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Welcome to Arab Street, says Singapore

This historic street is about boutiques and cafes, far away from Middle East tensions.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2005 14:55 IST

Want to have dinner tonight in Baghdad? How about coffee in Kandahar?

Far away from the tensions in the Middle East, Singapore's historic Arab Street and its surrounding lanes have become an oasis of cool where trendy boutiques thrive alongside cafes offering water pipes with flavoured tobacco.

For 26-year-old civil servant Eleanor Tan, the district is now a regular haunt where she meets up with close friends to enjoy exotic Middle Eastern cuisine and smoke a hookah, or water pipe.

"I feel like I am in some Arabic town, just like Aladdin," Tan told AFP while enjoying a strawberry-laced hookah at the two-storey Samar restaurant.

Cafes like Samar are decorated with Moroccan lamps hanging from the ceiling and its menus are spiced up with history snippets befitting the theme of the neighbourhood of two-storey shophouses.

Even the list of dishes is accompanied by brief explanations of their origins and importance to the Arab way of life.

To add to the Middle Eastern feel, carpet-draped benches are available in a corner for those who prefer to lie down and enjoy their drinks and hookahs.

The district, the first stop for traders arriving from the Middle East during the 1800s, is enjoying a renaissance among younger Singaporeans who also frequent trendy clothing boutiques sprouting up around Arab Street.

"You know when I first opened up at Baghdad Street, at about this time of the night, there would be no cars parked here," said Heikel Bafana, the owner of Samar, an Arabic word meaning "evening conversations".

The area was so quiet one could use the street as a bowling alley, said Bafana, who quit a legal practice to start his eatery two years ago.

Arab Street and the nearby lanes are still dotted with rows of shops selling carpets, textiles and jewellery sourced from the Middle East, but they are now joined by fashion boutiques and Western-style bakeries.

All of them are within walking distance from the landmark Masjid Sultan built in 1928, the biggest mosque in the multi-racial city-state. It can house up to 5,000 people during prayers.

Bafana, 33, believes the laidback atmosphere of the area is its biggest draw for locals looking for a change in pace from the hustle and bustle of the Orchard Road shopping belt. Singapore is a largely ethnic Chinese society.

"Once you come to Arab Street, it seems to pull everybody along into the Arab culture," he said.

"Actually I opened up this place not just for the people of my community, the Arabs in Singapore," said Bafana, who is of Yemeni origin like most Arab-Singaporeans. "To me personally, at the end of the day, if we get to know each other, it's better."

Business has also improved at the B Bakery, which offers predominantly Western-style food items like brie cheese sandwiches and other pastries.

"We started in June last year. It was much quieter," said Eunice Cheong, one of three co-owners of the bakery. "There are more people coming by now."

Like Bafana, she agreed visitors were drawn to the leisurely atmosphere of Arab Street, which reminds many of the time Singapore was still a small trading port and cultural melting pot.

Aside from cafes like Samar, chic boutiques add to the area's quaint appeal.

Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo's only Singapore store, Comme des Garcons Guerilla Store, is a favourite with the fashion-conscious who do not mind paying as much as 1,190 US dollars for a jacket.

Second-hand Levi's jeans can also be bought for as little as six dollars from the House of Japan which is just a few shops away. Its owner Mohamad Nasi moved his store to the district six months ago.

"The place is now popular," he says.

First Published: Nov 11, 2005 12:28 IST