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

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.


Design ‘dream team’ helps Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla shape its future

The southern area of AlUla which is part of the project. Drawing inspiration from traditional Arabian architecture, the templates can be mixed and matched to enable residents to realize their dream property. (Photos/RCU)
Updated 06 June 2020

Design ‘dream team’ helps Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla shape its future

  • The town is sharing its historic treasures with the world and giving residents a new feel to their homes
  • We would like to be a model not only for Saudi Arabia but also the world (on) how you can design new places, live with the environment, be sustainable and protect it, but also open it to the world

RIYADH: Isolated in the Kingdom’s northwestern desert, the small town of AlUla is not only sharing its historic treasures with the world but also giving residents a new design and feel to their homes.

As well as invigorating tourism, reviving the economy, generating jobs and sending youth abroad for scholarships, the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) is enhancing the lives of residents by designing their homes as part of a major urban regeneration project for the historic Saudi location.
The AlUla Design Studio (UDS), launched by RCU, is a new public service that aims to help locals shape the future development of their community.
“We’re driven by good design, good outcomes, by protecting our heritage, the environment, and by making sure that we create sustainable infrastructure,” Stephen Murray, chief of county zoning and planning at the RCU, told Arab News.
“We would like to be a model not only for Saudi Arabia but also the world (on) how you can design new places, live with the environment, be sustainable and protect it, but also open it to the world.”
Murray said that the commission wants to invite the entire world, including locals, to enjoy AlUla. “It’s not about just tourists from overseas, it’s about everyone.”

First Phase
The first phase of the scheme will concentrate on regeneration in AlUla South, focusing on the creation of more green spaces, including parks, playgrounds and playing fields, with the revitalized Wadi AlUla as a connecting natural thread.
“One of the things we’ve looked at, at the royal commission, is creating great places to live, creating neighborhoods, places where people enjoy and the community can grow together,” said Murray.
The RCU wants to promote AlUla town as a model of urban planning, regeneration and quality of life in the Kingdom, and the UDS initiative will provide residents of AlUla South with the chance to choose property styles that suit their locality.

We’re driven by good design, good outcomes, by protecting our heritage, the environment, and by making sure that we create sustainable infrastructure.

Stephen Murray, Chief of county zoning and planning at the RCU

The specialized architectural design studio will offer those looking to build residential or commercial properties a range of design templates.


Drawing inspiration from traditional Arabian architecture, such as shaded inner courtyards, open rooftops and natural light, the templates can be mixed and matched to enable residents to realize their dream property.
By integrating modern sustainable technologies and building materials, the designs take into account comfort and quality of life while embracing the colors of AlUla to harmonize with the area’s history, heritage, and environment.
“These houses are probably the most significant investment we ever make. Definitely, these are places where we laugh, where we share joy and fantastic family moments,” Murray said.
The designs also maximize the use of space on each plot of land, providing residents with homes meeting family needs and ensuring that all new buildings contribute to a more community-focused AlUla.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Launched by the RCU, the AlUla Design Studio (UDS) is a new public service that aims to help locals shape the future development of their community.

• As well as invigorating tourism, reviving the economy, generating jobs and sending youth abroad for scholarships, the RCU is enhancing the lives of residents by designing their homes as part of a major urban regeneration project for the historic Saudi location.

• The commission wants to invite the entire world, including locals, to enjoy AlUla.

• The RCU is invested in meeting the needs of city residents, who have offered positive feedback on the project.

Wider boulevards and shaded walking areas will also be created, leaving room for public green spaces.
“We see ourselves as a service, as part of Vision 2030 (through) building the community. The idea is there are things we would like (locals) to achieve,” he said, adding that the studio would like to build on the beautiful colors of AlUla.
Good housing and beautiful infrastructure not only enhances quality of living but, more importantly, builds the right facilities to complement and support the project, he said.
“We’re planning to nearly double the amount of private green spaces in this area from 48,000 meters square to 80,000.”
The RCU is invested in meeting the needs of city residents, who have offered positive feedback on the project.
“We got great support for the release of land, for improving space, for improving the facilities to support the people that live in these areas.
“People we talked to were interested in the fact that we were planning to ensure that they could go outside their home blocks (and) still have privacy, that we were encouraging them to use roof spaces and that we were encouraging shaded walkways,” said Murray.

Guidelines
The templates align with the new user-friendly architectural guidelines recently released for AlUla residents and landowners looking to build properties. The guidelines, which also emphasize sustainable building materials and integration with infrastructure, are available to download from the UDS website at http://uds.rcu.gov.sa.
Residents can get full details on how to kick-start the development of their new home or business by visiting the website and can appoint an architect via the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs’ Balady website as the first step in applying for a building permit.
Urban development of this kind is part of the RCU’s plan to improve quality of life for AlUla residents, driven by RCU Gov. Prince Badr bin Farhan.
The development will encompass upgrades to telecommunications and infrastructure, including the expansion of Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz Airport to handle 400,000 visitors annually; improvements to local services such as doubling the number of primary and intermediate schools; a new health care clinic; more urban green environments; plus new playgrounds and sports fields.