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Jewish Journal

Building Bridges to Arab Town

by Andrea Adelson

July 3, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Pop culture lovers don't need a map to find Mickey's Toontown. But Alam's Arab Town?

Little-known even in Orange County and not yet granted official recognition, Arab Town is located in West Anaheim, not far from Disneyland.

Arabic signage and billboards in the strip malls lining Ball Road and Brookhurst Avenue attest to the area's concentration of Arab-owned small businesses. Restaurants, bakeries, boutiques and halal (the Muslim equivalent of kosher) butcher shops teem with a multinational immigrant clientele, many of them swathed in head scarves and long skirts. Patrons come from throughout Southern California, homesick for familiar foods, smells and cultural norms of their homelands.

The emerging ethnic commercial district, akin to better-established Little Saigon in Westminster and Los Angeles' Koreatown, is further evidence of the county's evolution from suburbia into a more diverse, urban environment.

Yet, Arab Town's virtual anonymity outside the immigrant community -- even by Anaheim city officials -- shows that demographic diversity falls short of inclusiveness. The biblical cousins, Jews and Arabs, inhabit different worlds -- even here.

That figurative distance has increased in recent years, as attitudes between the two communities have intensified because of the intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks. Still, some bridges exist.

According to the 2000 census, 3,500 of Anaheim's 328,000 residents are of Arab ancestry. Each year since 1995, the small merchants of Arab Town -- 10-square miles bisected by Brookhurst between Interstates 5 and 22 -- have put on one of the county's largest cultural events. The Arab American festival, attended by 65,000 last year, is scheduled for Sept. 19-21 in Garden Grove.

Arab Town is the capitalist creation of a natural promoter, Ahmad Alam, who some describe as the area's unofficial mayor. The Lebanese-born mortgage broker and publisher of The Arab World, an Arabic/English-language weekly newspaper, has included a map of Arab Town and list of mosques and merchants in each weekly edition since 2000.

"You can get whatever you want here as in the Middle East," said Alam, who lives in Yorba Linda with his wife and son, Rashid.

"When we started, it was empty," said Alam, who now estimates the area supports 600 Arab-owned businesses, such as Sinbad Travel and Al-Hakima Bookstore. To be sure, Alam's Arab Town ambitions received a jump-start from $6 billion in recent public works improvements by Anaheim to accommodate Disneyland's second-park expansion.

Alam figures the area would need 100,000 Arab residents for The Arab World -- its 20,000 copies distributed free -- to become a daily. "We want to have a very big and strong community," Alam said. "We all moved here looking for a better life; we didn't like the politics back home."

An anti-Arab Sept. 11 backlash undercut his optimism. His unease deepened after his son, Rashid, was injured in a February hate crime.

Last month in a hotel in Arab Town's southern end, 700 people attended a Muslim Public Affairs Council fundraiser honoring the parents of Rachel Corrie, a political activist crushed to death March 16 by an Israeli military bulldozer while she was trying to halt the destruction of a Palestinian home. Speakers compared Corrie to protesters in a long tradition of civil disobedience, including Rosa Parks' black civil rights stand in the South and the young man blocking a tank's path in Beijing's Tienanmen Square.

"She made a light we can all follow; people who stand for human decency," said Maher Hathout, an adviser to the Los Angeles-based group, which organized the event to benefit the International Solidarity Movement. Its members act as human shields and have since been barred from entering Israel.

"Bring freedom to Palestine and Israel and an end to the enmity between these people," Rachel's mother, Cindy Corrie, pleaded. "Then her death will have had some purpose."

If a plea for peaceful coexistence from Arab Town seems surprising, it reflects the distance between two communities with common aims living in the same but separate worlds.

Nearly three years of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has eroded one of the highest-profile local efforts to establish rapport between the county's Arabs and Jews. An interfaith dialogue among leaders begun by the county Human Relations Commission during the late '80s was discontinued in recent years.

"We cannot separate events from the Middle East from what happens here," said Haitham (Danny) Bundakji, a police chaplain in Garden Grove and a spokesman for that city's Islamic Society of Orange County, which operates a mosque and school. "Sometimes there are painful moments. We stop calling each other."

"It was going nicely and then it ended," said Rabbi Bernard King, who headed Irvine's Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot for 30 years. "There was sensitivity over Israel."

Attitudes should be shaped by the examples of interfaith collaborations in local neighborhoods, said Dr. Muzammil Siddiqui, imam and director of the Garden Grove mosque.

"We should influence them, instead of letting them influence us," he said.

Bundakji accompanied King and others on an interfaith trip to Jordan and Israel, documented in 1999 by a Los Angeles Times photographer. Both grieved over graves of children lost to violence on both sides.

"The first phone call after Sept. 11 was from a rabbi offering help," said Bundakji, also a member of the National Conference for Community Justice. "That didn't happen before."

Two months later, King spoke at the Garden Grove mosque, a first by a rabbi.

Their friendship evolved from a deliberate Arab-Jewish dialogue sparked by the 1985 bombing death in Santa Ana of Alex Odeh, the regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"It was contentious," said Rusty Kennedy, director of the Human Relations Commission. "It's gotten tougher now. The relations between organizations are extremely strained."

He estimated that communication between Jews and Arabs locally is at low ebb.

The commission purposely tried to go beyond Arabs and Jews by drawing differing nationalities into a series of tolerance-building talks spawned after Sept. 11 called "Living Room Dialogues." Its "Healing the Hate" forum on May 29, to evaluate community responsiveness to the hate crime against Alam's son, Rashid, also looked at the outcome of a cross burning at the home of Greg and Evelyn Harris, who are African American.

"This might be a propitious time to start dialogue," said King, shortly after President Bush's meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials and before the latest escalation in violence. "I believe the Jewish community would want that dialogue. I'm not sure we've received it in return. The Jewish community has given up the effort. Maybe this is the time."

Ever an optimist, King added, "We need projects to do together, sweat and laugh and cry together."

He is not alone. Some others are moving beyond words to deeds. Last month, a south county group of 75 Muslims, Jews and Christians, led by their respective clergy, met at 6 a.m. in San Diego.

In a single day, the volunteer laborers hammered, painted and erected a small house for a Tijuana family, a project of Corazon Inc. of Laguna Hills, which in 25 years has built 750 simple homes throughout Baja California.

The collaboration, begun after Sept. 11, 2001, was the second house-raising by the group, which included Aliso Viejo's Temple Beth El, Mission Viejo's mosque and St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach.

"The imam, rabbi and minister gave the keys to the mom and her three kids," said Sabiha Khan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, located in Anaheim's Arab Town, who wielded a hammer at the event.

Despite waking at 2 a.m. and returning home exhausted at 11 p.m., Khan said the common endeavor by three faiths created friendships.

"I got to meet so many people," she said. "It was very heart-warming."

Another on-the-ground example took place earlier this spring. Three student council veterans of Irvine's Jewish day school explained student governance to their peers at an Irvine Muslim school, which was just establishing a student council. After dispensing with the serious discussion, the students took up a more typical subject: TV shows.

"They got together on a very human level," said Howard Haas, upper school principal of Irvine's Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School.

"I wanted it to be more of a coincidence; it didn't have to be a time to talk about differences," said Omar Ezzeldine, director of New Horizon Elementary School. "We need to treat each other as people. Differences will be resolved with time."

The two private school officials, joined by peers from UC Irvine and the public school district, took part in the inaugural meeting of an intracity education exchange, a novel idea initiated last month by Irvine City Councilwoman Beth Krom. Its objectives have yet to be fully defined.

"If we can't get together in the city of Irvine, there's no hope in the world," Haas said.

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