"Ramadan is for everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims," says Marwan al Sarkal, the CEO of Al Qasba. This is the message he hopes is conveyed by the nightly celebrations at Sharjah's waterfront development. This is the fourth year in a row that Al Qasba has hosted nightly Ramadan celebrations and, as ever, it is an event that really only starts to take off later in the evening. Until around 10pm, the Ramadan crowds at Al Qasba are fairly sparse but as people emerge from iftar and isha'a prayers, ready for suhoor, the atmosphere becomes more festive and the crowds thicken and remain until well after midnight. At around 10.30, energetic Chinese dancers dressed as lions accompanied by rowdy drums herald the beginning of a more lively few hours. The dancers are involved with the Silk Road part of the nightly Ramadan event. This incorporates food and merchandise stalls along the Al Qasba canal from China, India, Syria and Iran, some of the countries that comprised the old Silk Road trade routes across Asia and the Middle East to the Mediterranean. As well as the energetic antics of the Chinese lion dancers, the brightly coloured Indian puppet show was another popular attraction.
According to Sarkal, Al Qasba is busiest over Ramadan on the weekend evenings. "We get up to 2,500 people on Thursday and Friday nights but it has been as high as 6,000. People are really starting to relate to Al Qasba as a Ramadan destination," he says. But it's not a just a numbers game for Sarkal. "We don't want to have thousands of people here if there aren't enough parking spaces and people aren't happy."
To that end, plans are with an architect for a multi-storey car park for Al Qasba so that more people will be able to enjoy the restaurants, funfair, outdoor spaces and the popular Eye of the Emirates Ferris wheel with its 42 air-conditioned carriages. In the meantime, Sarkal is more concerned with making Al Qasba a place where everyone can be part of Ramadan. Al Qasba has hosted Ramadan celebrations since opening in 2005.
While the Heritage Tent slowly comes alive with Arabic cooking stations, henna painting, traditional basket weaving and stalls selling jewellery, abayas and thobes at one end of Al Qasba, the Al Eman Oasis Tent at the other end fills with people who are keen to listen to the nightly lecture on Islam. Sarkal says that he hopes Muslims and non-Muslims will attend the lectures which are being conducted in Arabic, English and French. There's a separate section for women to sit where they can see and hear the lectures on TV screens. After Ramadan, lectures on Islam in English and Arabic will continue regularly.
"The lectures were big during 2007 but it is bigger again in 2008," says Sarkal. "There have been more than 500 people at some of the lectures - this tent is an asset for us." It is also in the Al Eman Oasis Tent that people can participate in the charity aspect of Ramadan. With zakat, or the giving to charity, as one of the five pillars of Islam, Sarkal says that donation boxes have been provided in the tent and all money raised goes to humanitarian projects that the UAE government is administering. "These projects are in the UAE and beyond," he says. "All sorts of projects - providing people with books, building mosques, hospitals and schools - by making a donation, people can feel like they are part of the whole community."
Drawing crowds into the Heritage Tent after 10pm is the live filming of Munshid Al Sharjah, an Islamic singing contest that Markal likens to a local version of Star Academy. Screening on Sharjah TV, Munshid Al Sharjah has been running for three years with filming taking place at Al Qasba during the week and Academic City on weekends. The contestantscome from nations across the Arab world, including the UAE. For the first time this year, there are participants from Palestine, Morocco and Libya. Contestants can sing songs they have written themselves or those that have been written by others and viewers can vote for the favourites via SMS. All songs are performed without musical accompaniment and during the filming, the pure, clear voices of the contestants can be heard throughout the entire Heritage Tent over the chatter.
The grand prize for the winner is Dh200,000 and a new BMW. Along the way, there are other prizes given out - on our visit, the top six singers won a hot-air balloon ride. Hosted by Mohammed Zaki, who was resplendent in a khaki suit and apricot shirt, Munshid Al Sharjah even has its own Facebook page for fans to discuss who should and shouldn't be voted off. Noor Dubai, an Arabic language station, is doing live broadcasts from the Heritage Tent throughout Ramadan. "We've had a relationship with Noor Dubai for two years - they are very good supporters of Al Qasba, especially at Ramadan," says Sarkal. The conversation is interrupted by a loud comedy voice-over in Arabic followed by much laughter - Sarkal explains that it is the voices of four humorous characters - "some Ramadan comedy", he says with a smile.
In the middle of the Heritage Tent I saw a woman weaving baskets from dried palm fronds. Halima Khodin, an Emirati from Dibba, Fujairah, creates baskets in rich purple and green and explains that the dried fronds used to be dyed using natural dyes but these days, it's easier to go to the supermarket and buy dyes in a range of colours. But Halima hasn't entirely abandoned the traditions she learnt from her mother as a young girl - the main items she weaves include the sarood, a large serving platter for when everyone sits on the floor to eat, the machabeh, which is used to cover food and the jafeer, a food basket that can be hung from the wall. She makes a modest living with baskets selling for between Dh50 and Dh60.
Most of the visitors who arrive at the Heritage Tent late at night are keen to socialise with friends and family and eat a lavish Suhoor to sustain them for the next day's fasting. As well as a cafe set up in a corner, there are women tirelessly cooking traditional Arabic treats and they are happy to share their wares as well as their recipes. Mariam Ali is busy making chaba, Arabic pancakes that are deep fried and served with lashings of honey. At the next stall, Zainab Mohammed is making another regional dessert. Luqimat are dumplings made from sugar, flower, water, saffron and custard. Zainab deftly grabs the batter and transfers it swiftly from bowl to pot while maintaining the spherical shapes of the dumplings. They emerge from the hot oil crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
Moving on from the cooking stations is a row of booths with wooden doors designed to replicate the earliest examples of housing in the UAE. For Dh70, you can get your photo taken decked out in traditional clothing and jewellery and even brandishing replicas of traditional weapons. The gold jewellery includes the mertasha, an impressive neck collar, the hagab, a heavy belt and the tasa, a spectacular headdress that drapes gold and baubles across the forehead.
Aziza, a softly spoken Pakistani woman, has only been in the UAE for a month but has already learnt the intricate art of painting henna tattoos and is busy working on the hands of willing visitors. Within a matter of minutes, she has created a swirling floral design on the hand of Ruby, a cheerful Filipina who is extremely excited about her new skin art and eagerly gets her friends to take photos on their mobile phones. Aziza is very modest about her skill, saying: "It's easy, you can do anything if your mind wants to. I can do patterns, flowers, whatever my mind thinks of."
For Sarkal, the holy month events are part of encouraging a growing awareness of the Al Qasba development. Annual visitor numbers have risen steadily since opening in 2005 with 25,000 visitors. In 2007, there were 226,000 visitors and by June this year, 228,000 people had already passed through Sharjah's waterside haven. "We've changed the perception of the place," he says. "To create change was a challenge but we are getting people from around to see Al Qasba as a place to chill out. Ramadan is very important to us - people have come here because it's a real place, not a fabrication. That's what makes it special." @email:email@example.com