Sharjah was the perfect place to start the exploration of United Arab Emirates for a ‘culture traveler’ like me. On a freezing February morning, I reached Sharjah from my warm and cozy Goa. I know freezing is not a common word for Sharjah, but believe me, all 6 days I was there – it was like being on a hill station. It was pleasant till winds were calm and as soon as winds got in an active mode, it was chilling. Rains also decided to make their annual visit to Sharjah coincide with our visit. I guess they were trying to make our experience unique – for how many people can claim to see rain and cold in the desert of Arabia.
So, following the travel ritual, sharing the first impressions of visiting Sharjah.
Sharjah – the cultural capital of UAE
Sharjah takes pride in being the cultural capital of the United Arab Emirates. The culture is showcased through various museums in the Sharjah Emirates. The museums not only showcase the civilization and heritage but also the natural treasures of Sharjah. There are also new age museums like vintage cars museum. Size wise Sharjah is the 3rd largest emirate in UAE.
What I enjoyed most was walking through its old souks or markets. For shopping, there are fairly new and elaborate central souks and supermarkets but you get the vibe of ethnic markets in places like Irani market or the souk at heart of Sharjah.
At the entrance of most hotels we visited, there used to be Arabian coffee along with Dates. The coffee served is made of just coffee, cardamom, and saffron. Yes, no sugar is added to it. You are supposed to have it with natural sugar of dates.
Our guide Mozhgan Hashemi patiently explained us the coffee ritual in the Arab world. She says the coffee is offered to a guest as soon he arrives. The host keeps offering the coffee till the time guest shakes the cup to indicate a ‘No More’. The coffee is also offered by the right hand and received by the right hand as the left hand is considered unclean. This means you hold the flask or the coffee pot in your left hand.
A handle-less coffee cup in ceramic is called Finjan & the coffee pot is called Dalla.
I ate a lot of dates and they are so damn filling. No wonder, people fasting during Ramadan are able to sustain themselves on few dates.
All public places have prominently displayed charity boxes. You can donate to whichever charity that you want to contribute to. In the shopping mall, they are never out of sight. I also saw them in hotel lobbies or supermarkets.
Most of these boxes are half filled with currency notes.
Everyone speaks Hindi
Ok, I may be exaggerating a bit, but almost everyone I met spoke Hindi.
Do you know that less than 20% of the total population of Sharjah is the local population?
Most immigrants in UAE and in Sharjah are from Indian Subcontinent. Hindi is so widely spoken that I never felt out of place. Even people from Kerala who are found in abundance here spoke better Hindi than average Keralite back home in India.
At the Sharjah airport, I had a conversation with Philipino girl in Hindi. She smiled and said ‘Ma’am Seekhna Padta hai’ – you have to learn to survive here. Never heard that in India from anyone.
Dressing code for Men & Women in Sharjah
I was told Sharjah is a bit conservative in terms what you should wear as compared to Dubai and of course as compared to the rest of the world. Personally, I enjoyed the dressing sense of Sharjah. Everyone was dressed decently in public. That kind of brought an elegance & grace to the place in general. As a visitor, you are not required to follow any dress code, but you must not expose your skin too much, or you will stand out.
One peculiar observation I had was that men mostly dress in white gown and women in black Abaya. So, when you see them together – it is like looking at the yin & yang moving together. They look like a stunning black & white photograph from the yesteryears.
No, it is not required to wear these colors, but it just so happens that is the most preferred color.
Men wear the head scarf – white one in general and a white & red woven one for formal occasions. The Agyail or the black rings to hold the scarf are also worn for formal occasions.
Spaces are segregated for men and women. I was speaking at the Skyline University college in Sharjah and all girls sat on the right side of the classroom and boys on the left.
Waste Segregation & Toilets
You can see the waste bins with color codes for different types of waste, just about anywhere in the city of Sharjah. No wonder the place is so clean.
I also noticed that you are never really too far from a toilet. As a woman traveler, I cannot even explain how big a blessing this is. You can have water to your heart’s content when you know that toilets are accessible. Your bladder says Thank You for not making it work harder than it should.
Walking City – Sharjah
As someone who loves to walk around cities, Sharjah was a delight. I loved walking around its Khalid Lagoon. The vast walking spaces with trees on one side and waterfront on another are any travelers dream walking space in a city. The skyline of the city surrounds the lagoon. And give you and your camera ample opportunity to click pictures. Birds fly around and water fountains entertain you.
Towards the evening, you can see families sitting on the lawns and enjoying themselves. Children are playing on the walking paths. Restaurants and coffee shops are available to fill the gap for your stomach.
Besides the waterfront, most areas have enough space for pedestrians to walk. The city is also very child-friendly.
Vegetarian Food in Sharjah
As a vegetarian, you face absolutely no problem in Sharjah. I could see vegetarian restaurants everywhere in the emirates. In all the hotels that I had my meals, there were some options for vegetarians. Pita bread, hummus and baba ganoush are always available and so is lentil soup. Salads are ample and with the desserts, you can be spoilt for choice.
If ever you face an issue as a vegetarian, dates are always available for you to munch.
No small cars
You hardly see any small cars on roads. One rarely see a colored car. Most cars are in shades of white, gray or brown. Yes, black is a reasonably popular color for cars.
Driving is on the right-hand side. This always confuses me as I look at the wrong side while crossing the road. Remember this when you go there.
Mosque Architecture in Sharjah
I did not enter a mosque in Sharjah as I was told that only Muslims are allowed inside. However, I did study the architecture of mosques from outside. Mosques in Sharjah follow the Turkish style of architecture with a dominant central dome and few tall minars. The walls are plain and pale as the places of worship are expected in Islam.
A peculiar observation I had was that the Mihrab or the place where the Imam stands during a congregation protrudes out of the back wall of mosques. If you go behind the mosque, you would see a parabolic structure right in the middle popping out of the wall.
I am yet to visit Turkey, but this is something I saw for the first time. In India, I do not remember seeing anything similar. I wonder if this is just an architectural element or is there a cultural reason behind it.
Flag of UAE
Flags represent the countries through their colors and patterns. Do we all not love decoding the meaning and sometimes history hidden in the flags of a country.
UAE flag is a rectangular flag with four colors – Red, White, Green & Black. Red stands for revolution, White for peace, Green for Islam and Black for Oil which is nothing but black gold for the country.
I learned that of the 7 Emirates of UAE, Abu Dhabi exports oil. Dubai has a thriving tourism economy and Sharjah exports Gas.
Cost of living in Sharjah is lower than in Dubai. So many people prefer to stay in Sharjah & work in Dubai. This means heavy morning and evening traffic between Sharjah & Dubai.
Alcohol is absolutely banned in Sharjah. This makes it a preferred destination for tourism by families. Teetotallers like me can not be happier.
The National sport of UAE is Camel Racing. I think it is something that I would like to see some time.
I am told there is a lot of focus on education and government is ensuring there are books everywhere – at homes and at offices or at public places.
Overall, it is a sweet little Emirate with beaches, cliffs, lagoons, museums and its enticing souks.