In Singapore’s Arab quarter

P Krishna Gopinath | Updated on July 16, 2020

Wait until dark: The prosaicness of the Grand Mosque’s daylight avatar dissipates once evening settles in and diners and shoppers flock to the streets around it   -  ISTOCK.COM

Kampong Glam’s liveliness comes from a mix of food, arts and heritage

* Kampong Glam was designated by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, for Muslim settlers — people of Malay origin, migrants from the Sulawesi island of Indonesia, Arab traders and so on

* The Grand Mosque in Kampong Glam is a national monument

* The iconic Blue Jazz Cafe in Kampong Glam is a place for not just great food but also some of the best jazz in town

In Singapore, beauty is meant to be found in order, symmetry and harmony. Urban elegance stems from good planning, design and execution. But if one moves away from the central district, life has a more random quality to it. The search for aesthetics of another variety leads my friend and me — during a pre-Covid-19 visit — to a train on the Green Line. We get off at Bugis station and take a side road to visit Kampong Glam, the Arab Quarter.

This part of the city was designated by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, for Muslim settlers — people of Malay origin, migrants from the Sulawesi island of Indonesia, Arab traders and so on. One by one, places of worship came up, the most well known of which is the Grand Mosque or Masjid Sultan.

Inside the Arab Quarter, many realities exist cheek by jowl. Its outer ring has malls, stand-alone shops, offices, restaurants and residences. Once inside, the lanes become narrower. Here, shops sell Persian carpets, objects of art, furniture, condiments and spices. Though it is almost evening, I find multiple eateries still serving lunch. Tables and chairs use up all constricted spaces before spilling on to covered walkways.

I move away from the bustle into a by-lane. It has well preserved shophouses in the Singaporean tradition. But they are not in a medley of colours like the ones in Joo Chiat or Blair Road. Though similar in design and architecture, these are certainly bereft of flamboyance. Brown, white and grey are the pronounced shades. The white-shuttered windows and entrances with subtle curves and certain motifs show an Arab influence.

The by-lane is quiet and orderly, somewhat out of character with the general milieu. Beyond the tiled rooftops, the golden domes and minarets of the Grand Mosque stand out. A sample of post-modernist architecture rubs shoulders with the mosque in the skyline. Just as I zoom into this interesting juxtaposition of the old and the new, a hummingbird cuts across the frame, placing itself on one of the window creepers on the side.

The Grand Mosque is indeed grand. But Singapore’s best-known mosque is not overwhelming in size and grandeur like Delhi’s Jama Masjid or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. It is a compact structure without an ostentatious façade. It arrests attention with the refulgence of its bulbous domes and slender minarets. The prosaicness of its daylight avatar dissipates once evening settles in, when it stands against the sky in bright colours.

The Grand Mosque has been a national monument since 1974. At night, the street on which it stands fills up with diners, and swanky cars zip down the nearby North Bridge Road. The atmosphere is definitely carnivalesque, and the night breeze from the sea makes the outdoors pleasant.

My friend and I walk past food courts and a sea of tables and chairs, with noisy female ushers announcing dishes on offer. The array of food covers a wide geographical arc — West Asian, Italian, Malay, Indonesian and so on. My friend recommends a Turkish eatery. The predominant colour at the restaurant is red and I find the décor a little too ornate for my taste. I focus on the food and choose a mezze selection to begin the meal with: Hummus, havuc salata (grated carrot sautéed in olive oil and served with yoghurt and garlic) and saksuka (sautéed diced eggplants tossed in a tangy tomato sauce). For mains, my friend orders a tavuklu pide, a Turkish pizza with chicken and cheese. I go for Imam bayildi, which is a whole eggplant stuffed with other vegetables and melted cheese. We wash these down with chilled beer.

After dinner, we decide to explore Bali Lane, another part of Kampong Glam. The narrow lane is considered a Mecca of street art. Its walls are a vibrant splash of colours, with murals and paintings by artists from across the world. The lighting in the street makes you feel like you are walking through a corridor of art.

We stop at 11, Bali Lane, a shophouse with bright red walls. It is bursting at the seams with young visitors. The patio is teeming with people in wait for a table. We, too, had to join the queue at the iconic Blue Jazz Cafe, which is a place for not just great food but also some of the best jazz in town.

As the evening turns to night, musicians start entertaining the crowd outside with tunes old and new. I catch strands of Miles Davis’s trumpet notes.

As we start looking for a taxi to return home, we find the Arab Street, too, filled with diners. In the ambient cacophony — overwhelming but never discordant — we can hardly throw light on the countless conversations around us. We take one last look at the strobe-lit Grand Mosque before our taxi leaves Kampong Glam.

P Krishna Gopinath is a Delhi-based writer

Published on July 16, 2020

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