Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’
Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’
I am sat in a modest-sized room inside the Tuan Suwanasana Chularjmontri Foundation in the Bang Rak district of Bangkok.
All four walls display works of Thai-Islamic art, some lean on tables because of a lack of space. In one corner, a desk with a lamp and open laptop acts as Ywaiyavata’s office. Next to that, on an artist’s drawing board, bamboo quills lie scattered across pieces of calligraphy.
The building is also multi-functional, serving as a community hall and a school.
The Bang Rak district is noted for its upmarket hotels and old European-style architecture, but I am here because it is also where one of Bangkok’s largest concentration of Muslims live and Ywaiyavata, a popular member of this so-called “Muslim Quarter,” is heading up its most exciting new project.
“Thai people don’t know about Islamic art. We want to use it to promote the beauty of Islam. That is why we are developing our own modern interpretation of a Thai-Islamic art style,” he said.
Of medium build, Ywaiyavata’s round face has a typically light beard. He is wearing a round collared, navy blue top with stonewashed denim jeans. A fine art graduate, Ywaiyavata founded the institute in April 2016 alongside local lawyer, Abdul Samad, calligrapher, Ustad Suleiman and Islamic art graduate, Shareef Toleb. Within a few months, they were given the opportunity to seek royal approval.
Last December, they presented the king with a piece of their pioneering work.
“We wanted to show the king how our art style brings the two cultures together. The design we presented took the popular Thai lotus flower and applied the Islamic artistic principles of geometry and repetition to create a frame inside which we wrote his name in Arabic calligraphy.”
The exquisite piece has a circular frame of mesmeric lotus flowers that echo patterns seen all over Thailand, from architecture to clothing. In the middle, the king’s full name, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, is artistically inscribed in Arabic calligraphy. Made by placing gold leaf onto the finest black Thai silk, the result is stunning and made quite the impression.
“The king asked me about the patterns and how we came up with the idea. He agreed it was a beautiful way to present Islamic culture in Thailand,” Ywaiyavata said.
However, Ywaiyavata’s institute is not just about calligraphy.
Two of the largest pieces on display are by award-winning female Thai artist, Thidarat Chantachua.
Using colored threading on black canvas, Chantachua’s semi-abstract, geometric patterns present an echo of arabesque architecture.
The institute has also begun work on the first-ever Qur’an to be decorated with the new Thai-Islamic design style.
When we head outside, Ywaiyavata shows me where the institute hopes to soon be permanently based — a pretty house, complete with pale blue wooden slats. Like many buildings in Bang Rak, it is more European than Thai.
Muslims in Bangkok
As we walk down the narrow back streets of the Muslim quarter, we pass doors with “bismillah” written above them. Turning a corner, the air becomes smoky and filled with the whiff of roasting meat. A hijab-wearing Thai woman stands grilling satay sticks on a food cart labelled “halal.”
The woman smiles warmly and returns our greetings. Above her, a green sign announces the Haroon Mosque, one of the oldest in Bangkok.
Mohammed Kanzi, a local postgraduate student of Islamic history and a volunteer at the institute, tells me the story behind the mosque.
“It was named after Haroon Bafadel, whose father was an Indonesian-Arab trader from south Borneo. He built a wooden mosque in the Javanese style on the banks of the Chao Phraya in 1837.”
Bafadel’s father, Musa, arrived long before Bangkok became the huge metropolis it is today. Back then, the mosque stood in a village called Tom Samrong, outside the capital.
“This is why the mosque’s first name was the Tom Samrong Mosque. Then, in 1899, the Thai government wanted the land to build a customs house and the mosque was rebuilt inland.”
The first rebuild was also wooden, but in 1934, a brick building was constructed in the style of the surrounding architecture. As a result, the Haroon Mosque looks more like a European townhouse than an oriental institute, complete with neo-classical floral motifs, mock romanesque pillars and wooden shutters.
“The only distinguishing Islamic feature was that crescent and star mold up there,” my guide said as he pointed toward the ceiling.
Ywaiyavata and I strain to see where our guide is pointing — high up on the apex roof’s brickwork, a gold-and-green crescent and star can just about be made out.
Origins of Thai-Islamic art
Once inside, the real reason I was brought here becomes apparent. At the front of the prayer hall, two ornate wooden structures stand in stark contrast to the mosque’s otherwise simple, plain interior.
“This unique mehrab and mimbar might also be called Islamic-Thai art style. The mehrab reminds us of the royal barges on our rivers and has Arabic and French influence. Meanwhile, the mimbar is a cross between a Muslim and traditional Thai throne,” Mohammed said.
The Muslim Quarter
The Haroon Mosque is one of many in Bang Rak. There is also the Ban Oou Mosque, Faizane Madina and the brilliantly-named Thai-Pakistan Friendship Mosque.
