The labyrinthine streets of Sharjah's historic heart invite the visitor to wander. A unique experience in the Arabian Gulf.
The female buyerin the black hijab is francophone North African. The vendor, Indian. The bird she covets is a sprightly pea-green budgerigar from who knows where, while the enticing meaty aroma comes from grilling Afghan kebabs. It is hard to imagine a more cosmopolitan scene than at Sharjah’s pet and livestock market.
Sharjah possesses the innovation and high-rise development of its fellow emirates, yet what I am particularly enjoying is the cultural mortar that glues this city together. In a place where alcohol and shisha are not permitted, Sharjah’s true stimulation comes from a delightful juxtaposition between change and timeless tradition.
“I grew up in Dubai and came here for a job,” says a local friend, Badr Qasem Al-Jaaidi. “Besides being more traditional I don’t actually feel I am living in a city but in a neighbourhood.” He urges me to explore Sharjah on foot. “It’s not like Dubai where you need Google Maps,” he jokes.
Thus, on a Friday morning I set off exploring Sharjah on foot, first venturing onto the pedestrianised Corniche from my King Faisal Street hotel. The sun had scarcely risen yet children are flying their kites alongside the Khalid Lagoon; one boy has already snagged his in a palm tree and looks crestfallen. Several joggers pause to consider the child’s dilemma.
Beyond the Central Market (a splendid blue-tiled colossus built in 1978 that I return to late in the evening, once the gold merchants and Iranian carpet sellers have displayed their wares), I arrive at Souq Al Jubail as refrigerated vans disgorge cargos of ripe watermelons and mangos.
At first light, the busiest quarter in Sharjah’s main food souk is the fish section, its aisles pungent with the smell of Nile perch and Norwegian salmon. Some of the catch is courtesy of a moored fleet of fishing dhows on the nearby waterfront rocking on the wind-ruffled gulf. Most of the fishermen are Indian. I watch them darning nets as their compatriots play impromptu cricket on waste ground opposite with the intensity of test-match players. One ball is struck so hard it lands over the road in Sharjah’s nursery souk crammed full of flowering plants and topiary shaped like Arabian coffee pots.
Beyond the pet and livestock market where Bedouin men in checked keffiyeh unload sheep from Toyota pick-ups, I reach a fortified wall enclosing the greatest heritage restoration project the UAE has ever known. By the 1970s, a tidal wave of development had swept away many of Sharjah’s historic coral-stone neighbourhoods. Now, driven by the Ruler’s passion for cultural preservation, Heart of Sharjah is an ambitious 15-year undertaking funded by the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority to return a 35,000-square-metre heritage area to how it was in the 1950s. By 2025, the surrounding high-rises will have been demolished to complete a transformation to a mazy medina of art galleries, museums, souks, and restaurants. Accompanied, Sharjah hopes, by UNESCO World Heritage status.
I soon lose myself amid the honeyed architecture of narrow sikkets (lanes) that reveal original coral-stone walls mortared with farush (crushed sand and seashells) and interlinked courtyards overlooked by iconic barjeels (wind towers). Nestled inside a restored traditional bait (house) is the engaging Sharjah Heritage Museum, offering an insight into the local building materials and techniques that utilise coral stone, twisted palm-fibre ropes and supporting palm and tamarisk wood beams. The museum is the former home of Saeed bin Mohammed Al Shamsi, a pearl merchant.
Elsewhere, the restored buildings function as art galleries. The Sharjah Art Foundation illustrates how this emirate is malleable to modern interpretations of the world as my visit coincides with the 14th Sharjah Biennial showcasing international artists. This year’s biennial theme, “Leaving the Echo Chamber,” features avant-garde installations; my favourite is Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s 33 Women exposition, which displays illuminated photographic miniatures of empowered women fighting injustice in troubled regimes.
It is thought-provoking, yet by lunchtime my thoughts have turned to sustenance so I head into Heart of Sharjah’s recently opened Al Bait hotel, the emirate’s most-talked-about property. It reportedly cost 100 million UAE dirhams (US$27 million) to transform from a derelict 1920s family compound once owned by polymath Ibrahim Al Midfa, into a super-luxurious 53-room hotel. I seek out the inviting café in a former majlis for an iced mint and lime tea and a slice of caramel and date cheesecake, topped with a white chocolate tube.
Staff are only too happy to show visitors around and I highly recommend exploring this labyrinthine property that is a microcosm of Sharjah’s architectural heritage. Rabi Mohktar, a Moroccan member of staff, shows me their in-house museum through an entrance adorned by an exquisite cupola of blue and white patterned tiles. The room tells the story of Al Midfa, who launched from these premises both Sharjah’s first postal service and a newspaper (that he handwrote himself). Don’t miss, too, an original wooden door carved with elephant motifs. The thick studded door, says Mohktar, deterred elephants owned by Indians from knocking it down.
Al Bait adjoins a warren of restored souks, including the 150-year-old Souq Al Arsah: its little shops of scented oils, halwa sweets, and curios of copper pots and jewelled elephants lend an Arabian Nights mysticism. The souks direct me towards the Arts District, hosting some of Sharjah’s most opulent museums. The Sharjah Art Museum showcases Arab artists from across the region and includes an evocative and challenging exhibition called A Century in Flux populated by works from the Barjeel Art Foundation collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Nearby, housed in the extravagant former Souq Al Majarrah, capped by a golden dome, is an engrossing affirmation of the artistic and scientific achievements of the Islamic world in the Museum of Islamic Civilisation. Yet the district again demonstrates Sharjah’s embrace of artistic unorthodoxy with a contemporary installation called the Rain Room. Six visitors at a time enter a darkened chamber and are urged to walk slowly through a torrential downpour. I feel the inevitability of getting soaked, yet motion sensors part the drops, allowing me to stay dry, an inspiring yet thoughtful experience.
By then, the heat has waned so I migrate back to the corniche to join promenading crowds of all nationalities imbibing the pleasant cool. Every blade of grass seems overtaken by picnicking families seated on foldaway chairs. Beyond the beautifully Ottoman Al Noor Mosque (where non-Muslim visitors can enjoy a tour every Monday at 10 am) the Corniche leads to the Al Majaz Waterfront dining district, rich in the fare of expat communities—Indian, Lebanese, and saffron-infused Iranian dishes.
I seek traditional Emirati cuisine and choose the lagoon-facing Al Fanar restaurant. Hungry from my day of walking, I ask the waiter for a little hummus to tide me over. “Oh no sir, such dishes are from Lebanon, we serve Emirati food,” he responds. I know I have found an authentic voice for delicious cuisine that includes favourites like harees: meat cooked in ghee with boiled cracked wheat.
Sated, I emerge onto the now-darkened corniche, slightly footsore yet ebullient after a day of great variety. One final surprise awaited. The lagoon explodes into pandemonium as cascading
illuminated water fountains jet into the velvety darkness accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It is an illuminating end to a day in Sharjah, where traditionalism, multiculturalism, and innovation thrive in harmony. —Mark Stratton
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