Sharjah: Spectacular Lights and Sights on the Persian Gulf
When xyzAsia editor, David Astley, told me that he had been to Sharjah 15 years back and found it a pretty boring place, I thought we had been to different countries! The Sharjah I recently visited hosted a spectacular light festival spread over 10 days, had high-tech art installations and the proverbial luxury all around — super cars, huge homes, gold et al.
It was Valentine’s Day and the offers at the Sheraton Beach Resort & Spa ranged from spas to dinner, flowers and chocolates. But our arrival was close to midnight and the only energy left was used to dine and crash out.
The slightly orange morning sun bounced over the waves. I watched some early risers on the beach from the window of my room on the fourth floor. Hastily dressing, for the day had a long itinerary, I spent a few minutes watching the waves, walking over the shells as the breeze blew my hair. The waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman had washed away the desert dryness in this part.
Sharjah is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by the Al Qasimi dynasty since the 18th century. The current ruler, since 1972, is Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi. Human settlement evidence in the area can be traced back 120,000 years and is displayed at the Mleiha Archaeological Centre. This also offers some exciting activities such as quad biking, buggy rides, and tented accommodation in the desert. The third largest emirate out of the seven that comprise UAE, its capital is namesake city Sharjah.
Our first stop was for lunch at the Al Fanar restaurant, located at the Al Majaz Waterfront. Seagulls bathed in the fountains. With space for children to play and restaurants offering international cuisines, the waterfront had provisions for the challenged, the elderly, even free wi-fi.
Samousa, chicken curry, chicken biryani, green salad, shark, yogurt and desserts to die for — the stomach was bursting. A little walk around beds of blooming flowers and over the green grass helped. A golf club was also in the vicinity, as was a mosque. I was told the final aqua parade of the light festival was also taking place on the Khalid Lagoon.
The Sharjah Light Festival is an annual event that has been going for nine years now. This year it adopted the theme of ‘Culture and Family’ and attracted over 1.2 million visitors. Over a period of 10 days, the festival featured 20 shows at 17 different venues (including the enclaves of Kalba and Khorfakkan) to showcase the emirate’s cultural and architectural heritage.
We got to see three of these exquisite shows on our visit. The 30 years’ experience of the lighting artists and engineers who designed these shows really shows through in their professional presentation. One that was titled ‘Transmission’, which was staged for the Sharjah Municipality, was a tribute to Arabic culture and was based on stories from legends and myths.
Another memorable show was the colourful ‘Bridge of Light’ staged at Al Qasba which used laser beams to build a light bridge over the water. This was to show the different paths we take in life, and how we eventually come home. But the grand finale was a parade over the placid lagoon waters with fairies, muse, luggage carriers and pyrotechnics. It ended on a sweet note with a grand banquet which had the most delicious date pudding.
The sprawling city buildings became neon lights as the darkness of the night engulfed the region. Only the morning revealed the creamy, sandy stone structures. Enamoured by the Hummers and Maseratis buzzing past, my eyes stayed on the road.
Shopping in the souqs
The souqs were housed in creamy structures. The first stop was Al Jubail which had all things edible such as veggies, meats, dates, honey, etc. If only the luggage could bring back more boxes of those sweet, affordable dates — the pricing began from AED20 per kg. There was a bottle of white honey too. An eye-opener to the local life, the fish auction at 4pm was worth the wait. It wasn’t the proverbial fish market with a lot of noise. Within a few minutes the money had changed hands and the fish were all gone — cat fish, sharks, small fish, big fish.
Gold, carpets, souvenirs, clothing — we found all these at the Blue or Gold Souq. But it was the waterfront that pleased the eye. It being Friday, a holiday, families were enjoying picnics and relaxing under the blue sky. The joy was contagious.
The next stop was Heart of Sharjah — the place from where began the world of Sharjah. This is the government’s 15-year-long restoration project which will be completed by 2025. It will then be a vibrant world of cafes, art galleries, souqs et al.