Thailand’s capital is home to the largest concentration of Muslims in the country and Bang Rak’s community wonderful reflects this diversity. Mohammed explained how many reached the shores of Thailand.
“We know Muslim traders were in contact with Thailand since the early times of Islam and this led to conversions and inter-marriage along the Malay peninsula, so many Muslims here have Malay and Middle Eastern ancestry. Others are Thai whose families converted sometime in history and then there are those from the Indian Sub-Continent that came here as sea merchants centuries ago.”
Mohammed’s own ethnic ancestry is Malay and Chinese, while Ywaiyavata traces his paternal roots to southern Thailand and his maternal roots back to Hadhramaut in Yemen.
The ethnic diversity is also reflected in the halal eateries of Bang Rak. Places serving Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern food rub shoulders with halal Thai eateries and Muslim grocery stores are more abundant here than in most other parts of Bangkok.
In a city famous for its hedonism, Bang Rak presents a refreshing haven for Muslim travelers headed to Thailand’s capital city.
Mariam’s journey to North Pole ‘an inspiration for Saudi women’
- Mariam Hamidaddin was one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions.
- Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.
LONDON: Mariam Hamidaddin was skiing toward the North Pole in temperatures as low as minus 38 C when she was advised by her team leader to give up on her dream and take a helicopter back to base camp.
She did so reluctantly. Frostbite had taken its toll on the Jeddah-born entrepreneur’s hands, but with no previous experience of such climates, Hamidaddin was unaware of the severity. Only when she was assessed by a Russian medic who spoke pidgin English did she appreciate how close she was to losing her fingers.
“The words he told me were: ‘No chop’ ... which was scary but also a great relief to hear,” said Hamidaddin, one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions. Team leader Felicity Aston deliberately chose women with no athletic or Arctic experience with the intention of demonstrating that anybody can achieve their goals with determination.
As Hamidaddin discovered, however, having an expert on hand helps. The transition from frostnip to frostbite can be a matter of five or 10 minutes, so it is essential for people in extreme weather to pay attention to their body. The tiniest sign can help avoid severe consequences.
The 32-year-old had followed all the instructions learned during training camps in Iceland and Oman: She kept moving to circulate her blood and had not removed her gloves even once in the Arctic. She felt pain, yes, but the entire team had frostnip, so why should she consider quitting?
Fortunately for her future — and her fingers — the decision was taken for her.
“There was no proper moment where I realized I had frostbite,” Hamidaddin told Arab News after returning to the heat of Saudi Arabia. “If it was up to me, I would have wanted to continue, so I am extremely thankful that I was asked to evacuate because the frostbite gradually got worse and worse.
Basically, the team leader saved my fingers.”
Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.
This month on her Instagram feed @InTuneToTheSound, she is posting photos of her journey in non-chronological order. The intention is to be “open and vulnerable and hopefully inspire people.” In a post, a video shows her typing at a computer using only her right pinky finger.
“There is a negative media perception of what a Saudi woman looks like and what she can and can’t do,” said Hamidaddin. “For this reason, it’s important for us to show that what you see in the media isn’t necessary a true reflection of who we truly are.
“It is also important to share our failures as well because when I see success upon success, I cannot connect with that. I am human, I have weakness and I fall, and I need to know that when I fall, I can rise again. Those stories are the ones that will connect most with people.”
With Saudi Arabia women now competing at the Olympic Games, being allowed to attend football matches at certain stadiums and the imminent lifting of a ban on driving, opportunities for women in the Kingdom are blossoming.
Hamidaddin, founder of the Humming Tree, a co-working space and community center that focuses on creativity and wellbeing, said she sees examples of strong, athletic and confident women every day.
“You can see them everywhere — women running, biking, climbing mountains,” she said.
“So we are already there. It’s just a matter of sharing these stories more. We are strong women; we know what we want and we find a way around it. We do what we need to do and we get it done. The fact that driving now is going to be open for us, just makes all that easier.”
Although Hamidaddin’s journey to the North Pole was cut short, the team’s doctor said she could wait out the expedition in the warmth of base camp and celebrate with her team when they reached their destination.
It was an opportunity that, even with frostbite, she was never going to turn down. What she found at the top of the world was a beautiful, dreamlike landscape — and, perhaps fittingly, a perpetual chase to reach her goal.
“Unlike the South Pole, which is a landmass, the North Pole is a constantly drifting landscape. It’s sea ice on top of the Arctic Ocean and it’s always moving, so you are constantly trying to catch it,” she said.
“One minute you’re on top of the world taking a photo and by the time you’re done taking it, well, the North Pole is a few miles away. You have to keep trying to catch it.”