By ART MARROQUIN / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Bold, curving letters emblazon the leather-bound books lining the long shelves at Jarir Bookstore in Little Arabia.
The shop’s owner, Jarir Saadoun, greets customers looking for the latest Middle Eastern cookbook, historical texts, children’s tales, or novels by best-selling Algerian author Ahlam Mostaghami.
Saadoun, an Orange County native whose father emigrated from Lebanon, said he opened the store a decade ago in hopes of preserving the Arabic language for families with deep roots in the Middle East.
“It definitely keeps the culture alive,” said Saadoun, 28. “I grew up being both Lebanese and American, but it’s good to learn as many cultures as you can, especially in Southern California.”
Saadoun’s attitude toward dual cultures is widely embraced by those living and working in the Little Arabia neighborhood straddling the Anaheim-Garden Grove border, concentrated along a 3-mile stretch of Brookhurst Street between La Palma and Katella avenues.
Little Arabia has grown beyond the stereotype of simply having one of the region’s largest concentration of hookah lounges. The ethnic enclave is home to 25,000 people of Middle Eastern descent aspiring to preserve modest traditions while also thriving in Southern California.
Grocery stores and meat markets sell halal products, the Islamic equivalent to Jewish kosher. Restaurants and bakeries serve traditional meals of hummus, baklava and shawarma.
Bookstores sell books written in Arabic, while travel shops book trips to the Middle East. Muslim worshippers gather for services at the mosques that have sprung up in Anaheim and Garden Grove. Embroidered scarves and long dresses adorn the windows of clothing stores.
Most importantly, the cultural hub serves as a network for Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees seeking support from people who speak their native language, said Yasmin Nouh, a spokeswoman for the Little Arabia-based chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“The trend has been that immigrants come here and settle for a few months or years before moving on for other reasons – bigger family, a better job or a bigger house,” Nouh said. “In that way, Little Arabia has served as a kind of launching pad for a good amount of its immigrant population.”
About half of the storefronts lining Brookhurst were vacant 15 years ago, when Ahmad Alam started printing a map of the area he called Arab Town in his weekly publication, The Arab World Newspaper.
Alam said he wanted to attract Arabic-speaking businesses and residents to the area so that his newspaper could be easily distributed within a concentrated neighborhood.
“It sounds a little selfish, but I’ve got to have a community in one small area in order for me to have a high circulation and fresh news,” said Alam, who moved to Southern California from his native Lebanon. “Little Arabia doesn’t look so big, but it’s becoming something to the people who visit here.”
Over time, Alam purchased wide swaths of Little Arabia and leased spaces to tenants hailing from throughout the Middle East, including his brother Mo Alam, who owns the Forn Al Hara restaurant and bakery.