Housing the 100-year-old Al Asrah souq and luxury boutique hotel, Al Bait, the old-world charm was visible. Al Bait comprised a collection of private homes converted into a hotel. The homes belonged to the Al Midfa and Al Naboodah families who have played a crucial role in the history of Sharjah. These give the impression of being in a little village, with the old passages and alleys forming part of the hotel. It housed a museum, library, ancient windtower and 53 rooms. An interesting part was the door opening into the souq.
The oldest market in Sharjah, this has a factory where Omani halwa is made. Even the ruler loves this halwa, we were told by our guides Fatima and Aisha, who treated us to traditional gahwa aka coffee. Fatima’s mother had ground some cardamom into the coffee and the small sips were flavourful.
Art & natural world
Who would have thought of finding rain in the desert and walking through it without getting wet? But I did all this. After London, Shanghai, Los Angeles and New York, the Rain Room has become a permanent installation in Sharjah. Installed by Random International in association with Sharjah Art Foundation, this sensor-based shower is a way of connecting technology, man and nature.
The art installation has 3D tracking cameras. As the sensors found me, the water in that part stopped while showers kept coming down all around. The installation uses 2,500 litres of self-cleaning recycled water.
Another surprising stop was the butterfly garden on Al Noor Island. The bridge to this island shuts down late at night. The evening vista would be a delight for the island as it is dotted with LED lights and sculptures, but we went in the day. With 20 species of butterflies, the garden acquaints young ones with the pretty insect world. There was an activity area, café and literary pavilion too.
Not just on the roads, the super cars were also seen at the Classic Car Museum. Housing 97 vintage cars and two bikes, the highlight was the 1969 limited edition Mercedes which belonged to the ruler. Apparently there are only 2,000 such cars in the world.
Kalba and Khorfakkan
“Women in the country have all the rights. They can lodge complaints against domestic violence or abuse,” Fatima Ahmed Almogan enlightened us, after we had dug into a lavish Arab meal at her luxurious home in Khorfakkan. The government gives every citizen a plot of land and half a million dirham to build their homes. Disparity is not promoted for the ruler wants everyone to live the good life, she elucidated. It was Utopia!
Fatima had worked with the government and now hosted tourists, treating them to local flavours and imparting cultural knowledge. Flowery greetings, fragrant Oudh smoke and gahwa with dates — all this constitutes a traditional Arab meeting. We also got to wear Instaworthy jazzy wedding dresses and jewellery. Shaking our tiny cups, giving a signal that we didn’t want more coffee, we headed off to the east coast to meet the birds of prey.
On the shores of Gulf of Oman, lie mangrove swamps. And the region is called Kalba. Fruit vendors line the east coast road which is a popular getaway, as is neighbouring Oman.
Most of the mangroves were cleared to build the university campus but the Kingfisher Lodge on an island is keeping the wildlife and mangroves alive. Little turtles swam in the water, birds chirped but we didn’t sight the white kingfisher which is the trademark of this lodge. Candice, a nature tour leader, has shifted base from South Africa and takes care of the resort’s activities such as nature walks, kayaking.
Kalba has an art gallery and the Birds of Prey Centre. From the UK to this hinterland, Jerry, who is friendlier with birds and animals, gave us an insight to the different raptors. As a sanctuary of sorts, the centre houses almost 84 of these precious vultures, owls, eagles, falcons—some being an endangered species.
As the area is part of the migration belt for most species, locals would capture them and use them for hunting. Some would get killed by the electric wires and then there was the case of a pair of vultures which had been confined since birth and forgotten how to fly. A flight show of 18 birds educates people on these birds. But the rain being our companion, we got to see only an owl, eagle and vulture in flight.
All too soon, four days had passed. The hazy outline of the Burj Khalifa, far off in Dubai, was visible in the evening sky as we drove to the airport. But Sharjah comes alive whenever I dab a little of the precious Swiss-Arabian perfume I brought back.
Header image: Wissow | Dreamstime
Editor’s note: Sharjah was indeed a boring place 15 years ago, but all that has changed now. When I first touched down in Sharjah in 2004 after a flight from Kabul which had only three paying passengers, there were only four passenger flights showing on the departures board for the whole day (most of the planes at Sharjah airport in those days were cargo flights) — but today there are over 100 scheduled passenger flights a day operating out of Sharjah which is the the hub of the Gulf’s first budget airline, Air Arabia.