Long but nice article on Sharjah.
Also check out the pictures from the link
To its critics, it is the ‘stone age emirate’, an incongruous pocket of puritanical conservatism. But for its growing influx of young families, Sharjah is a haven of traditional values, with a rich heritage and cultural vibrancy to rival its neighbours. By Taimur Khan. Photographs by Siddharth Siva.
Jonaid Haque, his wife Sadaf, and Shahnaz, his mother, are all sitting in folding chairs on the small beach that encircles al Mamzar lagoon in Sharjah. We rest in the shade of their new Prado 4x4. Their daughter Daania, a precocious three-year-old, wearing a pale blue frock and squeaky black patent leather shoes, kneels just beyond the turquoise water’s reach, writing and rewriting everyone’s name in English script in the sand. Impressively, she gets them all half right. At an impasse she squeals, “Help me, Mummy!” in her mother’s native Sindhi. To the rest of us, in Urdu: “I want to go for ice cream now!”
On the other side of the lagoon, above the sand, a row of low concrete houses and palm trees sits on the horizon, remnants of the emirate’s less populated past. Sharjah’s tall new apartment buildings and those still under construction loom in the distance beyond. To our right, in the distance, is the silhouette of Burj Dubai and the rest of Dubai’s skyline. For a moment, it feels as if you are looking at Miami.
Of late, Sharjah’s reputation has been overshadowed by the towers of Dubai. But its political history and cultural present make it one of the most unusual emirates. Flirting with the new, embracing the old, Sharjah offers a unique laboratory to deconstruct clichés about tradition.
Jonaid, 35, a tall Pakistani with floppy hair, is a cabin steward for Emirates Airline. He moved to Dubai from Karachi eight years ago. Sadaf, 27, who is also a Karachi native, joined him there after their marriage in 2002. Wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, she smiles at Daania who, ice cream forgotten, is now engrossed in a seashell. I ask her, all things being equal, where she would rather live, Sharjah or Dubai. “It is too fast in Dubai. People don’t have time for family. Here it is more family-orientated, and honestly, I don’t ever see myself moving back to Dubai, even if we could afford it.”
One hundred thousand people move to Sharjah each year, many of them middle-class expats from South Asia and the Middle East. The emirate offers lower rents, relatively cheap education and a traditional identity explicitly rooted in Islam and Arab culture. The latter, along with the fact that most of the residents come from more or less the same social class, means that public space in Sharjah has a character unlike the other two urbanised emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There is no perceptible ethnic segregation in its neighbourhoods, and it is children and families, rather than young global jet-setters, who structure the demands of this space.
The city of Sharjah, the UAE’s third largest, lies just north of Dubai, an unpretentious appendage stuck to the side of its glamorous neighbour. The two cities are contiguous and form one conurbation with virtually no undeveloped land in between, but in Sharjah, the rate of development has not been on par with Dubai’s Commercial success. In a way, it has become the anti-Dubai; a place that offers what Dubai cannot.
If you search for Sharjah-related posts on the various blogs at www.uaecommunity.blogspot.com
, the general tone is one of disdain. The emirate is routinely described as pre-modern, primarily because of the authors’ presumption that the “decency laws” make the place as puritanical as Saudi Arabia. On www.secretdubaidiary.blogspot.com
, a banned but still popular site, Sharjah is almost always referred to as “the stone-age emirate”.
These laws, passed in 2001 – formally the “Decency and Public Conduct Rules and Objectives” – dictate rules on clothing, social interaction and living arrangements, in accordance with the emirate’s interpretation of Islam. Officially, they forbid men from wearing “very short shorts” and going shirtless, women from wearing clothes that expose their stomachs and backs, skirts above the knee and tight and transparent clothing.
Most notoriously, women and men “not in a legally acceptable relationship” are forbidden from being alone together both in public and private. In addition, alcohol has been banned in the emirate since the late-1980s. Legal pronouncements such as these have helped to cement Sharjah’s reputation as the most socially conservative emirate.
I ring the doorbell and Jonaid invites me into a comfortable flat whose spacious living room is thickly decorated with souvenirs from his weekly trips to Europe, Asia and Africa. He leads me into the master bedroom where his mother and Sadaf sit cross-legged on the bed, having tea. Jonaid’s cousin Abid, a sales executive who also moved to Sharjah from Dubai two years ago, reclines on the couch as Daania presents him with his portrait on an Etch A Sketch.
Tall and broad shouldered, he explains the reasons for the move: “My wife works at a hospital in Dubai and I got a job here at the Expo Centre. But the number-one reason we decided to live here was the rent.” Even with Sharjah’s recent rent hikes, a two-bedroom flat still costs around 30 per cent less than in Dubai.
Aside from housing costs, Sharjah offers young parents additional incentives. “Obviously, it is more conservative here, and that was also a benefit because I have a family. A friend of mine also moved here because he said in Dubai, there were prostitutes on the street in front of his house and he couldn’t take his kids outside to play. Another thing are the school fees. They are much cheaper here than in Dubai.”
Sharjah, which means sunshine, according to a local guidebook, was not always known as Dubai’s traditionalist residential satellite. From the time its ruling clan, the Qawasim, settled the area in the early 18th century, until the first decades of the 20th, the emirate was the effective capital and commercial centre of the Trucial states, and also its most populous city. Sharjah lost its regional dominance to Dubai over the course of the first half of the 20th century, as Dubai took the initiative of catering to local merchants and international business, drawing away expertise and capital. By the end of the Second World War, Dubai’s population was four times that of Sharjah.
Historically, Sharjah’s rulers have maintained closer ties with the wider Arab world than the other emirates. Thus their vision has been more pan-Arab, and can be read as a factor in Sharjah’s greater emphasis on traditional culture and religion. While it was a British protectorate, Sharjah turned to the Arab League for economic assistance rather than rely on the colonial power’s largesse. In the 1950s and Sixties, its leader Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al Qasimi supported the Egyptian leader Nasser and was an advocate of a unified Arab state across the Middle East.
During the Eighties, Sharjah had become a popular tourist destination for vacationers from the Soviet Union and South Asia, and its five-star hotels served liquor. Towards the end of the decade, the emirate passed laws banning the sale of alcohol and its consumption in hotels and private homes.
Sharjah’s unique history trickles down in many other ways. Dr Sheikh Sultan, an avid playwright who has PhDs in history, political science and agriculture, is the most well-educated member of the Qawasim and was previously the UAE’s first Minister for Education. Since the early 90s, he has been a major patron of the arts, creating 16 museums that exhibit and promote Islamic and Arab art and culture. In 1998, Unesco designated Sharjah as the cultural capital of the Arab world for its focus on historical preservation and promotion of the arts. University City was created in 1997, and now houses two universities, Sharjah University and the American University of Sharjah, where students can study liberal arts, sciences, architecture and business.
Since its foundation in 1993, the Sharjah International Biennial has become one of the Middle East’s most important arts events, competing with Beirut, Cairo and Istanbul as a magnet for emerging arts and artists. Sharjah’s staid reputation has been confounded by its arrival on the regional culture scene.
Valerie Grove is a British woman who recently moved to Sharjah from Dubai. Her blog, naturestrikesback.blogspot.com, describes Sharjah lovingly, and I wanted to find out how she, a professional artist from London, was able to find happiness in the “stone-age emirate”.
Only a few cars are parked in front of the Museum of Islamic Civilisation. Instead, a gang of children race their bikes from one end to the other. Their female teenage guardians sit in the building’s shade, wearing jeans and hijabs, smoking cigarettes.
The museum seems to be a mishmash of classical Islamic architecture’s most recognisable design elements: the al Aqsa mosque’s golden dome; the narrow, striped arches of the Maghreb and Spain; and the lattice work of Mughal India.
Inside, in a gallery on the ground floor, an installation features modern reinterpretations of hijabs and jilbab’s by local female fashion designers, including a velour tracksuit-cum-abaya and the “capster”, a garment for the pious woman athlete. Upstairs, in the galleries containing hundreds of exquisite exhibits from Islamic empires, a sign discusses the “long tradition of figurative images” in Islamic art, which are only “strictly forbidden in religious buildings”. With its combination of ancient artefacts and contemporary abstract art, traditional sculpture and newer genres such as fashion design, the museum’s collections mimic its architecture: mixture, fusion, anachronism.
