Most of the people you see around Singapore’s Arab Street are Muslims, but only a few are Arab. Mainly they’re Malay, with a few of North Indian or Pakistani origin. For me, it’s impossible to tell whether they are newly arrived or whether their families have lived in Singapore for generations. The area’s name comes from the Arab traders who used the port well before the British arrived in 1819, and who were apportioned this piece of land by the colonial administrators. It was the Prophet’s birthday: most of the shops were closed and everyone in the hot streets was smartly dressed. There are a lot of textiles shops and eating places, several Mosques and, surprisingly, a few ‘massage parlours’.
Outside the entrance to ‘R. Amir and Sons’, on Kandahar Street, there was a laminated review from a specialist magazine published in London, saying that the shop’s owner, Mr Amir, had written a free booklet explaining oriental carpets to the beginner. I had time to kill before going to the Asian Civilisations Museum: I’d ask about the booklet.
The shop was little more than a narrow corridor with carpets stacked on the floor or hanging from the wall. A short, bald Indian came to greet me from behind a desk piled high with books. I mentioned the booklet.
‘The booklet! Oh, we have no copies left. I had a few copies- the last one I had I lent a few months ago to someone. Never lend books! People don’t return them.’ I had to agree. ‘So now we’re going to put the booklet on the website- when we get a website. But to find the booklet we’re going to have to go to the National Library of Singapore’.
I asked him if he was Mr Amir. He was. I couldn’t tell if he was in his late fifties, his sixties or even his seventies, and he barely had an Indian accent. I apologetically mumbled that I’d wanted to learn about carpets, but that…He cut me short. ‘Look at this carpet. Do you like it?’ I said it was extraordinarily bright. ‘Silk. Iranian silk, from Qom. A real risk they took, with the green.’ Why was green a risk? ‘The dyes you use to make green – you have to mix all these things together and you don’t know if they’ll come out right. Now this is the work of a real craftsman. You see- most carpets are like this piece here’-he indicated what to my eyes was a rather decent carpet- ‘the same symmetrical design all along the carpet. But this one, it is so much more complicated. The trees, the animals: different in all different areas of the carpet.’ They were, and they were remarkably animated: I particularly liked a deer with huge eyes and a resting camel with an unmistakeably disgruntled expression. And the green, as he’d remarked, was striking.
I told him that I wasn’t buying, and doubtless he had worked that out anyway. But he led me up and down the shop. ‘See this one?’ It was a carpet predominantly coloured in a very delicate blue. ‘One hundred years old. Persian, again.’ How did he know the age- was it written on a label? ‘No, no. Nothing written down. But the patterns, and the materials- an expert, you see, can tell.’ It was very beautiful. I turned round the shop, now seeing things of great worth and value everywhere I looked. Carefully I rubbed a thumb against one piece: ‘how old’, I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling, ‘is this?’
He said with obvious impatience, if not outright contempt: ‘About twenty years old, and it is rubbish. It is already wearing away- you can see, can’t you?’ I could, now. ‘The design is horrible and it’s part of this mass-produced commercial stuff they churn out nowadays. I’m getting rid of all this kind of thing, so I can concentrate on selling good carpets.’ It’s hard to say anything when you’ve just proved yourself to be an idiot, so I kept my mouth shut and wandered towards the door, putting an experimental hand out to touch occasional carpets.
He grabbed one particularly huge piece, thick and five foot tall, upended it and gestured at the design: ‘Afghan tribal carpet. The best carpets anyone ever made. Know how old this is?’ It looked in very good condition, but I had no wish to open my mouth and demonstrate further stupidity. ‘Seventy years old. And look at it. But even this…’He found a bit of loose stitching at one corner, whatever they call the frond-like things that hang off the edge. ‘But still, even despite that, it’s a masterpiece. And think of the wear it must have had.’ I asked if it was made out of silk. ‘Silk? No, wool if they had it, camel hair, horse hair: anything that came to hand. They made the best carpets, the longest-wearing.’ I didn’t know if it ever had been used by Afghans, but looking at its huge expanse and the dark red and black design it was easy to conjure romantic pictures of a dozen or more travelling nomads eating on it. I asked where it came from. ‘Herat. But we don’t see any carpets like this from Herat any more, not for thirty years. All the…all the unrest they have been having.’
