Diving into the Arab world … “Don’t you have a culture shock? Incredible how on this #CreativElenaRTW trip of yours, you are jetting between continents & climate zones …”, I recall my dear brother’s words to me in a recent email. Yes and no is my answer, smiling. They say that the soul always takes much longer to arrive when you can physically move from one place to the next within a matter of hours. And yes, in the month of January alone, my soul is busy embracing sweet memories from far-flung places such as New Zealand, Japan, Nepal and now … Sharjah.
If ever I felt something like a culture shock while arriving on the Arabian peninsula for the first time, I find it is beautifully alleviated by the smiles and happy vibes of Sharjah.
Sharjah, one out of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), is different, to say the least. I arrived here well ahead of time of the international Sharjah Light Festival, now in its fifth year and together with several more cultural activities the main reason for my visit. Almost immediately, I can tell that I fell for the delights of the local Arab cuisine as well as the easy-going attitude of the people I meet here – Burkha & “Dishdasha” (the traditional men’s robe) or not!
My first travel tip on going local in Sharjah is visiting the one-and-only Mosque open to the public as a centre for cultural interpretation: “Al-Noor”, meaning “light” in Arabic.
I really, really love my time with Sharifa at the Al-Noor Mosque of Sharjah. Meeting her and listening to all her stories on everyday (cultural & religious) life in Sharjah feels like making my first woman friend in this country seemingly dominated by the men. As everywhere, it is balance that makes society go round. Sharifa fills us in on a reality that has had her change her name, convert to Islam and happily live here well over 20 years ago, originally hailing from England. She is therefore the perfect bridge in portraying the local culture of Sharjah. A visit to the Mosque is complete with a serve of coffee & dates as well as lots more first-hand travel tips by the team on further activities to do while in Sharjah.
“The reality is that Sharjah is one of the few places on Earth where the local people actually end up learning the language of their migrants! If you want to know what still makes it essentially Arabic, look into the heart of the nation’s genuine hospitality.”
Ashraf & Jenny, my two guides & cultural interpreters during these days of exploring Sharjah, both smile at me and my incessant stream of questions. They are from England and Egypt, respectively, and very much used to explaining every little detail about the local lingo & cultural forms of expression: “Above all, we love to make our visitors feel welcome. Sharjah is the cultural heart of all the United Arab Emirates, opening universities, museums & heritage centres at times when places such as Abu Dhabi & Dubai were busying themselves building places like Burj Khalifa. Only a century ago, the place might have been home to a few thousand people. The discovery of oil has changed everything. Modern development has attracted a surge in population of several million people! Yet right here in Sharjah, you still find small local places, markets, museums with a regular interactive programme that keeps up the beat of what is essentially, Arabic culture and our unique sense of hospitality.”
Last but not least, let me take you into a modern-day version of “One Thousand and One nights”, visiting the fairy-tale like home of Fatima’s family in Khorfakkan, Sharjah’s rocky East Coast.
Cruising across desert land … Right behind the city of Sharjah is where the magic starts for those whose eyes are so unfamiliar with desert landscapes like myself. It takes looking out the window (and / or embarking on a desert safari!) of your modern car on the highway to remind yourself that only centuries ago, it might have taken Bedouins days to cross this desert strip from the Arabian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman in the east of Sharjah. Right here, in a place called Khorfakkan, is where we are welcomed by Fatima & her family to a genuine sense of local hospitality. Their house … a dream, even by my “spoiled European standards”! Just as in Nepal, I like hanging out with the kids & eating with my hands in the traditional way over lunch there. Love it: Thank you so much, dear family, for this particularly warm Arabic welcome!
Dive into more of what essentially makes up the fabric of local Arab culture as found here during my visit of Sharjah, expressed by a wealth of colourful travel photographs on Flickr:
Disclaimer: I have been invited by Sharjah Tourism on this visit of Sharjah & the Sharjah Light Festival. All opinions are my own.