x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

My search for the secrets of the UAE's beating heart

Over the years, I've been to Dubai for short stopovers, marvelling at the growth of the city's buildings, its energy, its importance and of course its traffic. Despite the proximity to Sharjah, I've not yet been to this neighbouring emirate. But I'm excited. And intrigued.

The mere mention of the name "United Arab Emirates" is enough to conjure passionate responses. Even among those who have not visited it, their opinions tend to be polarised between venomous distaste or alluring admiration. And yet their zeal - whichever opinion they opt for - is almost entirely based on what they believe the emirate of Dubai to be. 
But of course as you, my intelligent, well-versed readers will know, Dubai is only one of the seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates.
When it comes to the UAE, I must confess that I fall into the category of Allured Admirer. So when I received an invitation to speak at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which takes place this week, it was impossible for me to refuse.
Over the years, I've been to Dubai for short stopovers, marvelling at the growth of the city's buildings, its energy and its importance  and of course its traffic. Despite the proximity to Sharjah, I've not yet been to this neighbouring emirate. But I'm excited. And intrigued.
I imagine Sharjah to be the genteel, cultured, picturesque older sister of Dubai. Or perhaps an aunt, or grandmother with the wisdom of age and the insight of family, history and culture. I envisage her to be a woman in whose trail is the fragrance of springtime, and whose elegant abaya floats gracefully on a wave of heritage and modernity, as she walks besides her brothers Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Of course, its reputation as a place of culture and museums away from the commercial bustle of Dubai is what gives it this branding. And this is cemented by the fact that my first visit to Sharjah will be to speak at a book fair of 28 years' standing, and where, as an author, I will get to interact with a reading public. This, of course, is one of the greatest joys for a writer.
The two emirates that I am more familiar with - Abu Dhabi and Dubai - intrigue me. They are mysteries to be solved, and whose palpating spirit must surely be hidden beneath their shared reputations for shopping, finance and skyscrapers.
I've also been investigating the lesser-known siblings of Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm al Qaiwain. Will they reveal themselves to me, or must I find tactics to seduce them into unveiling their geographic, cultural and scenic treasures?
I've been scouring the information available to me, trying to find the hidden beauties and cultures of the UAE. But, surprisingly, this is extremely challenging. Whenever I ask locals what there is to do they say: "Shop! And then shop some more!" And all the internet offers are saccharine lists of the "Top 10" places to visit, eat or shop.
Instead, I'm searching for the secrets that will help me locate the throbbing heart of these emirates.
As I write these words, staring out of the rain-flecked window of my home in the damp, cold autumn of London, it is hard to know whether these visions and wishes are of a romantic writer or of someone aching to travel away from the coming, grey cloudy gloom of Britain's wet winter.
Perhaps the answer is simpler than that. Perhaps the UAE will live up to this reverie.
Ask me again after I've returned from the Sharjah International Book Fair and my travels in the UAE, and I will share these secrets with you.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk