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 eclectic nature 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.
South of Arab Street, Haji Lane and tiny Bali Lane – the last of these petering out into the wide walkway next to Ophir Road – have smartened up a fair bit of late. Both have something of London’s Brick Lane about them, with traditional shops rubbing up against trendy boutiques; in the evenings and at weekends DJs set up informally on Haji Lane, spinning dance sounds from their computers or record decks. It’s one of Singapore’s most appealing and organic enclaves, and yet it’s not hard to discern that not all is rosy: the local community is having to cope with fast-rising rents while trying, often unsuccessfully, to maintain a semblance of an Islamic character by getting new restaurants to subscribe to a voluntary no-booze policy.
Pause at the Baghdad Street end of pedestrianized Bussorah Street for a good view of the golden onion domes of the
or Masjid Sultan, the beating heart of the Muslim faith in Singapore. An earlier mosque stood on this site, finished in 1825 and constructed with the help of a $3000 donation from the East India Company. The present building was completed a century later to a design by colonial architects Swan and MacLaren. Look carefully at the base of the main dome and you’ll see a dark band that looks like tilework, though it actually consists of the bottoms of thousands of glass bottles. The wide foyer has a digital display listing prayer times. Beyond and out of bounds to non-Muslims is the main prayer hall, a large, bare chamber fronted by two more digital clocks.