Have a fabulous 2012


Gaga: Rest in Peace (b.2002 - d.2010)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Itaewon: A journey from Red Light Area to a Muslim Neighborhood

My relationship with Itaewon is about a decade old – whether I lived near there (in Hannamdong) or moved far away – I had to go there. I don’t remember that in the past 10 years, there was a month when I was not able to visit this neighborhood. 

It was in 2008 that I moved from Yongsan to Bundang and had to think twice to go to Itaewon – but my link with it stayed strong. Itaewon had the mosque, the halal grocery stores, embassies and a diverse mix of restaurants. This place was constantly changing but the changes were too swift for me, maybe I was based there, hence I could NOT see as much activity or government attention that this place actually required. I have to say that Itaewon-ro - a mile long, main street, starting at the tip of Yongsan base and ending at the Hangangjin Station - was overhauled and beautified to what it was…

If we look back, about 10 years ago or even further, at the time of Korea’s liberation from Japan – this place was somehow considered as the traditional center of prostitution. I still remember, my first day in Seoul, I was told NOT TO TAKE the street that has the Bokwang-dong Primary School and goes up towards the mosque - starting from the Itaewon Fire Station. To go to my place I had to take a really long road instead of having have a short-cut - passing through bars, pubs, night clubs, gay bars, and what not which is not confined to the infamous "Hooker Hill" - actually it was a hookers urban ghetto. All one could see was brothels, bars and drunken men and women. It was not until the mid 2000s that the Korean government took stern action against prostitution. Though, the situation and the locale is NOT as ugly as it used to be on ground zero, still today, all sort of strange stuff is going on in the back alleys of Itaewon-ro. For example, in my desperate search for a house a couple of weeks ago - a building located 5 minutes away from the mosque was raided by police - they were looking for some drug dealer - voilà!

During 1970s, when Korea was very active in the construction boom of the Middle East – the governments there demanded General Park’s government to allocate land for a mosque for Muslims living in Seoul. It took a couple of years but finally, General Park, Chung Hee’s government chose this land– right in the center of the Red Light Area of Seoul. In the last decade, the way Itaewon has evolved and has become the center of tourism is hard to believe. There are many factors to it which I will highlight in some other post but one of my most interesting of observation is: nobody wanted to go there but somehow ended up there...reason: well, for being a religious center for some to being a place and space where they were not stared at and where they had a feeling of not being a "waygookin or a foreigner" anymore. For me - Itaewon was like any other neighborhood since I was a foreigner and cared less for how the historical narrative or political and social patterns had shaped it. Once I was with my Korean friends – this was a forbidden place, which they despised and would prefer to go elsewhere. The good news is that now, I can see many Koreans comfortably roaming around, shopping, dinning, enjoying the internalization this place has gone through plus the facelift it has got recently -  which for me is a good vibe but surely is hard to believe, still.

Itaewon of today has much evolved due the Yongsan Base and the migrant workers in the past few decades. UN forces also stationed here and so were the foreign embassies and the diplomats and its staff.

So this was Itaewon’s journey from being a Red Light Area to a Muslim neighborhood.

Personally, I would like to see that our very active mayor of Seoul –  take immediate action with respect to the cleanliness of Itaewon’s dark and narrow streets...the area - which doesn't make Itaewon-ro. The place is filthy and the trash is not collected for days. Though we all know that the foreign population size has swelled there in recent years but it is being completely ignored for God knows why? So what hasn’t changed yet for me in Itaewon is the neighborhood surrounding the mosque - it simply sucks. The narrow alleys and old houses and building are still messed up, trash is all over the place and it smells - it is about time to take immediate action - and that is my appeal.

Again, the good news is: during my absence for about a year,  many new shops and restaurants have opened all around. Particularly, the street on which we have the mosque has improved much – there is a place that is selling abayas and hijabs, another has prayer mats and lotay. A specialized wholesale store for shisha is also very close to the mosque, some really fantastic Travel agencies have opened there. Bakeries with Middle Eastern and Turkish origin are there. Almost all the owners are Muslims. Some of the shops are run by women too. I also noticed 2 Islamic Information Centers on the Mosque Street and then a library cum Islamic Book Store. A second hand store, a few café, a souvenir shop hailing from Turkey and Syria is an interesting addition. I saw two huge stores  specializing in halal stuff and spices called: National Food Stores selling the brand “National"  from Pakistan. I like their masalay – they are tasty. They have a huge supply of everything South Asian. In case you are a vegetarian – stop by, go in and dig in! Several stores/restos have assortments for the vegetarians who are still struggling in Seoul on how to survive. You can have dals, bhujias, rotis and much much more.

I was very happy to see “Siti Sarah” – a restaurant specializing in Malayu food. It is actually Indonesian but they serve some interesting stuff.

My favorite place is a small resto hailing from Lahore with its owner and chef  Mr. Ameer – who was a chef of Mughal Restaurant (behind Hamilton Hotel) for over 20 years. He has just opened up this modest eatry for a little over a year called “Pak - India Restaurant”. He offers the BEST FOOD - Pakistani style – I’ve ever tasted in Korea or outside Pakistan. DO NOT miss him….he is a gifted man when it comes to cooking  – I love everything that he makes – Mashallah!

So, I think that where some nook and corners need attention in Itaewon – a lot has become better on self-help basis by the foreign/business community. It is an interesting place to say the least!