x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Urban Sharjah: A celebration of the ordinary

Sharjah has launched hop-on, hop-off bus tours of the city as part of a push to entice tourists from Al Noor Mosque to the Islamic Museum to the Blue Souq, it is pitching itself as a family-centric destination.

View of the city from the sightseeing bus in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National
View of the city from the sightseeing bus in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National

Quick, think of adjectives to describe the urban part of Sharjah.

Many may not consider these: lively, exciting, interesting, great, stunning, enjoyable, memorable, famous, amazing, breathtaking, striking, beautiful, astonishing, charming and exceptional. Yet the narrative for the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tours launched in Sharjah last month, works to embody those terms, showing a totally different side of Sharjah and its traffic snarls, that many may never have considered.

Like many people, the only time I've ever stopped in the urban part of Sharjah was involuntarily while trying to negotiate a traffic jam. Certainly I was familiar with the excellent diving at Khor Fakkan, the challenging 4x4 routes and hikes through the Hajar mountains, and the country's most popular dunebashing destination, Big Red.

But urban Sharjah? It was an unknown, despite being right on my doorstep.

The emirate's challenge in promoting itself is that it is situated right next to Dubai's tourism destinations. How do you promote the world's highest ice rink, for example, when you're almost in the shadow of the world's highest building?

Inevitably, this tour had to offer something very different from the glamour and glitz just up the road.

On a weekday morning last week, I bought a 24-hour pass for the recently inaugurated sightseeing bus and meandered through downtown Sharjah for the first time.

City Sightseeing, the company contracted to run the bus tours for Surooq, operates on every continent but Antarctica, but this is its first foray into the Middle East. The double-decker bus is specially modified for local conditions, with a larger air-conditioned section than used in markets such as London, New York and Sydney.

The Dh85 ticket is valid for 24 hours, but as if to highlight the quirkiness of the visit, the ticket was printed on thermal paper like a receipt from a discount grocery story, and the brochure was essentially a fuzzy photocopy of the original.

"As you can see from the modern high-rises, Sharjah is a modern, developed city. All this development has been in the last 40 years," the commentary began.

"Before the discovery of oil, this was a simple fishing village. The people who lived here were nomads. They would move inland for the protection of the mountains in the cooler winter months.

"Nowadays we don't rely only on oil and we have a thriving and diversified economy."

The basics of Arabic culture are traversed: the requirements of Islam, the different types of calls to prayer by the muezzin, hunting with salukis and falcons and the ancient dual use of the igal as a head dress and a camel tether while travelling.

"In days past, it took three days to get to Dubai," the announcement said.

Attractions include an excellent aquarium, Al Jubail vegetable market, the canalside Al Qasba area, Al Majaz waterfront park and the undeniably pleasant waterfront of lagoons.

But the quirks shine through. The high-rise ahead of me, I'm told, is home to Sky24, the highest ice skating rink in the world, on the 24th floor.

"Look ahead to the domed building. This is Al Noor mosque. It was inspired by the Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul, Turkey."

"Usually mosques are off limits to visitors. This mosque is an exception. It's the only one in Sharjah that allows non-Muslim visitors inside."

But there are two within sight when the comment is made, which makes identifying the right mosque seem rather more pertinent.

We move on to the Blue Souq, also known as the Central Souq, described on the commentary as resembling a series of train carriages, where I am advised there are 600 shops selling goods including gold and carpets.

"Make sure to visit the heart of Sharjah, a heritage project" - and I'm about to take the advice and hop off the bus when I hear - "that will be completed by 2025."

But I jump off anyway. When it is complete, this zone will include commercial, cultural and residential projects. Among the places open now is the home of a pearl merchant, Mohamed Al Mazroua, who lived here with his family until he passed away in 1977.

Now it serves as a kind of living museum of Emirati architecture and traditional crafts, though few of the craft displays were open that day. Just outside the house are the remains of coral-block homes, including the remains of a wooden wind tower that clearly dates from the time when it really served as air conditioning.

Yet perhaps nothing underscored the appeal of Sharjah better. Vestiges of the old part remain, having survived to the point where they are now valued and preserved.

The rest of the tour mixes the enticing (ancient grenades filled with scorpions and snakes displayed at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation) to the banal ("on your right are the municipal offices", "the plant ahead provides desalinated water").

When the commentary ended abruptly, I decided to repeat the section on another bus and discovered it was simply a fault, rather than that they ran out of things to say while going past the backdrop of ordinary life: mobile-phone traders, typing centres and shops.

That is when it dawned on me that Sharjah celebrates its simplicity in the same way that Dubai celebrates its otherworldliness with the biggest, the tallest and the most expensive.

The commentary hints at this. Among the sites is - inevitably - a mall, but the description as a shopper's paradise for tax-free brand names comes with this: "Some locals believe that this is one modern tradition that Emirati society could well do without."

"We ask that visitors in Sharjah be respectful of our culture. Westerners may need to adopt our dress standard and fit in with us," the announcement says.

And perhaps that's the tenor of the place.

When I emerge from two laps of the bus tour, I finally get it: Sharjah is pitching itself as a deliberately family-centric version of the bigger cities of the UAE rather than just a smaller version of them. Don't come looking for bigger and better, come looking for normal life as many of us may desire it.