Souq up the sun: Sharjah, the Cultural Capital of UAE, is a perfect destination for tourists who are into architecture, heritage, and adventure

Tourists from across the world flock in to savour the architecture, culture, heritage tours, great food, and adventure that the place has on offer. 

Fathima Ashraf Published :  09th November 2018 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  09th November 2018 06:00 AM
Tourist Attractions Places in Sharjah

Al Qasba, Sharjah

INDIA?’ A middle-aged Arab man asked me the day I landed in Sharjah. The question to follow after I said yes was ‘Sugamano?’ (Are you doing well? in Malayalam). I’m amused but not really surprised that he assumed I was from Kerala. After all, the popular joke goes that Sharjah is one of the places where every third person you meet is an Indian, and every second Indian you meet is a Malayali.

Despite our trip organisers suggesting that we carry clothes that cover our arms and legs, upon checking in, we are pleasantly surprised to find women of various nationalities in skirts and shorts at the breakfast counters as well as bikini-clad women at the private beach of Radisson Blu, the hotel we were staying at.  Sharjah, being the Cultural Capital of the UAE, may not be as flashy or progressive as Dubai—which is only a flyover away—but the city surely is on the rise, not just in the number of malls and tourist spots but also in accommodating the ways of the Western world, I learn. Despite the consumption of alcohol being forbidden and public smoking frowned upon, tourists from across the world flock in to savour the architecture, culture, heritage tours, great food, and adventure that the place has on offer. While Sharjah, at 34 degree Celsius, did make me feel at home, a four-and-a-half hour early morning flight from Chennai is a little tiring. Nevertheless, I decide to waste no time and start exploring Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the UAE.

Al Noor Mosque

Mosque for all
Sharjah houses more than 600 mosques, out of which only three are open to visitors, regardless of their religion. Standing tall on the banks of the Khalid lagoon at the Buhaira Corniche, the AI-Noor mosque is an architectural statement in itself. Designed in classic Ottoman style, the mosque with its 34 cascading domes and its two soaring minarets, dominates the city’s skyline. We reach there just as the sun hits its zenith. 

Traditional clothes are a must, especially for ladies, while entering the mosque. Out of the various types of Abayas (cloak for women) provided at the entrance, our host, Reem helps me with a silk robe and is pleasantly surprised to see me wear the Hijab (headscarf) by myself. On the inside, the mosque features a huge chandelier, intricately decorated domes, tall pillars, arches and calligraphic inscriptions from the Holy Quran. An hour-long interpretative tour is given to our group, where we are educated about Islam as well as the local culture. The hosts also give us an overview of the architecture of the mosque and introduce us to the Emirati attire (Burqa, Abaya, and Kandura—ankle-length, loose-fitting robe for men) which all of us were thrilled to try out and take pictures with.

Fish auction at Souq Al Jubail

The best bait
Bargaining is allowed literally anywhere in Sharjah—be it the smallest handicraft shop or an extensive trading area spread across 100,000 sqm. Along with fellow tourists, I reach Souq AI Jubail—the massive indoor fish, meat and vegetable market located within the heart of Sharjah. The souq (market), opened in 2015, is the only place in the whole of UAE and GCC where an indoor wholesale fish auction takes place, we learn, upon entering the fully air-conditioned building. The hall at the centre of the souq, surrounded by fish and meat markets on one side and vegetable and fruits markets on the other side, is large enough to stage a 100-people strong flash mob. Upon trying out our bargaining skills at the local chocolate vendors, we are requested to get back to the hall as we see a crowd gathering there. The action begins with a call for the evening prayer. Fishermen from all sides walk in with baskets full of fish (of various types and sizes) and swiftly start unloading them directly on to the clean floors of the hall. As I stand there bewildered, trying to comprehend the sudden hustle around me, a staff member from the souq management offers an explanation. “The market sees tonnes of fresh fish being delivered and auctioned daily. The auctioneers, upon displaying the fish, announce a price, which gradually drops until he settles on a rate that is considered suitable for the buyers, who are mostly fish traders and owners of seafood restaurants.” Within a matter of minutes, I see all the fish being sold off, and the souq hall is back to being spotless again.

Dune bashing at Mleiha

Been there, dune that
My next stop, after a three-hour drive from the city is Mleiha, a place that has a mix of archaeology and adventure on offer. “Tucked away in the desert of Sharjah, Mleiha offers tours, climbs, treks and off-road rides,” says Michael Peter, our Indian guide. I reach there with my group in the evening, to see three Landcruisers waiting to take us dune bashing. We buckle up our seatbelts, all prepared to fall on our heads, get nauseated or even to throw up, as warned by the organisers. Yet, it was a safe and exhilarating experience. Bumpy as expected, the ride gets us pumped on adrenaline as we scream and sway in our seats every time we brave the dunes. Our Pakistani driver, fully aware of our excitement every time the sand splashes on to the car glasses, does his trick over and over again — and we can’t stop praising him. (AED 165 for 1 hour, discovermleiha.ae)

Coffee dallah and snacks

Coffee etiquette        
Hospitality runs deep in the UAE culture. And many of the traditions reflect its people’s reputation for generosity, courtesy and love of community. To experience that first-hand, our next trip is to visit a Sharjah resident’s house. ‘Fatima AI Zahra’, the board outside the gate reads. The women of the house were waiting at the door to receive us. “The reception area at an Emirati household is kept tidy and prepared at all times to receive guests,” Michael tells us.

