Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

'The Sharjah way': why a visit to the northern emirate can soothe the soul

It's my go-to destination when I want to remind myself of the things that matter

A view of Buhaira Corniche in Sharjah. Sharjah's economy is projected to grow 2.3 per cent in 2019 and 2.5 per cent in 2020, S&P says.  Pawan Singh / The National
A view of Buhaira Corniche in Sharjah. Sharjah's economy is projected to grow 2.3 per cent in 2019 and 2.5 per cent in 2020, S&P says.  Pawan Singh / The National

My friends were looking at me amused. It was as though they had never seen someone actually enjoying an evening picnic before.

I was having an amazing time. It wasn’t exactly riveting or exciting, but having shawarmas with a bunch of my mates on a mild night in a ­Sharjah park was positively soothing.

This type of simplicity was ­exactly what I needed. We were one of many groups of friends and family members gathered together in the grass beside the serene Buhaira Corniche.

Like many others, we had brought a few picnic chairs, a deck of playing cards, a flask of delicious cardamom tea made by my friend’s mother and a ­collection of stories to share until the early hours. I didn’t even need to look at my phone. I told the group this was positively therapeutic. They laughed and my Jordanian friend, Salah, a proud “Sharjawi”, told me our authentic catch-ups were merely “the ­Sharjah way”.

This is why I love returning to this emirate occasionally. It is my secret getaway. If you can get over the driving distance (two-and-a-half-hours from Abu Dhabi on a good day) and initial Mumbai-­esque traffic ­conditions, you will be rewarded with an ­experience that reminds you of what really matters in life.

This comes from the emirate’s charming lack of pretension. While its museums are fabulous, there is no real tourism precinct here. Its appeal comes from its family-friendly focus. From Al Majaz Waterfront to the Flag Island park, everything here caters to people who want to congregate and spend quality time together.

The Buheirah Corniche in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National
The Buhaira Corniche in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National

But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it solo. I often head to Sharjah to unwind after ­particularly stressful work ­periods in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I book an affordable hotel room on the Buhaira Corniche and spend the weekend at a relaxed pace. This includes a morning run in Al Mamzar Beach Park ­before I tuck into possibly my ­favourite UAE restaurant dish.

I found it three years ago in the low-key Cafe Berlin, which is about as German as its speciality fajitas. Located in the coastal Al Majaz district, it has the most authentic chicken Parmigiana in the country. As a former ­Australian resident, where this dish is a family staple, it is a bold claim. However, after many visits, I can assure you the grub is legit.

At sunset, I always make a stop at the stunning Al Noor Mosque for the maghrib prayer. ­It overlooks a lagoon and is built in a ­classic ­Ottoman style, with dreamy ­interiors that are suitable for a good dose of reflection.

It is the kind of contemplation that has also beguiled many of the Arab world’s leading music stars over the years. I cover the entertainment scene for The ­National, and I often report on the major concerts in this ­emirate. During those backstage ­interviews, the artists’ affection for Sharjah is genuine.

“This place has a vibe that I love,” Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf told me before his sold-out show at the Al Majaz Amphitheatre in February this year. “It is calm and the people are just easy-going. There is an integrity here. The people and the city know who they are, if that makes sense.”

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, August 6, 2019. The Al Noor Mosque shot from Al Buhaira Tower, Corniche Street. Victor Besa/The National Section: UAE Stock Images Tags: Sharjah, Khalid Lake, Mosque, UAE Summer
Saeed Saeed loves to visit the Al Noor Mosque. Victor Besa / The National

“This place has a vibe that I love,” Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf told me before his sold-out show at the Al Majaz Amphitheatre in February this year. “It is calm and the people are just easy-going. There is an integrity here. The people and the city know who they are, if that makes sense.”

It is a sentiment also shared by Sami Yusuf. The British singer and songwriter, known for his ­devotional songs, said the ­emirate has always served as a source of inspiration in his career. He said it best when he ­described Sharjah as being blessed with a form of “sakinah” – an Arabic word mentioned in the Quran to denote tranquillity. “You don’t know what it is about it but you just feel it,” he said. “I feel centred in Sharjah and this is why I have a studio here where I work.”

When I tell the guys at our picnic this, they beam at me with a knowing smile. “Look, like ­everywhere else, each city has its own challenges,” Salah said. “But we deal with it in our own way. We try not to stress too much and, as long as our family and friends are with us, it will be fine. I told you, it’s the Sharjah way.”

Updated: October 17, 2019 04:09 PM

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