x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Breathing life into Sharjah's heritage

Sharjah's world heritage project should promote local knowledge about the emirate's history.

A lady in white who roams a pearl merchant's abandoned majlis only to disappear after a fleeting glimpse; and a Sedar tree, also reputed to be haunted, that has lent its name to an entire neighbourhood - these are two among many stories that should be vital links to Sharjah's past. Instead, they are all but forgotten except by older residents who have kept them alive largely by word of mouth.

The Old Sharjah project launched last month seeks to promote the emirate's cultural and historical sites for international recognition. If successful, that would put Sharjah's old markets and residential areas in honourable company with Egypt's pyramids and India's Taj Mahal, not to mention Al Ain's oases and archaeological sites.

Unesco's recognition would be welcome, and is now more likely since the UAE's election to the UN agency's board. But the effort is important regardless of the result. In a day when high-rise architecture and 12-lane motorways typify the direction of development, it is worth restoring the connections to the past that are present in each of Sharjah's traditional homes and byways.

And it is not always a matter of the remote past. Souq Al Arsa at the heart of Old Sharjah was built 200 years ago on a principle of a free zone for trade, the same principle that drives commercial expansion across the Emirates today.

In the popular imagination, Sharjah may not always enjoy the same international profile as Dubai, the status as the seat of the federation as Abu Dhabi, or the stunning landscapes and ancient petroglyphs of Ras Al Khaimah. But to forget its history would be to lose part of the union. "Those who really know the stories and histories behind places are either dying or already dead," said Dr Parween Arif, the folklore expert at the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information.

It is capturing the imagination that is essential. During Ramadan, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation opened an exhibition on the history, culture and art of the Muslim world. In April, the Sharjah Heritage Days festival celebrated the city proper as well as places such as Kalba, Wadi Al Helou and Khorfakkan.

This Unesco bid is another opportunity, through the schools and public awareness campaigns, to rekindle local knowledge about those old stories.