I’d taken up far too much of his time, so I thanked him and left. Outside the shop, there were other laminated boards, one reproducing a short newspaper article. Mr Amir- the current owner’s father, or maybe grandfather- had, it appeared, lent carpets to the British military in 1945, when they came back to Singapore to negotiate the Japanese surrender: the sign said, rather oddly, that the carpets had been of great service to the negotiating teams, who had presumably sat on them. I had to ask about this.
He was back up the far end of the shop, about as tall as the stack of books on his desk. ‘I just wanted to ask’, I started, ‘your father lent carpets to the British…?’ ‘Oh yes, my father. Come here and I’ll show you something.’ He pointed to a book sitting next to the stack. It was bound on the thick, rather coarse material I’d seen on other Indian books: ‘Forgotten Warriors’ was the title, and the subtitle said ‘Published by the Indian National Army Committee’. The INA were a force of Indians who fought alongside the Japanese against the British in 1942-45. For the most part INA men had been serving the British and captured by the Japanese, although diaspora Indians also joined. They had actually started in Singapore, following the capture of a huge number of Indian soldiers in February 1945.
Their story is a dark one. The INA was led by Subhas Chandra Bose, a nationalist politician who admired Hitler and fled to Japan via Berlin. The military brains behind the Army belonged to Mohan Singh, a Captain in the British Indian Army: the previous weekend I’d visited the Singapore National Museum, and the one mention of the INA came from an oral history recording of an Indian POW, who remembered how Mohan Singh’s men starved, tortured and shot any Indian POW officers who did not volunteer for the INA. The Singapore National Museum is not going to give the Japanese, or their allies, credit for anything: as bitterly as many Singapore Chinese, the majority ethnic population, resented British rule, tens of thousands of them were executed by the Japanese in the ‘sook ching’ that followed the British surrender. It’s true that there are other sources indicating that Mohan Singh was indeed a thug: I’d read some of them in Bayly and Harper’s book ‘Forgotten Armies’. As Bayly and Harper also noted, a great many Indians also willingly joined the INA: at last, someone was actually fighting the British. There is a monument to the INA dead on the Padang in Singapore, near British war memorials. The INA were despised by most Japanese commanders, who were in any event short of arms to give them. Sent into battle with poor equipment, and used mainly to haul supplies for the Japanese units, they were killed in large numbers and many eventually re-deserted to the British.
Mr Amir indicated the photograph on the book cover, of a fat Indian in a military cap:’You have heard of him?’ It was Bose. Mr Amir opened the book. ‘My father is in the book- on the very first pages.’ This seemed unlikely to me- his father was some carpet merchant who had loaned rugs to the British. The first two pages were an Introduction, with pious hopes that the glorious dead would not be forgotten, etc. And then I turned the page, and there was a photograph of a Mr Amir, and next to him a handsome, moustachioed young Indian officer: ‘Fazir Amir, 1922-1945’. Carefully, I asked: ‘Is that your brother?’ ‘Yes,’ he said quietly, ‘ my brother. He was given the job of assistant to Bose, and he was killed by a British plane.’ He’d been strafed by the RAF in Burma in 1945. Over the page was a photograph of Mr Amir’s father and three of his brothers, but not him. Had he been born after the war? Had he known his dead brother? I didn’t ask and now wish that I had- I doubt he would have minded.
Mr Amir’s father hadn’t been simply a carpet merchant. He’d been a political activist – brought up in Afghanistan, but an Indian nationalist- who arrived in Singapore in 1915 and took part in one of the earliest serious agitations against British rule, the Ghadr movement. Released from jail at the end of the First World War, he had remained in Singapore, had founded the carpet shop in 1921 and prospered, but had never lost sight of the goal of a liberated India. He had welcomed the Japanese invasion of Singapore, and been appointed by Bose to a senior position in the India Independence League, the Bose-led independence movement which was the Sinn Fein to the INA’s IRA. As far as I could tell from a brief scan of the book, Amir actually ran things while Bose and Singh made grandiose speeches. All three of Amir’s sons of military age joined the INA. One brother, older than the Mr Amir I was talking to, had been too young to go to the front so instead had been a military policeman in Singapore: the other two had fought.
