Sharjah, UAE: a Two-sided Coin

Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sharjah
Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sharjah

Sharjah, One of the Seven United Arab Emirates

By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte

Old and new in Sharjah
Old and new in Sharjah.

I had never planned on visiting Sharjah. The reason for that is simple: I had never heard about the place. But then, a friend of mine told me she had gone there to live for a few months and asked me to visit.

A quick peek at the map enlightened me to the fact that Sharjah was a small emirate right next door to Dubai, a mere three hours flight from Beirut, where I was living for a time, and I was on the next plane.

Sharjah is the third largest and third most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, forming part of the Dubai-Sharjah-Ajman metropolitan area.

I flew with Air Arabia, a relatively new low-cost airline with hubs – as they call it – in Sharjah, Alexandria in Egypt, and Casablanca in Morocco. That airline was the first pleasant surprise because as far as low-cost airlines go, Air Arabia is certainly tops.

No business class, of course, and no free drinks and snacks, either, but plenty of legroom, blankets, and pillows in abundance. New and clean planes, friendly and nicely turned out flight attendants, direct flights to many Middle East destinations as well as Istanbul and, from Casablanca to destinations in Europe including Germany at very reasonable prices. (Beirut-Sharjah return at $200).

My friend had told me that Sharjah was much more traditional than neighboring Dubai, so I had a headscarf at the ready when we landed at Sharjah International airport – just in case.

I needn’t have bothered. The plane was full of Arab ladies who obviously had been on a shopping spree to Beirut and none of them bothered to cover up. So I didn’t either although my arms and legs were covered.

Female Taxi Drivers

Arabic platter served in Indian restaurant
Arabic platter served in an Indian restaurant

The next surprise awaited when I came out looking for a taxi. I found a taxi rank all right, all gleaming brand new Mercedes, and next to them several ladies, extremely smartly dressed in light blue uniforms, white veil and white gloves. Who were they? Sort of hostesses, maybe, to help visitors or guides, but surely not taxi drivers?

I approached the first of them and, sure enough, Sharjah has a fleet of female taxi drivers. Who would have thought? Off we went in search of my destination and I got a good overview of Sharjah.

Little India

The next surprise came when we neared the city center and I thought I had landed on the wrong continent. I saw more saris and turbans than dishdashas and chadors.

My driver explained to me that Sharjah was a prime destination for migrants from India and Pakistan who made their home there and were involved in a good deal of Sharjah’s commerce.

An Arabian Meal at an Indian Restaurant

Al Qasba at night
Al Qasba at night

My lovely driver drove like the devil but didn’t have much of a clue where she was going, so it took a few cell phone calls to my friend and consultations with other taxi drivers until finally, she deposited me at my friend’s doorsteps.

I settled in the apartment I had rented for a few days, and then we went out for a meal. By now it didn’t come as a surprise that we ended up in an Indian restaurant which, however, served what was called an Arabian platter for two and turned out to be a mixture of meats, köfte, curry rice and salad.

A curious combo but very tasty and so ample that three could easily have satisfied their hunger. At approximately $5 each, it was a good bargain too.

An Eerie Experience

By then night had fallen and we went for a walk along the waterfront towards the old part of town and the old souk. It’s completely safe to walk around on your own at night; two blonde western women and nobody paid any attention to us.

Wouldn't you just hate that view?
Wouldn’t you just hate that view?

It was a Friday night and therefore very quiet. The massive walled old souk was beautifully illuminated from the outside but inside we had the eeriest experience. I have never been in a souk which was completely empty.

With the exception of a few shops, everything was closed, one sleepy guard sat at the entrance, looked at us with one half-closed eye, and paid no further attention.

We admired old, beautifully carved wooden doors which marked the entrance to shops, a few musical instruments which were on display and otherwise only listened to our own footsteps echoing off the marble floor.

Involuntarily we lowered our voices until we broke out giggling and said: “Imagine this, we are actually whispering in a Middle Eastern souk!”

Sharjah’s Oil Wealth

Time stood still in this night visit to a souk in Sharjah which would have been much the same hundreds of years ago.

The next day showed the other side of the coin. We returned to the waterfront and visited one of the best resorts, the Radisson Blue. Luxury and beauty wherever you looked. A green garden full of flowers, pools and a beach club.

But… as soon as we hit the beach what did we see? The ugliest oil rigs looming above the beach umbrellas right at the end of the beach!

Visitors to this expensive resort were left in no doubt where the wealth of modern Sharjah came from. Hideous, and one hates to think what the quality of the water might be like.

But even the modern resort had a hint of yesterday in the form of the hilarious beach gym. Much-needed instructions were posted alongside explaining how to use the wooden tables and bars.

After a quite expensive snack and coffee in the beach bar, we made our way to another modern face of Sharjah, the impressive Central Souk. The blue tiles that cover the entire building are true works of art and inside you find all the gold, carpets, paintings, silver daggers, and other things you would expect in a souk of the Middle East and, of course, life and noise.

Night entertainment in Sharjah
Night entertainment in Sharjah.

A food festival was underway in nearby Al Qasba along the banks of the canal, and we sampled several specialties at the stands. Nightfall comes early and a Ferris wheel and other illuminated attractions bathed the Al Qasba in a fairly-tale light. A day and night place for family entertainment and fun.

Sharjah’s Islamic Culture

The rulers of Sharjah do a lot to promote and preserve Islamic culture and bring events to the Emirate. It’s to be the Capital of Islamic Culture 2014 and the Museum of Islamic Culture is a sight to behold.

Much restoration of the old part of town is underway and the oil money is put to good use. Open-air performances take place in what’s called the Sharjah Heritage Museum. We went to visit and were yet again struck by the difference in atmospheres that you can only experience in Sharjah.

No events and performances were underway, but the old buildings were in place, empty, abandoned and covered in dust, save for a few goats in a fenced-in coral. Again we got the feeling of having stepped back hundreds of years in time, wandering around the village square and peeking into straw huts.

Other attractions

Sharjah has mountains and more fabulous beaches and provides all kinds of water sports and sailing tours to nearby Dubai. Twenty museums invite visitors to study the vast cultural history, and a lot of efforts are made to put Sharjah on the culture and recreational tourist map.

There is the super luxurious Sharjah Ladies’ Club and an Old Cars Club and Museum and countless other attractions.

If, however, you want to experience a fascinating rollercoaster impression of a unique juxtaposition of old and new, modern times and Middle Ages, go visit Sharjah.

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