I meet Mrs Grove, a friendly blonde woman in her thirties, who works as a coordinator for the Sharjah Biennial, at the museum’s smart cafeteria. She moved to the city from Dubai last December with her husband, who took a teaching position at the American University of Sharjah. After initial worries about the emirate’s reputation, she quickly found that she preferred her new home. “I relaxed much more here because there’s a sense of reality about it,” she says. “It feels like a much more ‘Middle Eastern’ experience.”
For someone interested in developing the local arts scene, Sharjah was a better place to be, she adds. “The challenge is to connect cultural development to the ground, and for this, Sharjah has a much better foundation. There’s more a sensibility of preservation.”
Leaving the museum, I head for the city’s bus station. There, a handwritten notice in the canteen explains the rules of the small mosque next-door: “This place only use for Muslims and please keep your shoes outside.” Oblivious, a fleshy western man, probably a tourist, is lying on the raised AstroTurf platform in the mosque’s courtyard, backpack behind his head, napping, his face covered by a book, sandals protecting white sock-clad feet. Worshippers politely ignore his faux pas, and there are no policemen in sight.
The bus station is on the edge of the Heritage and Arts area in old Sharjah, a maze of traditional buildings, souqs and a mosque, some more than 200 years old, which have been renovated and converted into museums, art galleries, shops and cafes.
The shops of Souq al Kadim, which sell medicinal herbs, dried fruits, spices, inexpensive clothes and more, face each other across a path covered by a makeshift canopy of corrugated metal and thatched palm fronds that filter the afternoon light. At one end of the souq is a row of shops selling women’s clothing and lingerie whose windows display mannequins in various stages of undress – some posing in full-length abayas, others in revealing, frilly undergarments. Unlike the mannequins in malls in Dubai, however, these plastic women are either headless or have colourful scarves wrapped around their faces.
Further along, in an indoor section, are similar shops, but their mannequins all have uncovered heads. Perplexed, I walk into one and ask its Keralite shop assistant, Bala, about the state of the souq’s mannequins. “I wasn’t here last year, but I heard that the police came and told the stores and tailors that the faces in the windows must be covered,” he explains. “But we haven’t covered them because in this area only women come. No one bothers us.” A year ago, the Sharjah Municipality appended its decency laws by requiring that all mannequins be relieved of their facial features.
This combination of what might be considered a conservative branding “abroad” and a laissez-faire realism on the ground was noticeable everywhere. During an evening walk along the corniche, I see a few teenage couples sitting on the steps leading to an overpass, and more huddle together on benches closer to the water.
I ask Shahid, who is sitting with friends on a concrete block nearby, playing a guitar, if it is easy for young people to date in Sharjah, given the decency laws. He replies, “I’ve seen the police take a guy and girl out of a car because they weren’t married. Someone told the police about them.” He gestures around, “Right here, most people know each other and won’t call the police. But still, they should be careful,” he says, nodding in the direction of the couples.
I walk to the al Qasba, a leisure area surrounding the canal that flows between the Khalid Lagoon and the al Khan Lagoon. At one end is the Kids’ Zone, a miniature amusement park for children, where play structures compete with rides lit by garish, coloured light bulbs. At the other end, the Eye of the Emirates, a gigantic observatory wheel, stands 60 metres high, with 42 egg-like observation pods. From the top you can see Sharjah spread out below, the Dubai skyline glistening in the distance. Restaurants and boutiques line either side of the canal. Children reign in Sharjah, confirming the emirate’s simultaneous backward and forward glances. Any place catering to the next generation will take time to commemorate the past and carve out avenues for the future. Unlike the limitless present of Dubai, Sharjah is creating a chronology, marked by pan-Arab history, South Asian immigration, public art and culture, and familial pride.http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090214/MAGAZINE/773228004&SearchID=73345340387794