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Beads to go: Abdul Rahman Alatas displays goods for sale at his shop in Palmerah, West Jakarta. JP/Dina Indrasafitri
A poster on the wall of the Al-Fares shop in Palmerah, West Jakarta, displays a laughing couple in western attire, a man with Middle Eastern features wearing the keffiyeh, and a plant with a shape reminiscent of a large pussy willow.
Most of the information on the poster, which, by the way, advertises a candy said to have stamina-increasing qualities, is in Indonesian although a few slogans were printed in English.
The whole arrangement seemed exemplary of a globalizing world, where colors and languages unite for the sake of promotion. And, indeed, Indonesia is no stranger when it comes to sampling what the world has to offer.
While some dwellers of the archipelago are gobbling up Korean music, fashion and even foodstuffs, others are content savoring what the British have to offer — think music, mod fashion and scooters.
And then there are those who think the Middle East is the way to go.
Abdul Rahman Alatas, the owner of Al-Fares, said he used to run a shop selling mostly goods from the Middle East such as honey, dates and habbatus sauda or black cumin, in Tanah Abang, Central Jakarta.
However, he moved to Palmerah in the hopes of establishing himself in a location with fewer competitors because Tanah Abang is already crowded with similar merchants.
“Lately there have been plenty of shops sprouting in Condet [East Jakarta] too. They even spread to the smaller roads there,” Abdul said on Sunday.
His son still runs the shop selling similar goods in Tanah Abang and there is another shop owned by his family in Tomang, West Jakarta, Abdul added.
But the younger generation apparently has a more modern way of trading by utilizing the Internet.
Seda — not her real name — who is currently helping to run her late father’s business selling Middle Eastern food, concurred separately that more shops with an Arab feel are appearing in Jakarta.
“During my father’s time, there was no one selling [Middle Eastern goods]. It was still a rarity. Nowadays they are mushrooming in places like Tanah Abang and Mester [East Jakarta],” she said.
According to Seda, the current sought-after item is habbatus sauda (Nigella sativa).
A search on the Internet reveals a dizzying array of benefits championed by the seed sellers — many of whom are apparently Indonesians judging from the language used on the websites.
The seed is said to be able to boost the immune system, have the potential to fight off tumors, and even increase breast milk production.
Other favorite items include palm date syrup, various types of honey, olive oil capsules and propolis, which bees produce to help glue materials in their hives together.
Abdul said that although there is also local honey and even locally produced habbatus sauda, customers often still prefer the original Middle Eastern products, which are usually imported from Saudi Arabia.
“It is a kind of fanaticism I think,” he said.
Dewi, who works for a multinational company in Jakarta, said she and her in-laws also tried habbatus sauda and honey from the Middle East.
“I took it because it was said to be the cure for everything … and it is said to increase fertility as well,” she said.
A fanaticism for things Arab might explain why people look for products that are made in the Middle East although, unlike habbatus sauda or palm date syrup perhaps, they are also abundantly available in other areas of the world.
Examples of these products are chocolates, perfumes and lotions.
Titin, who works in a Middle Eastern goods shop in Kampung Melayu, said that the shop’s business has been running better since it sold sought-after items such as habbatus sauda compared to when it only sold items usually associated with the haj (pilgrimage), such as dates.
This is even truer during Ramadhan, the fasting month for Muslims. This period spells windfall profits for merchants of Middle Eastern products already benefitting from a thriving market.
“Let’s say that a regular day’s revenue is Rp 2 million [US$211]. During Ramadhan, this can go up to Rp 20 million,” Titin said.
The local fashion scene shows signs of increasing Middle Eastern influence as well, with more men and women adorning themselves with headscarves, eyeliner and turbans.
Rabbani Rawamangun, a shop featuring at least three stories of Muslim fashion such as headscarves, was packed last weekend with customers.
Yasmine Z Shahab, an anthropologist who conducted research about the Arab community in Indonesia, said the increasing number of Middle Easterners coming to Indonesia for various purposes during the last five years is a strong factor contributing to more Middle Eastern goods being available for consumption.
“Just like us wanting to eat nasi goreng [fried rice] when we are overseas, they want things from home too. In addition, a lot of [Arabs] come from ‘the haves’ category,” she said.
The first wave of Arab immigrants likely arrived during the seventh century and became the first Muslims in the archipelago. The second wave came during the 1900s, and nowadays more Middle Easterners are coming to Indonesia for business.
Abdul said he himself is of Arabic descent although he speaks with a thick Betawi accent. Many of his customers are those looking to resell products and they come from various parts of the archipelago.
These merchants are mostly of Arab descent as well, although some do not necessarily have striking Middle Eastern profiles.
“One of my customers, he was very dark. I asked where he came from and he said he was from Ambon and was going to sell my goods in places such as Ternate and Buru Island … It turned out he was of Arab descent and even
had the same family name as me,” Abdul said.
He added that some Arabs in Indonesia also make a living out of home industries related to habbatus sauda.
Yasmine said that the growing number of majlis ta’lim (religious study) groups also boosted the demand for goods from the Middle East, where Islam is said to have originated.
Abdul said that the majority of his customers are indeed Muslims. He could only recall a few goods sold to non-Muslims and he remembers one non-Muslim customer — a Chinese individual — who regularly purchased his products for health related-purposes.
According to Yasmine, Muslims often favor the kind of products that Abdul sells because some of them are mentioned in Islamic stories and because of various other religious factors, such as the belief that perfumes that do not contain alcohol are better to be worn during prayer.
Another factor contributing to the Middle Eastern mania is Indonesians traveling to Arab countries and bringing back various goods and cultural influences, she said.
“These days a lot of Indonesians travel to the Middle East, to Syria, Lebanon and so on, to study religion … it is basically about cultural dynamics and globalization,” she said.