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