It is stylish and modern, the UNESCO designated Capital of Arabic Culture, and only a stone’s throw from Dubai. So why did it feel as if we were the only tourists there?
Most people will tell you the reason is very simple: Sharjah is dry. Not in the literal sense – although rain is indeed rare – but in the sense of a strict prohibition on the sale or drinking of alcohol. Far removed from the cocktail-swilling culture of Dubai’s hotels, Sharjah is quiet and dignified, and largely ignored by tourists. Which is a pity. The city manages to combine modern architecture and souks with traditional Arabic design and old fashioned hospitality, making it a great place for a day out from the glitz and brashness of Dubai.
Sharjah Heritage Area
This is the gateway to a cultural complex built along classic Arabic lines, with narrow passages and small, closely packed buildings, walls gleaming in the brilliant sunlight. We lingered beside an open air sculpture before scuttling into the nearest building for some modern art and a welcome blast of air conditioning.
At the back was a small souk area. It was quiet and we walked around largely undisturbed, stopping at a stall selling pashmina scarves in every imaginable colour. We were quoted 20 dirhams each, which seemed too good to miss as I was reliably informed they can cost up to 300 dirhams elsewhere in the country – one of the many reasons for moving outside of the tourist areas occasionally. I bought three, and carried on round the souk. Another stall was selling similar scarves. “Lowest price for pashminas, 120 dirhams,” the owner called after us.
Blue Souk of Sharjah
By now it was lunchtime and we were readily distracted by the sight of an interesting looking Iraqi restaurant. As with everywhere else in Sharjah, it seemed that tourists were a rarity here, and we got a very friendly welcome, even though hardly a word of English was spoken. (We managed ‘salaam’ and ‘shukran’ but not much else). A bottle of water and bowls of lentil soup appeared almost as soon as we sat down, together with three rounds of Arabic bread. Then bowls of salad and beetroot pickles, and enormous plates of chicken, fish and shrimps with rice and bread.
Suitably refreshed, we set off for the Central (Blue) Souk, so named because of the blue tiled domes that rise from its vaulted roof. This is an enormous structure, built to traditional Islamic design, of two parallel rows of shops on two levels, linked by bridges. There are 600 shops in all, selling all manner of items including carpets, jewellery and luxury goods.
By now we were a long way from where we had parked our car, so we negotiated with a boat trip operator to take us round the lagoon and across to the other side. A final chance to take in the city’s architecture, old and new, mosques and public buildings; to note the greenery and the desert island in the middle of the lagoon, and to reflect once again on the undeserved neglect of Sharjah by tourists.