Sharjah, United Arab Emirates: Two Sides of a Coin
Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates
By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
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.
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 leg room, 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 scarf 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
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.
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 dishdashs and chadors. My driver explained to me that Sharjah was a prime destination for emigrants from India and Pakistan who made their home there and were involved in a good deal of Sharjah’s commerce.
IAn Arabian Meal at an Indian Restaurant
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 mixtures 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 soukh. It’s completely safe to walk around on your own at night; two blonde western women and nobody paid any attention to us.
It was a Friday night and therefore very quiet. The massive walled old soukh was beautifully illuminated from the outside but inside we had the most eerie experience. I have never been in a soukh 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 soukh 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. Green garden full of flowers, pools and a beach club.
But… as soon as we hit the beach what did we see? The most ugly 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 instruction 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 Soukh. 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 soukh of the Middle East and, of course, life and noise.
A food festival was under way 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.
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.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is a former attorney turned travel writer, photographer and novelist based in Miami and Istanbul who writes with verve and flair about destinations where it’s warm, particularly the Mediterranean World. Her work has appeared in The Expeditioner, Literary Traveler, Travel Thru History, Popular Hispanics, Traveln-on and Smithsonianmag. She blogs regularly for In The Know Traveler and Europe a la Carte and Turkish Airlines inflight magazine.