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Bennett: In Anaheim's Little Arabia, Muslims and non-Muslims are breaking bread to break the ice

The lines outside the Olive Tree Restaurant in Anaheim's Little Arabia last Monday started early in the evening, well before opening — one line for those who hadn't eaten anything since sunrise and another for people who were not observing sawm, or the ceremonial fasting done every day during the month of Ramadan, which ends July 5.

Temporary seating spilled down the sidewalk away from the small strip-mall eatery, each empty folding table draped with a plastic American flag tablecloth. An American flag hung overhead; a Palestinian flag was draped along the fencing of an adjacent makeshift dining area, which consumed several parking spots with a large white tent and more tables.

As sunset neared, both Muslims and non-Muslims descended upon the popular Middle Eastern restaurant, which for the last decade has served as a community hub for the region's estimated 100,000 Arab immigrants. Some women wore hijabs (head scarves) and abayas (modest dresses), others wore jeans and comfortable shirts.

A few older white men clutched shopping bags of clothing and household supplies to donate to the five recently arrived families who were the evening's special guests. Children toddled around, at least one in gilded vests and traditional Afghan sandals. Conversations in Arabic, English and Farsi could all be heard floating through the air. Posters in the window declared: "Refugees Welcome."

At precisely 8:07 p.m., the moment the sun dropped below the horizon, a Muslim prayer rang through the outdoor PA speaker. The line for those fasting started its move toward the buffet of vegetable stews, lamb shanks, flaky meat pies and pilafs inside. The first "iftar with a refugee" was underway.

Iftar is the meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan, a holy month of spiritual detox during which faithful Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and engaging in sexual relations during daylight hours as a test of will. For many, it's a time of spiritual purity and a chance to rededicate oneself to the faith through good deeds and self-control.

For Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Anaheim-based Arab American Civic Council, Olive Tree's iftar buffet — the first but now one of around a half-dozen that occur in Little Arabia nightly during Ramadan — was an opportunity to continue his organization's Meal With a Refugee series, which invites the public to share a meal with families who are new residents of the United States.

"At the Arab American Civic Council, we do a lot of narrative shift — changing the way the Arab community is discussed — and this is one of our campaigns toward that," Al-Dabbagh says. "When we bring people here, we can sit down with them, talk to them, let them learn about us and about the rich diversity within the Muslim and Arab communities.

"Some people don't know that not all Muslims are Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim. Or that in addition to new refugees, there are some of us who have been here for generations."

Eye-opening conversations like these could probably also happen at organized cultural forums or as part of the community's own day-to-day interactions with non-Arabs. But Al-Dabbagh sees sharing a meal as an even simpler entry point to fighting the Islamaphobic, anti-Muslim rhetoric that he sees being perpetuated in certain quarters.

When a half of a braised chicken and a bowl of Egyptian molokhia soup (or a helping of aromatic Saudi Arabian rice, for that matter) is in front of you, it's hard to ignore the universal appeal of delicious cuisine.

"[Food is] what breaks the ice," he says. "Just sitting there can be awkward, but once you start the conversation over food, it becomes easier. It's funny that that's what it takes, but it helps."

As the line for non-fasters snaked closer to the platters of food (Olive Tree serves traditional food of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Mideast countries), the tables filled with friends both old and new. They gabbed about everything from new jobs to local politics to the perils of having to drop for afternoon prayer in the middle of the street. A woman wearing a silky Burberry plaid head scarf said that living as a covered woman in Orange County was much easier than doing so in Florida, where she fielded stares and questions about her attire nearly every day.

Once everyone was served, patriarchs of the refugee families got up to speak. One arrived from Syria with his wife and five children only six months ago and said the language barrier was a significant challenge. Another, from Afghanistan, has been here for three years and was claiming asylum. Both were photographers and videographers back home; their wives had higher degrees in Arabic and Koranic studies.

Olive Tree co-owner Alan Abdo, who was streaming the whole thing via Facebook Live, told diners that if they needed anything, they should call, a reminder of how important a resource well-settled immigrant communities like Little Arabia are to new arrivals.

"To me, when I see these refugees, I don't want them to see me as an Arab. I want them to see me as an American," says Abdo, a Palestinian American who was born here and grew up in Fountain Valley. "That's why I put the American flag up. I wanted them to say, 'These are what Americans are.' I want them to know that if they need something, we're here to support."

With or without iftar buffets and the Arab American Civic Council's monthly Meal With a Refugee events, Olive Tree has long been a place where non-Arabs have flocked to for a taste of the complex food of the Middle East and a slice of its culture. Abdo himself has always had friends from all backgrounds, and many non-Arabs regularly visit his family's restaurant for his father's cooking and the effervescent personalities of the two men.

"People feel like this is their home kitchen. They feel comfortable here," he says of how he and his dad treat every customer like family. "It's part of our culture, and people see that and it opens them up. I know the whole world can't come here, but we're slowly chipping away at it. I mean, who doesn't want to eat good food?"

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SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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