Post D: Tobacco culture in local contexts: Surabaya’s Arab Quarter


Once a central Dutch Indies port-town, Surabaya became a multi-ethnic melting pot as the promise of work attracted migrants from all over the world. This rich history can be seen today walking down the bustling side streets of the Ampel Arab quarter, a legacy of the Dutch enforced segregation of ethnicities into kampongs (neighbourhoods). Here, generations of Indonesian descendants live and work, with some still practicing the Arabic and Islamic traditions of their ancestors.



Image Above: A mapping of our route around the Arab quarter. It is read clockwise from the 9 o’clock position.

Starting our walk outside Sarkam Coffee shop at 87 Jalan Nyamplungan, men sit along benches drinking boiled coffee and chatting. Here cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air and ashtrays dot wooden tables both inside and outside of the cafe. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO 2008) 67.4% of men and 4.5% of women smoke, giving Indonesian men one of highest smoking rates of any country in the world. Their proclivity to smoking is not unique as this gender disparity exhibits itself indiscriminately across most countries in the world (WHO 2010).

As we move off the busy street and down a side alley (Jalan Ampel Kesumba Pasar) we are greeted with a sign; Dilarang. Parkir kendaraan. Duduk di pot bunga. Membuang sampah di pot bunga.  This translates to: Banned. Vehicle parking. Sitting in flower pots. Throwing trash in flower pots. These street rules signs can be found throughout the quarter where residents came together to enforce regulations to keep noise out, keep the streets tidy and and ensure a safe environment for their children. Little bins emptied regularly are dotted along the pathways, scooter drivers jump down and push their bikes as they make their way, and residents with cars must park a few blocks down and walk home.

These leafy side streets become short respites as we traversed through the quarter in the Surabayan humidity and heat. Cool breeze channelled through the rows of colonial terrace houses in the absence of heat that otherwise would have come from the bitumen and exhaust permeating the main streets.


Image above: In the main market hall vendor stalls are piled high with garlic, ginger, shallots and various other groceries.

As we passed through the markets we found for sale a variety of muslim clothing and accessories, perfumes, herbal ointments, religious texts, foods and spices. One thing you will not find so easily is alcohol, as drinking is considered by the majority Islamic population to be a socially and religiously deviant behaviour, a lot more so than smoking cigarettes (Smet et al. 1999: Taylor, 2009; The Jakarta Post, 2009). Waterpipes (shisha) are another form of tobacco smoking popular here (Waziak et al. 2013) and can be seen on sale in glass displays facing the street.

Re-entering the main street from the otherside there are rows of motorbikes in designated parking areas where parking wardens collect parking tolls and direct the parking. Becak drivers also hang around here, smoking and passing the time between customers. Taxi and bike drivers in particular have high smoking rates of around 85% (Kirana et al. 2014), and it’s considered polite for customers to give a driver uang rokok (cigarette money) if it’s anticipated that he will be left waiting a while.

It’s not hard to see how tobacco has become deeply embedded in everyday life for a lot of Indonesian men and their families. From acting as a social bond and lubricant, to a way of relieving boredom and stress.



Kirana, R., Dewi, V., Barkinah, T., Isnaniah & Rachmadi, A., 2014, ‘Warning Labels among Informal Workers in Surabaya City – East Java, Indonesia’, Advances in Life Science and Technology, vol. 21, pp. 10-16.

Maziak, W. et al. 2013, Tobacco in the Arab world: Old and New Epidemics Amidst Policy Paralysis, Health Policy Plan, vol. 29, no. 6, pp. 784-94.

Smet, B., Maes, L., Clercq, L., Haryanti, K. & Winarno, R., 1999, ‘Determinants of smoking behaviour among adolescents in Semarang, Indonesia’, Tobacco Control, vol. 8, pp. 186–191.

Taylor, K., 2009,  ‘Smoking still popular despite Ulema edict’, The Jakarta Post, Retrieved Retrieved 7 December 2018,  <>.

The Jakarta Post, 2009, ‘Islamic scholars challenge MUI edicts on smoking and yoga’, The Jakarta Post, Retrieved 7 December 2018, <>.

World Health Organization 2008, WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, The MPOWER package, WHO, Switzerland.

WHO, 2010, 10 Facts on Gender and Tobacco, World Health Organisation, Switzerland.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s