Off-Ramp correspondent R. H. Greene celebrates Ramadan by spending 24 hours in Anaheim's Middle Eastern enclave.
The sun is setting in Anaheim's Little Arabia. In an empty restaurant called Desert Moon, the waitstaff takes the failing light as a call to action. Appetizers are swiftly set out. Huge pans of meat and vegetables materialize on buffet tables beside tiered fruit dishes and pastry platters.
Desert Moon is a new arrival on Brookhurst Street, the central corridor of the Little Arabia district. Its opening was rushed to coincide with Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Manager Ahmed Hammoud says this seeming paradox is actually a strategy.
"Well, Ramadan, as much as it is a fasting season, it is also a feasting season. We did our studies — it's almost 400,000 people living here with Arab origins. And because of the big number of people who will be coming to break the fast, this is also a very good marketing thing for the future."
Desert Moon quickly fills with the famished faithful. Fatima Albuhaisi, a cheerful and bespectacled diner, explains the importance of the end-of-day meal for her family. "During the regular day, we don't find time. My husband — working, always. My kids go to school. But in Ramadan, I make sure we sit and eat together."
I'm soon caught up in the elaborate dance of Muslim hospitality. Ahmed will not let me leave without eating. Fatima and her husband Walid secretly pay my bill. I ask Fatima why she has gone to such lengths to make a total stranger welcome. "It's Ramadan, and [there's] nobody with you at that table. So I would like to share something with you."
At 4:15 a.m. the next day, farther up Brookhurst Street, the West Coast Islamic Society's Al-Ansar Mosque resounds with the first call to prayer. Al Ansar is one of Little Arabia's more traditionalist mosques. Services are in Arabic. Women cover their heads and are separated from the men during prayer. This makes Al-Ansar an important cultural hub in a Little Arabia that has become a magnet for Muslim immigrants, who are often steeped in old ways.
"It started in the mid-70s going through our current time," says Jamal Albert Anaim, a jovial entrepreneur who has lived in Little Arabia for over three decades. "With the immigrants coming in in waves or individually, they start looking for something that will remind them of back home, something that will remind them of good old times when they were in the Middle East. And that actually made the community grow tremendously. I estimate in North Orange County probably with South L.A. County combined, there's probably about 120,000 Arabs and Muslims."
Muslim immigrants aren't the only ones drawn to Al Ansar Mosque by its traditions. Take Amina Maameri, a vivacious congregant in a black hijab who is in many ways a typical millennial. Amina studied communications. She's using Snapchat to crowdsource an ambitious storytelling project about Algerian identity. Amina sees no contradictions between her more modern impulses and the traditions of her faith.
"A lot of times I've gotten the word 'oppressive,' you know, that 'you're being forced to do something you don't want to do.' When I hear things like that, it is offensive to me. Because in a sense someone is coming and saying, you know, that this is what you are and this is who you are without allowing me to speak for myself."
Amina's husband, Tahar Herzallah, is an Al Ansar facilities manager. He's on the front lines of the mosque's community outreach.
"Right at the beginning of Ramadan, we just had a gift distribution to all of our neighbors," Herzallah says. "We walked around the neighborhood here, right behind the mosque, and just distributed gifts."
Tahar sees the benefits of outreach. And its limitations:
"I mean, I'll be frank with you... when you first walked in those doors yesterday, I thought you were going to come and talk to us about Orlando. No matter how hard we try as a community to put ourselves out there, to talk to people, to make ourselves more public, the media will only cover our community when there's some sort of tragedy. This is something that our community has been dealing with — this stigma, this image... I mean when our children are getting bullied in school and being called certain things, or when our women who wear hijab are walking around and getting harassed by people, that's a result of the way they're being portrayed. It just seems so far away from what the reality is that sometimes we just don't even know how to respond to it."
One local who's never at a loss for a response is Bill Dilati, who greets me at mid-day in his real estate office at mid-Brookhurst. "I don't feel that I'm an important figure," Dilati says, "but I am a servant of the community. God has blessed me with so much, and I'd like to give back."
Dilati is the closest thing Little Arabia has to a town father. A classic immigrant success story, he has a billboard-sized picture of himself in his parking lot and an office festooned with American flags.
"America has been the land of opportunity," he says. "I came here for the American Dream. And that dream — blissfully — was achieved. Thank God and God bless this land."
Dilati has long been a proactive force in Little Arabia. He's in charge of the upcoming Eid festival, and he thinks big. This year, Dilati hopes to draw more than 20,000 people to downtown Anaheim to celebrate Ramadan's end.
Even the promotional literature bears Dilati's patriotic stamp. On the Eid 2016 poster, a teenage girl in a hijab carries a sign reading "Girl Power," while other young girls have created hijabs out of the American flag.
"Well, our community's really scared," Dilati says. "They don't know where they belong anymore. Because a lot of people are telling them that you don't belong in this land. To strengthen the American Muslim identity in those kids is hard. So we're telling them that you're not an Arab, you're not a Pakistani, you're not Afghani. You're an American Muslim, and this is who you are."
Back at the Al-Ansar mosque, the mid-day service is packed. Friday is to Islam what Sunday is to Christianity — the holiest day, when the devout assemble for worship and moral guidance.
It's awkward to be the only man in a room filled to capacity who isn't praying. But thanks to a radio headset, I'm able to listen to Imam Moustapha Kamel in translation with one ear, and in his original Arabic with the other.
The imam's sermon is a kind of spiritual pep talk, featuring some remarkable asides in support of democracy, as well as denunciations of the military dictatorships in Syria and Egypt. There are some unspecific warnings about enemies of Islam that are substantially less militant than the lyrics to "Onward Christian Soldiers," and a special denunciation of Las Vegas as the living symbol of an un-Islamic way of life.
The imam closes by asking his congregants to be steadfast in a time of many humiliations. "Yes," says the imam. "I talked about that today. Because there are a lot of problems like Islamophobia here. All Muslims, all people, have to keep going and trust themselves. Allah said we have to be patient and we have to face any problem and fix it according to the Koran, and according to the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him."
My day on Brookhurst Street is winding down. At Al-Ansar, it's time again to break the fast, with a traditional snack of dates and milk. The twilight prayer is punctuated by the delighted squeals of very young children who use the curtain separating the male and female worship areas for an improvised game of hide and seek.
The children are noisy, but no one interrupts their play.
Life — and worship — go on.
Celebrate the Little Arabia Eid festival Saturday, July 9, from noon-10pm in Downtown Anaheim.