Fatima, the head of the house, comes forward carrying a basket of flowers, which she sprinkles at us as we walk in. She then brings the Mabkhara — a golden vase-like traditional incense burner that emanates pleasant fragrance from burning oud over hot coals (agarwood). She passes the Mabkhara to us, in order to spread the scent on us, and our clothes. We are welcomed inside the grand living room that features colourful walls, elegant golden furniture, paintings, fancy cutlery and showpieces. We are treated first to Arabic coffee with a side of dates. Fatima goes ahead to explain the significance of coffee here, in any social visit. “Qahwa, the coffee that is blended with ingredients such as cardamom, saffron and sometimes rose water, is served to the guests in tiny cups from a dallah (coffee pot) by the youngest member of the house. The host serves the coffee first to the person sitting on the right side unless a respected person (a government official or an elder member of the family) is sitting somewhere else, in which case the coffee is served to him first. It is polite to accept the coffee with the right hand. Once you have had enough, a sign of showing so is by shaking the cup from side to side,” she tells us. The coffee ritual is extended with a treat of a spread of homemade snacks, crackers, fruits and sweets, following which we are welcomed to the dining hall for a grand home-cooked lunch. What followed was a shopping binge, with us rummaging through the lit-up souqs, looking for trinkets and knick-knacks. Quite honestly, we couldn’t think of a better way to end this trip!

Rain Room

Rain on me 
Who doesn’t love walking in the rain? Better yet, what if you don’t have to deal with wet hair and soggy clothes? Rain Room, a permanent installation at the Sharjah Art Foundation, lets you walk through a downpour without getting wet at all. For AED 25, get yourself about ten minutes in the room housing the immersive installation and gambol in the rain while getting yourself a bunch of Instagram-worthy pictures. Details: sharjahart.org

Kayaking at Kalba

Kayak away 
A quality that sets Sharjah apart from other emirates is that it has a coastline on the Arabian Gulf as well as the Gulf of Oman—making it a perfect destination for watersports. On reaching Al Qurm in Kalba, we meet Neil Franklin, our kayaking instructor from Absolute Adventure. He trains us on how to sit; paddle; and direct the kayak without losing control, all in just ten minutes. Following that we weave our way through the mangroves, swamps, and mudflats while getting a glimpse of turtles, crabs and a few kingfishers. Details: AED 275, adventure.ae

Heart of Sharjah

Shopper’s stop
Souqs (markets) are traditional trading areas and Sharjah has plenty of them. Retaining the look and feel of the past, at the same time updating themselves with modern technolo­gy (such as air conditioning), the Heart of Sharjah is a place that encompasses the city’s arts and heritage. Apart from housing cafés and halwa factories, the place features a number of traditional markets such as Souq­ Al Arsh, Souq-Al-Shanasiyah, Souq-Saqr and the Old Souq offering spices, perfumes, sou­venirs, handicrafts, antiques as
well as tradi­tional textiles. Details: AED:10 onwards, www.heartofsharjah

Classic Car Museum

Keeping it classy
If you are an automobile geek, the Sharjah Classic Car Museum is the place for you. Divided into five sections, each categorised according to major historical developments in the automotive industry, the museum houses more than a 100 classic cars. Apart from vintage cycles to some of the earliest models of Jaguar, Ford, Bentley and Mercedes that date back to 1915, the museum also offers a closer look at vehicles that belonged to the personal collection of the rulers of Sharjah. Details: AED: 10, sharjahmuseums.ae
 

Mezze platter

Eat right
Shababeek (‘window’ in Arabic) restaurant located beside the picturesque Al Qasba Canal is one of the best places to visit in Sharjah for some good Lebanese food. Popular dishes include the soujouk (Lebanese sausages sautéed in garlic, lemon and coriander), lamb kebabs, and potato harra (fried cubes of potato, tossed in lemon, olive oil and garlic), tabouleh (finely chopped parsley, mint and cracked wheat salad) and kibbeh (deep fried mince, pine nuts and bulgur). Details: Average price for two: AED 320, www.shababeek.ae

(The writer was in Sharjah on invite by Sharjah Commerce & Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) and Think Strawberries)
—Fathima Ashraf
 fathima@newindianexpress.com
 @fathiimaashraf

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