That Forgotten Historic Gem is Called Kampung Arab
by Tasa Nugraza Barley
As a center of commerce and politics for hundreds of years, Jakarta has attracted a wide range of people from across the globe. A testament to the global draw of the city is the historic Kampung Arab, or Arab Village, in Pekojan, West Jakarta.
A completely forgotten place in the current modern Jakarta, the area is a hidden cultural and historic gem. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see the remnants of past glory first hand when I participated in a tour conducted by Komunitas Jelajah Budaya, an organization committed to increasing awareness of local culture and history.
Indians, who originally came to Jakarta to trade in the 17th century, were the first to settle in the area. They were mostly Khojas, an ethnic group of Shia Muslims. This is where the word “pekojan” originated from.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that Arabs began to settle in the area, which is only minutes away from Kota Tua, or Old Town, an area rich in museum and historic buildings.
Like the Indians, most of the Arabs were also merchants. The Arabs eventually outnumbered the Indians, who were slowly leaving the area. While trading with the locals, the Arabs were also active in preaching about Islam.
Much of the original architecture in the area has been lost, but the influence of Kampung Arab can be seen in four mosques: Jami’ An Nawier, Langgar Tinggi, Ar-Raudhah and Al-Anshar.
Jami’ An Nawier, the biggest of the four, was built in 1760 by an Arab and features colonial touches. Its large pillars and big doors are common traits of buildings from that era.
Covering 2,470 square meters, the mosque generally welcomes more than 1,000 people during the Friday prayers.
Jami’ An Nawier also features a 17-meter-high tower, once used by Indonesian fighters to hide from the Dutch. The tower was originally built as a place for people to do the adzan, the call to prayer.
The mosque also attracts pilgrims who visit the grave of Syarifah Fatimah binti Husein Alaydrus, a Kampung Arab community leader. “It’s a beautiful mosque,” I said to myself.
There used to be a bustling goat market near Jami’ An Nawier Mosque. Goat meat is a common ingredient in many Arab dishes.
Even now, there are several merchants in the area selling goat.
A small bridge that connects the mosque to the area across the Angke River is named Jembatan Kambing, or Goat Bridge. It was across this bridge that the goats were herded on their way to the slaughterhouse.
Langgar Tinggi, located next to the Angke River, is a much smaller mosque. While Jami’ An Nawier Mosque is used for big events, Langgar Tinggi is more for daily prayers.
Yuvino, the tour guide, told me that in the past people used to do wudhu, or ablution, in the river. “But of course, people don’t do that anymore,” he said, while pointing at the heavy-polluted river.
In the late 19th century, an Arab ship commander by the name of Syekh Said Na’um enlarged and renovated the mosque.
The other two mosques have their own charms. Al-Anshar was built by Indian Muslims in 1648, with an unidentified grave on the property. People in Kampung Arab believe it is the final resting place of one of the mosque’s founders.
Ar-Raudhah, was constructed in 1901 by an Islamic group named Jamiatul Khoir. The organization’s mission was to spread Islamic values.
The group was recognized by some of the biggest names in Indonesia’s Islamic movement, including Ahmad Dahlan, founder of Muhammadiyah, and H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto, who founded the Islamic political party Syarikat Islam.
Yuvino said Kampung Arab was an important area in the history of Jakarta, and served as a testament to the racial segregation policy of the Dutch colonial rulers. He said the Dutch divided the areas around Jakarta based on ethnicity and race.
“So only the Arab descendants and Muslims were allowed to live in Kampung Arab,” Yuvino said, adding that the Chinese were concentrated in Glodok, also in West Jakarta.
The Dutch also introduced a policy called passingstelsel, which required people to apply for a travel permit to go to other areas of the city. During that time, people had to have some sort of a passport just to cross into another area of the city.
In the 20th century, Kampung Arab ceased to be Arab-exclusive when Indonesian natives and the Chinese began to move into the area. At the same time, many Arabs decided to spread out across the city and created new communities in places such as Tanah Abang, Kwitang and Pasar Minggu.
Although many people still refer to the place as an Arab village, Pekojan is now mostly occupied by ethnic Chinese.
Due to its historic and cultural significance, Kampung Arab deserves nothing but appreciation and definitely preservation, the two things that it has never enjoyed from both the government and the public.