x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sharjah in bid to become a world heritage site

Sharjah preservationists are compiling a list of historical places in the emirate to include in an application for a world heritage site, on par with Egypt's pyramids and India's Taj Mahal.

Sharjah preservationists are compiling a list of historical places in the emirate to include in an application for a world heritage site, on a par with Egypt's pyramids and India's Taj Mahal. This picture, from Gulf Antiques, shows Sharjah’s heritage area circa 1955.
Sharjah preservationists are compiling a list of historical places in the emirate to include in an application for a world heritage site, on a par with Egypt's pyramids and India's Taj Mahal. This picture, from Gulf Antiques, shows Sharjah’s heritage area circa 1955.

SHARJAH // Only a few decades have passed since people travelled from across the Emirates to Souq Al Arsa in Sharjah for wood and other vital commodities.

Piles of goods were carried on camels, which were often raced from the docking dhows to the heart of the market as merchants sought to catch the earliest buyers.

The souq's name is an old expression for something dried up, like the wood that was once traded there.

However, except for the recollections of a handful of surviving elders, the heritage behind the 200-year-old market has been all but forgotten.

"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.

To keep the history alive, Dr Arif and a team of experts at the department launched two major projects at the end of last year.

One of them, called "memory of a place", has the team travelling to Emirati villages and sitting with elders to document their memories.

The other, more ambitious project involves putting together a file on "Old Sharjah" - marked as Sharjah's heritage area on maps - and nominating the area as a possible world heritage site.

If successful, the area would join a list that includes Egypt's pyramids and India's Taj Mahal.

"It will be very tough but we have to try," said Dr Arif, who is chairing the committee of six set up at the end of last year to focus on presenting the oldest residential and market portions of Sharjah to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Last June, the world heritage committee made Al Ain the first UAE site on the list.

Work on the Al Ain file began in 2003, and was submitted in 2008 to Unesco by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). The submission was made in cooperation with the National Council for Tourism and Antiquities.

Classified as a "cultural site", the winning places in Al Ain included its six oases and some of its most important archaeological areas of Bida bint Saud, Hafeet and Hili.

"Any site that makes it to the international list has the advantage of getting advice on how to best preserve it from experts from around the world," said Dr Arif.

By next April, the team hopes to have collected enough information to start putting together a proper file.

Already a tourist destination, the Sharjah site has traditional homes, several that belonged to pearl divers and fishermen.

Some of the homes have been turned into museums of art and heritage, such as a museum of traditional toys and games, and another on calligraphy.

Besides Souq Al Arsa, there are smaller souqs nestled along the narrow alleys, along with a mosque, bits of an old fort and one-roomed offices still used by staff of the Department of Culture and Information.

"The old Sharjah is still alive and in use, with its market still a beating heart throughout the year, and on special festivals it is a meeting and celebration point for culture and art," said Dr Arif.

But it is not only officials who are working to revive the past. Independent Emirati researchers are also playing a part in "saving memories".

"To the older generation like myself, who grew up playing in the sand and walking to school, so many places have a special memory for us," said Fatima Al Naqbi, a writer and researcher in heritage. "Today's generation lives in the virtual world, relying on the internet, BlackBerry and iPhones, with no real place with memories."

Speaking as a guest at a two-day conference on "memory of a place" that began on Tuesday at Sharjah Women's College, part of the Higher Colleges of Technology, Mrs Al Naqbi presented a list of examples of places whose stories behind the names have been forgotten.

"Many of the areas and streets we have today were named after a water source that people relied on back then that have dried up," she said.

Examples of such names of neighbourhoods across the UAE include Al Ghobaybia, which refers to "Al Ghoba", or deep water, while Falaj refers to the underwater channels of water.

Areas were also named after vegetation, such as the Al Sedari neighbourhood in Kalba, which still has the original Ziziphus spina-christi tree - known locally as Sedar - that has been growing for decades.

"It is haunted and so no one has dared to cut it down," Mrs Al Naqbi said with a laugh.

Major incidents such as fires, shipwrecks and wars were used for years.

"Someone born in 1951 was said to be born in the year of Harqa, referring to the year of a major fire that destroyed Kalba," Mrs Al Naqbi said.

With streets and areas being renamed with more "modern" titles, especially replacing those with Jinn (supernatural creatures) or archaic references, experts fear the original names will be forgotten.

"Every name before had a memory and even if we change it, we need to save this memory for the sake of our children," Mrs Al Naqbi said.

rghazal@thenational.ae