The Arab District
Long before the Europeans arrived, Arab traders plied the coastlines of the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, bringing with them the teachings of Islam. By the time Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, to be a Malay was also to be a Muslim. Traditionally, Malays' lives have centered on their religion and their villages, known as kampongs. These consisted of several wooden houses with steep roofs of corrugated iron or thatch gathered around a communal center, where chickens fed and children played under the watchful eye of mothers and the village elders while the younger men tended the fields or took to the sea in fishing boats. The houses were usually built on stilts above marshes and reached by narrow planks serving as bridges. If the kampong was on dry land, flowers and fruit trees would surround the houses.
All traditional kampongs have fallen to the might of the bulldozer in the name of urban renewal. Though all ethnic groups have had their social fabric undermined by the demolition of their old communities, the Malays have suffered the most, since social life centered on the kampong.
The area known as the Arab District, while not a true kampong, remains a Malay enclave, held firmly together by strict observance of the tenets of Islam. At the heart of the community is the Sultan Mosque, or Masjid Sultan, originally built with a grant from the East India Company to the Sultan of Johor. Around it are streets whose very names—Bussorah, Baghdad, Kandahar—evoke the fragrances of the Muslim world. The pace of life is slower here: there are few cars, people gossip in doorways, and closet-size shops are crammed with such wares as songkok, the velvety diamond-shape hats worn by Muslim men; the lacy white skullcaps presented to hajji, those who have made the hajj, as the pilgrimage to Mecca is called; the tasseled, beaded, and embroidered tudung (head scarves) worn by devout Muslim women; Indonesian batiks; leather bags; and herbs whose packages promise youth, fertility, and beauty.
The Arab District is a small area, bounded by Beach and North Bridge roads to the south and north and spreading a couple of blocks to either side of Arab Street. The area can further be divided up into the subneighborhoods of Kampong Glam (the region around Jalan Sultan) and Bugis (the area around infamous Bugis Street). It's a place to meander, taking time to browse through shops or enjoy Muslim food at a simple café.
A Good Walk
This walk begins at the foot of Arab Street, just off North Bridge Road. Wander past the specialty shops and take a right onto Baghdad Street; watch for a dramatic view of the Sultan Mosque where Bussorah Street opens to your left. Leaving the mosque, return to Arab Street and take the first left onto Muscat Street, turn right onto Kandahar Street, and then left onto Baghdad Street. At Sultan Gate you'll find Istana Kampong Glam, the sultan's Malay-style palace, built in the 1840s. Baghdad Street becomes Pahang Street at Sultan Gate, where Chinese stonemasons create statues curbside. At the junction of Pahang Street and Jalan Sultan, turn right and, at Beach Road, left to visit the endearing Hajjah Fatimah Mosque, built in 1845. It leans at a six-degree angle. Return to Jalan Sultan and take a right; keep walking, crossing over North Bridge Road, to the junction of Victoria Street and the Malabar Muslim Jama-Ath Mosque.
Follow Victoria Street down to Bugis Street. Three blocks beyond where Bugis Street becomes Albert Street—between the Fu Lu Shou shopping complex and the food-oriented Albert Complex—is Waterloo Street. Near the corner is the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, or just Kwan Im for short, one of Singapore's most popular Chinese temples.
This walking tour shouldn't take more than two hours, including stops to look around the temples and mosques. But take your time. This is one of the friendliest areas in Singapore. It's best to go around 10 in the morning so you can catch a glimpse of the locals at the mosques. If you've got time, stop in at one of Arab Street's few hookah cafés.
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