Savour­ing a Mid­dle East­ern de­light

Liz Ful­lick makes a date with Shar­jah, an Emi­rate drip­ping with allure and cul­ture, and en­joys some tra­di­tional Ara­bic hos­pi­tal­ity

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ON EN­TER­ING my ho­tel, the friendly concierge ap­proaches me with an or­nate brass tray, car­ry­ing small han­dle-less cups and an Aladdin-style brass cof­fee pot, the dal­lah.

He ex­pertly fills one of the cups with smooth, aro­matic, car­damom-flavoured cof­fee, and of­fers me a plate of pale brown dates. When I’m done, he brings for­ward the tray for me to de­posit my empty cup and the date stone.

This is the hos­pitable Ara­bic wel­come.

I am a huge fan of the Mid­dle East and love it a lit­tle bit more with ev­ery visit. The peo­ple are so warm and friendly, the food is hot and spicy, the cli­mate – well enough said – yet for many, the United Arab Emi­rates is merely a stopover on the way to some­where fur­ther afield. It’s a great shame, be­cause this is one of the most beau­ti­ful, his­tor­i­cal and fas­ci­nat­ing places on Earth – a real cul­tural hotspot.

There are seven emi­rates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi be­ing the largest and most well-known. Shar­jah is the third largest, and may be, on the face of it, an un­likely des­ti­na­tion for Western tourists, as it’s a dry state, where the trans­porta­tion, sale and con­sump­tion of al­co­hol is strictly pro­hib­ited and pun­ish­able by law. But don’t let this put you off.

Shar­jah City is the cen­tre of Shar­jah’s gov­ern­ment and is an in­dus­trial hub. It has been named 2014 Cap­i­tal of Is­lamic Cul­ture, and it’s easy to see why.

Or­nate, tra­di­tional de­sign stands side by side with mod­ern func­tional struc­tures, high­light­ing not only how far the Emi­rates have de­vel­oped in the last few decades, but also the breathtaking beauty of Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture. Gov­ern­ment build­ings, palaces, mosques and many pri­vate homes con­tinue to be built in the or­nate, dec­o­ra­tive style that takes much of its in­spi­ra­tion from the Qur’an, the Is­lamic holy book.

The UAE is a desert re­gion that stands on the east­ern tip of the Saudi penin­su­lar, with coast­lines on the Ara­bian (Per­sian) Gulf and the In­dian Ocean at the Gulf of Oman, at the heart of a very im­por­tant east/west trade route. Hu­man be­ings have in­hab­ited this bar­ren land for more than 5,000 years, and Shar­jah (which has a land area slightly larger than that of Lux­em­bourg) was one of the wealth­i­est set­tle­ments in the re­gion for much of that time.

Oil wealth has cre­ated a pace of change in this re­gion that is prob­a­bly un­par­al­leled any­where in the world, yet Shar­jah has been care­ful to pre­vent its early her­itage from be­ing con­sumed in the rapid growth.

Whereas Shar­jah City re­sem­bles almost any other in the de­vel­oped world, the Heart of Shar­jah, the re­gion’s largest preser­va­tion and restora­tion project, is like step­ping back in time and gives a truly au­then­tic flavour of what it would have been like to live in this re­gion be­fore the dis­cov­ery of oil.

Tra­di­tional, low, castel­lated struc­tures abound, with small, high win­dows and or­nate wind tow­ers, de­signed to cap­ture any pre­cious breath of air and cir­cu­late a wel­come breeze – early air-con­di­tion­ing, Arab-style.

The vis­i­tor cen­tre is a walk through Arab cul­ture and a great place to glean an un­der­stand­ing of this fas­ci­nat­ing area. It is here the unini­ti­ated can learn the lit­tle rit­u­als and eti­quette that are all part of cof­fee drink­ing.

Shar­jah Light Fes­ti­val takes place ev­ery year in Fe­bru­ary, when 12 of the emi­rate’s unique struc­tures pro­vide the can­vas for a week-long kalei­do­scope of visual ef­fects, il­lu­mi­na­tions and pro­jec­tions. Al­ready stun­ning ar­chi­tec­ture is fur­ther en­hanced by a myr­iad of colours and mag­i­cal dis­plays from in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal visual artists, this year around the theme of Is­lam.

Al Noor Mosque is an ar­chi­tec­tural state­ment in it­self, with 34 el­e­gant cas­cad­ing domes and calm­ing vanilla decor, but more im­por­tantly, it is a cen­tre for cul­tural un­der­stand­ing that warmly wel­comes non-Mus­lims.

Head­ing east about 80km to Khor Fakkan on the Gulf of Oman, where many of Shar­jah’s re­sort ho­tels are lo­cated, brings the arid land­scape to life. It comes as no sur­prise to see mile upon mile of golden sand, punc­tu­ated with dusty date palms, along­side the 21st-cen­tury high­way.

Shar­jah may be a dry emi­rate, in terms of its arid land­scape and lack of al­co­hol, but it is sim­ply drip­ping with cul­ture and allure. A few days with­out beer is a small price to pay for the tremen­dously warm wel­come you’ll ex­pe­ri­ence here.

Pic­tures: PA Photo/Hand­out

The fab­u­lous water­front at Shar­jah and, be­low left, lit up for the Lights Fes­ti­val

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