‘So the British imprisoned your father?’ I asked- the book explained that he’d been jailed in 1945 and had gone on hunger strike’. ‘Yes, and my brother. But they released them quickly. My father got on very well with the British after the war. Colonel Toye, all that: they became great friends of his. They knew: this was war, you know. My father had fought for what he believed in, for India, and his sons too. And the British understood this, you know: they had no hard feelings’. I was surprised to hear this: I knew that British rule had been extremely violent in India whenever it was faced with open revolt. But perhaps things had been different here in Singapore.
‘The British knew- this was war. Not like this war you have now, in Iraq- what are they fighting for? I don’t know, don’t know what their motives are. But then it was clear. My father was not a bad man, he didn’t fight for any gain, he fought for his country. The British felt the same, you know.’ ‘And he lent the British carpets, for the surrender negotiations?’ ‘Yes’ said Mr Amir, then ‘Please, sit down, take a seat. Don’t stand here talking.’ He reached behind the chair I was now sitting on. ‘He was given a certificate by General Kimmit, and this photograph.’ There was a photograph of various lines of British and Japanese officers, behind desks, clearly studying the details of a surrender document, and a blow-up of a letter, typewritten on 1940s military airmail paper, certifying that Mr R. Amir had lent the Occupying Authorities carpets for the surrender negotiations and that this had been of great value- signed, Major General B. H. Kimmit. ( I think that was the name- I had no notebook with me, which I now greatly regret.) At the time it struck me that the Major-General was being rather kind given that the carpets can hardly have been a major service to the surrender negotiations- ‘let’s give this old chap a certificate for any damn thing, see if we can get him out of Changi soonest’. But it occurs to me now that Mr Amir would have had a great many useful contacts in the Japanese authorities and the INA forces, and it strikes me that maybe this was a tactful way of saying ‘this man helped us negotiate our way out of a bloodbath.’
Mr Amir was looking at me. ‘Yes, he had no hard feelings for the British. But after the war, India- India was finished for him! Partition, you know. He was a Muslim, I am a Muslim. Nehru offered him the Governorship of the Punjab but he refused it. He said: this partition between India and Pakistan, you will kill millions. And they did. Millions died. And that was it for him, he never went back to India.’ ‘Never?’ ‘Not once. He said, I’m Singaporean, and I stay here now.’ He’d died in 1971, according to the caption under his photo. Of course, Singaporean independence had only come in 1965, after a short period of belonging to independent Malaya and a longer period of British colonial rule: so he had lived for another decade and a half under British authority.
‘So people fought for things they believed in’ said Mr Amir, ‘and then the war ended and it was all replaced by politics. That’s what we see around us now: political liars. You once had politicians who believed in things, but they are gone for how many years? Churchill, for example- Churchill, he believed in something.’ I am sure he knew as much as I do about Churchill’s hatred for Indians.
‘Have you been to India?’ I asked Mr Amir. ‘No, never.’ He’d been to London- and to Pakistan, and to Afghanistan, but never to India. I stood up. I wanted to know more about carpets, and I could see how beautiful some of these were. Mr Amir took me round the shop, hefting them up and unrolling the carpets with ease. He was much shorter and older than me, but I was struck by the visible strength of his forearms. His favourite piece, he said, was either a huge circular hanging from Nain, in Iran, or one of the Afghan nomad carpets.
We talked- or I listened to him talk- about carpets, and how the supply had dried up from Afghanistan- which he blamed on the Russians, the Taliban, and the endless war- and from Iran. Why was that, I asked? Because Persian carpets had been the work of mothers and daughters, and now Iranian women studied and had careers. The most beautiful carpets had been made by Afghans, by nomads rather than townsfolk. He didn’t know why their carpets were the finest- they made them in the most inhospitable places with only three tools. And he told me about the disasters that were coming to India, China, Pakistan. Some people were rich: more were excluded. And people would turn to the Taliban, or people like them. That was what you did, to find pride when you were poor.
A goateed American came in, announcing that the longer he stayed in Singapore, the more expensive his wife’s present had to be. I had been guilty about taking up so much of Mr Amir’s time, but now I could leave with a clear conscience. I said goodbye , but stopped outside to read again about the carpets lent to the British officers negotiating the Japanese surrender in 1945. It was as if another peace treaty had been signed, between the British Empire and the Amir family. I had been allowed to see that the truce was strictly adhered to, even if one of the signatories was now dead.