How Indonesia’s Arab community is keeping its Middle Eastern customs alive

Along the K.H. Mas Mansyur Street in Surabaya’s Arab Quarter, crowds of shoppers during Ramadan were conspicuous this year by their absence.

There were no throngs of people crowding around the Ramadan bazaar food stalls selling famous Arab delicacies.

“With the social restrictions in place due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), we did not have such festivities this year,” said Abdullah Albatati, a resident of the Arab Quarter and head of the Surabaya Arab Community.

“Some of the food stalls served only local customers. The Middle Eastern eateries were open for takeout food, so people just came, bought and left,” he added.

One of the most captivating places in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, the Arab Quarter, situated to the north of Chinatown, offers vibrant evidence of its origins as an Arab trading post.

The shops lining the streets and alleys there bear names such as Nabawi, As Salam, Khadija, Al-Huda, Al-Hidayah, and Zamzam, and sell perfumes, dates, pistachios, prayer beads and other paraphernalia.

Abdurrahman Hasan Al Haddad (in white cap) and Abdullah Albatati in front of Al Haddad’s store Zamzam in Arab Quarter (Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata)

One of the oldest stores on the street is Salim Nabhan, a bookstore and publisher of Muslim literature established in 1908. It still prints some books in Arabic for Islamic boarding school students who are learning the language.

Trader Abdurrahman Hasan Al-Haddad, who owns Zamzam, is a fifth- or sixth-generation Arab, as is Albatati. Their ancestors migrated from Hadhramaut (in Yemen) in the 19th century to towns along the northern coast of Java Island and other islands across the then Dutch East Indies archipelago to settle in Surabaya.

The Arab Quarter, which comes under the sub-district of Ampel in the Surabaya district of Semampir, has the largest concentration of Arabs in Indonesia.

They comprise the majority as opposed to the other ethnic groups such as the Javanese, the Madurese from Madura Island, Bugis from Sulawesi Island, or the Malays who migrated to the region and whose descendants now live in Ampel.

“As one of the ethnic groups in Indonesia, we still maintain our Arab roots, but it never makes us feel any less Indonesian, Javanese or Surabayan,” said Albatati, as he chatted with his friend Al-Haddad on the latter’s decision to relocate his shop.

According to Huub de Jonge, Dutch anthropologist and Indonesianist from the Netherland’s Radboud University Nijmegen, more than 95 percent of the Arab community in Indonesia trace their roots to Hadhrami tradesmen who migrated there, married local women, and formed families who spread out.

De Jonge said that the Arab community is the second-most important minority group of foreign origin in Indonesia.

In his book on the Hadhrami Arabs in Indonesia, “Mencari Identitas: Orang Arab Hadhrami di Indonesia (1900-1950),” meaning Searching for Identity: Hadhrami Arabs in Indonesia (1900-1950), de Jonge writes that the nationalist Abdul Rahman Baswedan, the grandfather of the current Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, hailed from the Arab Quarter in Ampel.

As a journalist turned politician in the early decades of the 20th century, Abdul Rahman Baswedan was critical of the social-class hierarchy within the minority group and its insularity.

The elder Baswedan was instrumental in the establishment of the Indonesian Arab Union in 1934 and championed the Hadhrami community’s integration with the wider society, urging his community to start referring to the country they lived in as their homeland.

Read the full story in Arab News

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