Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’

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Halal street food is a common sight in the area.
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From halal culinary delights to pioneering Islamic art, the Bang Rak district is a breath of fresh air.
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A close up of the gift given to the Thai king.
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The peaceful interior of the Haroon Mosque.
Updated 23 October 2017
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Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’

BANGKOK: “Only a few years ago there was no such thing as Thai-Islamic art and now a piece of it sits inside the royal palace,” beams Ismail Ywaiyavata, the 39-year-old vice chairman of the Institute of Islamic Art Thailand.
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.


Shrinking Sea of Galilee has some hoping for a miracle

Updated 13 November 2018
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Shrinking Sea of Galilee has some hoping for a miracle

  • The Sea of Galilee has been shrinking for years, mainly due to overuse, and environmentalists are raising the alarm
  • Plans are being devised to resuscitate the freshwater body
EIN GEV, Israel: It was not so long ago when swimmers at Ein Gev would lay out their towels in the grass at the edge of the Sea of Galilee.
Today, they put up their parasols 100 meters (yards) further down, on a sandy beach that has appeared due to the shrinking of the iconic body of water.
“Every time we come we feel an ache in our hearts,” said Yael Lichi, 47, who has been visiting the famous lake with her family for 15 years.
“The lake is a symbol in Israel. Whenever there is a drought, it is the first thing we talk about.”
In front of Lichi, wooden boats with Christian pilgrims aboard navigate the calm waters, among groups from across the world that visit.
The Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus walked on water, has been shrinking for years, mainly due to overuse, and environmentalists are raising the alarm.
Plans are being devised to resuscitate the freshwater body known to Israelis as the Kinneret and to some as Lake Tiberias.
For Israel, the lake is vital, having long been the country’s main source of water. Israeli newspaper Haaretz provides its water level daily on its back page.
Its shrinking has been a source of deep concern. When two islands appeared recently due to falling water levels, it received widespread attention in the Israeli media.
Since 2013 “we are below the low red line” beyond which “salinity rises, fish have difficulty surviving and vegetation is affected,” said Amir Givati, hydrologist at Israel’s water authority.
The level is only around 20 centimeters (less than eight inches) above the record low plumbed in 2001 — except, at that time, 400 million cubic meters (14.1 billion cubic feet) a year were pumped out for irrigation.
“This year, we only pumped 20 million cubic meters, but the lake is in a very bad state,” said Givati.
Added to that is the 50 million cubic meters Israel sends to neighboring Jordan as part of peace agreements.
Its unique characteristics go beyond its religious significance.
It is 200 meters (650 feet) below sea level, located north of the Dead Sea, the River Jordan between them.
Both the Dead Sea and the Jordan have also suffered from overuse.
The Galilee covers some 160 square kilometers (60 square miles), roughly the size of Liechtenstein.
At the water ministry, blame for its condition is placed on five years of drought.
But “climatic factors alone are inadequate to explain the record shrinkage of the Sea of Galilee,” wrote Michael Wine, Alon Rimmer and Jonathan Laronne, researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University.
Irrigated agriculture, pumping and diversions are the main culprits, they say in an analysis.
Israel constructed a national aqueduct in the 1950s in the years after the country’s birth, when it was on a quest for nation-building and sought to “make the desert bloom,” as its early pioneers put it.
The aqueduct carried water from the lake toward the rest of the country.
“Lake Tiberias was used as a national reservoir,” said Julie Trottier, a professor who specializes in Israeli-Palestinian water issues.
A man-made canal supplied water to the west toward the Mediterranean coast and into the Negev desert in the south, she said.
That system has not been in place for some 10 years. Now, most homes in the west of the country use desalinated water from the Mediterranean, while farms are irrigated with water that is treated and recycled.
But eastern Israel does not have access to desalinated water, said Orit Skutelsky, of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
Farmers in the region rely on rivers that provide 90 percent of the lake’s input.
Dozens of pumps remove nearly 100 million cubic meters (3.5 billion cubic feet) each year from those sources, whose flow has decreased and is no longer enough to supply the lake, says the researcher.
Several kilometers from the beaches at Ein Gev, at the foot of rocky hills, immense nets cover banana trees whose leaves wilt with the surrounding dry vegetation.
“We call it the valley of bananas,” said Meir Barkan, tourism director for the Ein Gev resort.
“When they began planting trees, there was no water problem and the banana is the only fruit that you harvest year-round.”
But without desalinated or recycled water, the farms are a main player in the “competition for resources between nature, agriculture and tourism,” said Eran Feitelson, geography professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
For Lior Avichai, agronomist at the Zemach Nisyonot research center, the solution is not to “kill agriculture and the local economy,” but to use less water.
Authorities propose providing the region with desalinated water via the aqueduct.
Skutelsky said that to better manage the ecosystem, the water should be sent further upstream and then allowed to flow down naturally.
But “that would be very expensive,” said Skutelsky.
Menahem Lev, 59, has spent 39 years of his life on the lake as a fisherman.
In his open palm, he displays a Saint Peter’s fish just pulled from his nets, barely bigger than his hand.
“The solution can only come from the government — or from the sky,” he said.
He points to the half-abandoned dock which pilgrims’ boats can no longer reach, forcing visitors to disembark on the bank.
“I am really ashamed when tourists see the lake in this state,” Lev said.