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.


Saudi Arabia, on Sweden Island, in Dubai

Updated 15 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia, on Sweden Island, in Dubai

  • Yes, you heard that correctly. The World archipelago is taking shape off Dubai
  • Saudis are the most prominent buyers of its first residences in the Heart of Europe, including the world’s first floating underwater villas

SWEDEN ISLAND, THE WORLD, Dubai: Billionaire investors from Saudi Arabia are reportedly snapping up a slice of Europe — minutes from Dubai’s coast — as development on a luxurious man-made archipelago gathers pace.

On the emirate’s “The World” archipelago, the Heart of Europe project provides a series of island destinations, made up of opulent palaces, island villas and 13 luxury hotels on six small islands. Each offers a different aspect of European life and aims to bring European hospitality “with a Maldivian twist” to the Middle East’s Arabian Sea.

According to its developer, Joseph Kleindienst, chairman of the Dubai property developer Kleindienst Group, wealthy investors across the Kingdom are among the most prominent buyers of the multimillion-dirham properties being developed on the island, with nearly a quarter of all investments (23 percent) to date being made by Saudi nationals.

“We have a very, very good interest from Saudis in the Heart of Europe project,” said Kleindienst, speaking to Arab News during a private tour of Sweden Island. “Here in Sweden Island, soon you will find very, very famous Saudi names. It is not for us to disclose these names, but later on, as the development grows, you will meet very interesting Saudis here.”

The Heart of Europe is the first big project to go ahead as part of The World project, a 60-square-kilometer archipelago of more than 200 islands laid out in the shape of a world map, which was created from millions of tons of sand and rock. Currently, Lebanon Island is the only one open to the public; it operates The World Island Beach Club.

Construction of the Heart of Europe project was due to begin in November 2008 but was delayed by the global financial crisis. Development finally began in 2014. The project’s value has grown from an initial Dh1.5 billion ($408 million) equity undertaking by Kleindienst Group to Dh5 billion ($1.36 billion) after sales.

 

On Monday thousands of workers at Heart of Europe were busy across the islands striving to get the project ready in time for the completion deadline of 2020, ahead of Dubai’s Expo; with an initial focus on Germany Island and Sweden Island.

The Heart of Europe has 10 beach palaces on Sweden, 32 beach villas on Germany and 131 “Floating Seahorse” villas, marketed as the world’s “first luxury underwater living experience.” 

Kleindienst expects that all of the homes for sale across the Heart of Europe project will be handed over by the end of this year. 

In total there are 4,000 residential and hotel units that will eventually be available across the project, about 1,000 of which have already been bought by investors, Kleindienst revealed. 

Besides handing over residences to owners by the end of the year, The Heart of Europe is slated to have the first of its planned hotel “soft openings,” at the Portofino Hotel in Italy, in December this year.

Lying about five kilometers (3.1 miles) off mainland Dubai, the Heart of Europe will feature classic Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss and German architecture as well as landscaped gardens and streets that will, in some cases, feature artificial snow, due to advanced climate control technology. And, for those that miss the drizzly temperatures of Europe in the winter, some streets will also feature artificial rain. 

Sweden will feature 10 Scandinavian-style villas and, this week, the Kleindienst Group unveiled the first completed six-floor Sweden Beach Palace, which Arab News got a first look at.

With a price tag of Dh100million, the majestic villa comes fitted out Bentley Home interiors, equipped with seven plush bedrooms, a full gym and fitness center, an underground “snow room” that can be set as low as minus –5C, a Swedish massage room, an entertaining room and an observation deck — designed to mimic the upturned hull of a Viking boat — which provides 360-degree views of the Arabian Gulf.

Sweden will feature 10 villas in a Scandinavian style and, this week, the Kleindienst Group unveiled the first completed six-floor Sweden Beach Palace, which Arab News got a first look at.

With a price tag of Dh100million, the majestic villa comes fitted out Bentley Home interiors, equipped with seven plush bedrooms, a full gym and fitness centre, an underground “snow room” that can be set as low as minus –5C, a Swedish massage room, an entertaining room and an observation deck – designed to mimic the upturned hull of a Viking boat– which provides 360-degree views of the sprawling Arabian Gulf.

Each property has its own private section of beach. Uniquely the palaces fully-own a piece of the marine area plot, including a private coral reef.

Of the 10 that are for sale, three have already been bought by investors based in Saudi Arabia, said Kleindienst.

Saudis, along with other wealthy Middle Eastern residents, represent an important segment of the investors the Kleindienst Group are hoping to attract, he said. 

“Saudi Arabia is a very important market for us,” he said. “It is an excellent product for investors from Saudi Arabia because we are selling this ‘second-home’ concept here in the Heart of Europe. 

“People from Saudi Arabia can travel to Dubai and enjoy their time in the Heart of Europe. And when they are not here, we hope they can rent their homes out and produce an income from the property.”

Heart of Europe properties, Kleindienst stressed, are not for people to live in 365 days a year, but for the uber rich looking to snap up a second home in the Middle East, with a unique setting for the region.

He said that the project is Dubai’s first purpose-built luxury area in which UAE residents can own a holiday property in their own country, he said, rather than in the Maldives, Mauritius or the Seychelles. 

“The second-home market is a new concept for Dubai,” he said, adding that while New York has places such as The Hamptons and multiple cities in Europe have countryside and seaside getaways, Dubai has lacked a luxury weekender destination.

“The Heart of Europe is a unique and ambitious project aiming to develop Dubai’s luxury freehold second-home market in an idyllic island location,” he said. “Our journey to date has taken us to the unveiling of the Sweden Beach Palaces, one of the most luxurious freehold second homes in the UAE. Our vision is turning into reality as we make real progress on our project.”

Aside from Sweden Island, Saudis are also snapping up the Floating Seahorse vessels, which come with a slightly less eye-watering price tag of Dh16million, said Kleindienst. Of the 131 for sale, 60 have already been purchased, he said. Figures from April show that about 40 percent of the buyers are from the Kingdom.

On the tour, Arab News saw a completed prototype. The bespoke one, two or three-bed floating homes have below sea-level bathrooms and bedrooms so owners have just a pane of glass separating them from hundreds of fish and an abundance of coral and marine life as they sleep and bathe. 

Kleindienst hopes the Heart of Europe project will be the catalyst for world-breaking firsts — including a record he aims to break this year. 

The last quarter of 2018, he said, will see the soft opening of the 488-room Portofino Hotel, located on the Main Europe Island, despite only breaking ground on the construction site this year. 

“No one has broken ground on a hotel then completed it the same year,” he said. “We want to show that it is possible. That anything is possible. That there is the ability to build a hotel in a year on an island.”