Sunday, 21 December 2008

Ampel: The Holy Heart of Surabaya

The Arab Quarter of Surabaya

Originally published in Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine, December 2008

The light falls in dusty sheets and the alleyway smells of perfume and rosewater. Narrow tables are piled with bundles of cloth and bags of pistachios. There are stacks of Arabic books; colored prayer beads hang from racks above doorways, and ranged along counters are glass jars full of sticky, amber-black dates from the palm groves of Tunisia and Iraq. The traders, sipping tea or frowning over account books, are Arabs; tall men with the bruise of devout prayer on their foreheads. But this is not Marrakech or Damascus; this is Ampel, the very heart of the Javanese city of Surabaya.

Ampel, sometimes known as the Arab Quarter, lies north of throbbing tangle of highways and shopping malls at the modern centre of the East Java capital. It is surrounded by the old parts of what was once the principal city of the Dutch East Indies: Chinatown, the Pabean Market, and the Kalimas harbor. But it is Ampel, or rather the mosque of the same name, that is the oldest place of all. The first record of a settlement named Surabaya comes from the mid-14th Century, and the Ampel Mosque, dating from 1421, is the oldest identifiable point in the city, the hub from which a metropolis has grown.
The mosque was built by Sunan Ampel, one of the Wali Songo, the nine, semi-mythical holy men who spread Islam in Java. According to the standard history, Sunan Ampel came from the Champa kingdom of southern Vietnam. His father was a wandering Arab Sayyid, and his aunt was a Cham princess who married the Hindu king Brawijaya of the Javanese Majapahit Empire. Following his aunt to Java, Sunan Ampel was given land on the banks of the Kalimas River where he built a mosque and set about converting the locals. His descendents eventually helped to topple Majapahit.
An alternative theory suggests that Sunan Ampel was a Chinese Muslim, but this is a controversial claim. And it is best not mentioned in the alleyways of the quarter that takes the Sunan’s name; here sometimes even his Champa connection is excised, making him a pure Yemeni Arab.

Close to the port, Ampel became a ghetto for later foreign Muslims who arrived in Surabaya. The earliest Dutch maps of the city record it as a Malay, rather than Javanese, area. But there were not only Malays in the teeming alleyways around the mosque. Acehnese and Ambonese settled here, as did Bugis and Bajo from Sulawesi. More exotic immigrants came from further a field – Indians, Persians and Chinese Hui Muslims. But the people who truly made the area their own were the Arabs.

There have been Arab trading communities in the ports of Southeast Asia for centuries. Today the names of the shops that line Jalan Sasak, the anteroom of Ampel, hint at a past of spice, sandalwood and cargoes bound for Aden: Mesir, al Hudah, Ma’ruf, Abu Yaman.
An elderly Arab named U’ess who owns a shop selling sarongs on Jalan Sasak says that his grandfather arrived in Surabaya in the early years of the 20th Century.
“They came for business. They sold cloth and sugar,” he says, explaining that most of Surabaya’s Arabs trace their ancestry to Yemen, a poor place from which there was good reason to emigrate. U’ess is also quite certain that Sunan Ampel was a Yemeni.
Two doors down another Arab named Usman says his family have been in Indonesia for many centuries; his own parents came to Surabaya not directly from Yemen, but from the old spice-trading Arab community in Ambon.
“Ampel is not only for Arabs,” says Usman; “it’s mixed. There are Malays and Bugis. Most of the people here are immigrants, but it is the Arabs who are famous.”

And the Arab shopkeepers of Ampel trade on their fame. The whole area functions as a religious emporium, the place to go for anything remotely Islamic from a carved Pakistani Qu'ran stand to a bag of Tunisian dates to break the Ramadan fast.
The centre of this commerce is the narrow alley known as Jalan Ampel Suci, a classic Middle Eastern-style souq or covered bazaar. Roofed in against dry season heat and wet season rain, and lined with hole-in-the-wall shops selling all manner of exotic goods, it could be a back alley of Cairo.

Surabaya’s Arabs may have kept the exotic atmosphere of their neighborhood, but most use Indonesian as their daily language. A teenage shopkeeper on Jalan Ampel Suci named Abu Bakar claims that Arabic is his first language. But a jab in the ribs from his assistant, a Javanese girl called Fitria, prompts a sheepish grin.
“I do know Arabic,” he insists, “but not one hundred percent yet. All Arabs must learn Arabic, but it’s very difficult…”
Abu Bakar and Fitria argue for a minute about the origins of Sunan Ampel, but eventually repeat the official line: he was half-Arab, half-Cham.

The souq runs north for 200 dark, perfumed meters before opening into the sunlight of the mosque courtyard. The Ampel Mosque is no longer the largest in Surabaya, but it is the most sacred. The old teak-wood core is hidden beneath later extensions; shining expanses of marble floor open at the head of white steps beneath tall, lighthouse-like minarets, and between prayers, people snooze in the cool interior where fugitive breezes cut the tropical heat.
But the real focus of this place is not the mosque but the cemetery that lies in its shadow. Here, beneath hibiscus and frangipani trees, a world away from Arab traders and formal prayers, is the grave of Sunan Ampel himself. There is a murmur of voices here, quieter but more insistent than the shrill wailing from the loudspeakers on the minarets. Sitting cross-legged amongst the tombstones are dozens of people, each making their own private prayer to the Sunan, or to the members of his family enshrined nearby. And these people are almost all Javanese pilgrims. The Wali Songo are hugely important for traditional Javanese Muslims, and people travel long distances to visit their tombs, places where the currents of older powers meet with those of Islam.
This graveyard is the sacred heart of Surabaya. It is also strangely paradoxical: the tomb of a Cham-Arab, or possibly a Chinese Muslim, the oldest point of the city, surrounded by a neighborhood of Yemeni Arabs, and yet a place that is uniquely Javanese.

A small man with a thin moustache and a green sarong is leaning against the wall at the back of the graveyard. He is in his early forties and he comes from Cirebon in West Java. His name is Wayudi. He has traveled here as part of an organized tour, stopping in Demak and Kudus along the way, visiting the sacred graves of the Wali Songo.
“The Wali Songo are special for everyone in Java,” he says. “They were the first Muslims.” For Wayudi the mosque, the souq and the Arabs are not important; it is the tomb that matters: “If you pray at the graves it can make you happy and successful. All Javanese people know this.”
And Wayudi is quite sure that Sunan Ampel was neither Chinese, Cham or Arab. “He was Javanese,” he says.

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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