets, books, insurance, dresses, haircuts, music and videos.

Some Arab Americans say California's weather - similar to much of the Middle East - drew them to Orange County. Others say good schools, places like the Islamic Society of Orange County, stores like Khouraki's and a growing sense of community lured them.

When Jerusalem Restaurant opened in a shopping center, about a block north of Al Tayebat, most other stores were empty, recalls Erin Yates, a hairdresser at First Class hair salon, one of only two non-Arab stores in that center.

Yates says the Arab merchants have been good neighbors. "We feel accepted by them, and they feel accepted by us," says Yates, 36, who occasionally has tried Arabic food.

Workers at the Jerusalem restaurant are scurrying to set up the buffet table. The eatery will likely be packed this evening as many fasting Ramadan adherants take Iftar, their daily fast-breaking meal.

A concerned Dalal Muhtadi oversees the preparations. The Saudi Arabian woman has labored to transform the eatery into a gathering place. As guests trickle in, Muhtadi, adjusting a scarf over her head, becomes the gracious hostess.

"Salaam alaikum," she nods to arriving patrons, who return the greeting, which means "Peace on you."

Muhtadi's restaurant has become a cornerstone of the area, and like it, Muhtadi's personal transformation is ongoing. From Riyadh to Orange County, Muhtadi, 36, a single mother of two, has come a long way.

Her journey from a position of subordination required of her, as it is of many women in the Arab world, to a businesswoman in America has been difficult.

Born to a well-to-do family, Muhtadi grew up in an environment that stifled women, she says. Fortunately for her, she says, she came from a family that emphasized education, which she got at a school for girls that her mother started.

Nonetheless, she grew up covered from head to toe in the garb that Arabic women are required to wear in public. Never allowed to drive, she observed the cultural rules, such as the one not permitting her to travel without a man.

Her studies after high school were interrupted by an arranged marriage for Muhtadi to an Egyptian-Palestinian man living in America, over her objections. Before age 19, Muhtadi was married and living in Rancho Palos Verdes.

A rebellious Muhtadi battled her husband's wishes to curtail her education and have her stay at home. She managed to get her bachelor's degree in biological sciences. But problems between her and her husband escalated, and Muhtadi sought divorce. She moved to Yorba Linda and got a university master's degree in public health. "With divorce came my freedom," Muhtadi says.

Not planning to be in the restaurant business for too long, she wants to concentrate on expanding a nonprofit organization she helped found with a mission to reach orphaned and needy children in the Middle East.

But for now, she's trying to build community spirit through her eatery. "We're starting the nucleus for an Arab-American town," says Muhtadi.