‘Smile – you are in Sharjah” is spelt out in flowers on the lawn next to the bustling bus terminus in the city, the third largest of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
I need to smile, sitting in traffic on my way from the airport in Dubai to Sharjah, where I’ll be attending the Sharjah International Book Fair.
I ask my cab driver: “Why is there traffic congestion after 11pm? Where are people going to?”
He says Dubai never sleeps. So never make the mistake of driving from Dubai to Sharjah between 5pm and 9pm – you might just grow a beard while waiting for the traffic to flow. There is a metro rail network in Dubai, but it doesn’t connect the two cities, which is unfortunate considering the sea of Sharjah residents who commute daily to Dubai for work.
They travel because Sharjah is renowned for having affordable accommodation, and rents are high in Dubai.
As you drive into Sharjah, it’s hard to miss the towering residential buildings popping up everywhere. The city is the epitome of a concrete jungle, but it marries the ancient with the modern in its architecture.
Once the sun is up, I notice that most of the buildings have a similar colour scheme. Their windows are blue-turquoise, creating a uniform look – a distinct feature of the city. The government offices and mosques break up the modern feel with the Arabic and Islamic aesthetic, reminding tourists that they are in the Middle East.
Sharjah has more than 600 mosques, with the enthralling Al Noor, beside the Khalid Lagoon, being the most famous. This eye-catching building is one of the city’s landmarks and can hold 2?200 people. The word noor means light in Arabic and, when the sun goes down, the Al Noor lights up like a lighthouse.
Exploring the Souks
I dash to the shops on a Friday morning, assuming they will be closed from noon for Friday prayer, as in South Africa, but that’s not the case. I walk into a dead Sharjah mega-mall. Here, shops open later in the day; Friday is a half-day for workers. After a week of working, residents come out with their families on the promenade to sit, eat and relax.
The UAE is famous not only for its oil reserves but also for being a shopper’s paradise, housing luxurious brands at affordable prices. Unlike Dubai, which seems to package items at tourist prices, Sharjah offers well-priced goods. Souks, the traditional trading areas, are great places to find bargains for anything from clothes to fish and plants.
Most of the traders in the souks are immigrants from places such as India. They have been living in Sharjah for more than 10 years because of its job opportunities, but still don’t have UAE citizenship because there is no established system to apply for it. That might be a result of local fears that the emirate could suffer a loss of national identity if it were to issue citizenship to its immigrant workers, who also come from places such as Lebanon and Palestine.
Most of the souks are located at the Khalid Lagoon and the creek and consist of small stores and stalls that are open from 9.30am to 10.30pm. The most famous trading area is the blue-tiled Central Souk, which houses more than 600 small shops. From gold jewellery to carpets and perfumes, Central is truly a bargain shopper’s paradise. I am overwhelmed by the number of shops in the souks, perhaps because I have to slip in a two-day shopping experience between the book fair programme.
Culture and identity seem to be close to the heart of the Sharjah ruler, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi. The sheikh is a writer and has published more than 20 books and written about eight plays. During his speech at the opening of the book fair, he calls on Arab intellectuals to spread their culture around the world. The fair, well attended, features more than 600 publishing houses.
Celebrating Arab excellence
In between the book fair panel discussions, guests are taken to the city’s tourist attractions, which include the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, the Maraya Art Centre, the Sharjah Art Museum and the aquarium.
Sharjah should be commended for preserving heritage sites that celebrate Arab excellence and dispel the misconceptions about Islam and Arab culture. (As I walk through the Museum of Islamic Civilization, I read all about Arab inventions in fields such as medicine and astronomy.)
It might be thought that Sharjah lives in the shadow of the more popular emirate states of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which are known for being more cosmopolitan and less conservative. But Sharjah arguably is the soul of the UAE. It was named the capital of Islamic culture in 2014, a status the city has embraced as a tool to market itself.
Unsurprisingly, when its residents speak of entertainment, they refer to museums and theatres. Club culture in this city is nonexistent because of its adherence to Islamic law. If you are looking for a wild party or want to smoke shisha, you’ll have to drive to Ajman, which is about 18km away, or Dubai.
For our last night in the culture capital, my friend and I join in the city’s laid-back nightlife at the Al Qasba centre, known for its family-friendly activities, gallery, Eye of the Emirates (a ferris wheel) and rows of restaurants.
After a taste of UAE culture, we toast our last night in the city with home-made ice cream while sitting on the banks of the canal. We smile, because we’re in Sharjah.
Katlego Mkhwanazi was a guest of the Sharjah Book Authority