While Little India is memorable for its fragrances, it’s the vibrant colours of the shops of the Arab Quarter that stick in the memory. Textile stores and outlets selling Persian carpets are the most prominent, but you’ll also see leather, perfumes, jewellery and baskets for sale. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours weaving in and out of the stores, but don’t expect a quiet window-shopping session – some traders are old hands at drawing you into conversation and before you know it, you’ll be loaded up with sarongs, baskets and leather bags.
After signing his dubious treaty with the newly installed “Sultan” Hussein Mohammed Shah, Raffles allotted the area to the sultan and designated the land around it as a Muslim settlement. Soon the zone was attracting Malays, Sumatrans and Javanese, as well as traders from what is now eastern Yemen, and the area is now commonly referred to as Arab Street. Today, Singapore’s Arab community, descended from those Yemeni traders, is thought to number around fifteen thousand, though, having intermarried with the rest of Singapore society and being resident in no particular area, they are not distinctive by appearance or locale.
Like Little India, the area remains one of the most atmospheric pockets of old Singapore, despite the fact that its Islamic character has been diluted over the years as gentrification has started to take hold. Now it’s the schizophrenia of the place that appeals: rubbing shoulders with the Sultan Mosque, traditional fabric stores and old-style curry houses are brash Middle Eastern restaurants and a peppering of alternative boutiques and shops selling crafts and curios.