x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Old Sharjah souq a look into yesteryear

Sharjah's historic souq created a marketplace and a neighbourhood that preservationists want to list as a world heritage site.

"Anyone stepping inside this area is transported back to the way people lived, prayed, studied and made a living," says Dr Parween Arif, a folklore expert, of the Heritage Area in Sharjah.

SHARJAH // At first glance, the 200-year-old Souq Al Arsa inside Sharjah's Heritage Area may look like any traditional Arabian marketplace.

But for those who know its story, have seen it open for business throughout the decades, and who regularly take a break inside its only coffee shop, it was one of the first places to show the spirit of a "free-zone" market.

In 1955, when Khalifa Al Saif was just 10, he and two friends headed to Souq Al Arsa a few days before Eid to buy sweets and find the best cloths to bring back to their mothers, who would sew and stitch the material into Eid clothes.

Carrying a few rupees, the three children had choices of cloth carried by "transit" merchants who came from across the sea on dhows, or those who came on camels from across the desert.

These merchants would have free spots in the Al Arsa Saha, or courtyard. Local merchants had permanent, tiny wooden stalls inside the souq.

"You really had to watch your step as you made your way through the parked camels, donkeys and piles of merchandise put on display on the floor of the souq, " said Mr Al Saif, 66. "It was the city centre of Sharjah."

A team from Sharjah's Department of Culture and Information will propose this old neighbourhood as a world heritage site to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

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

"Anyone stepping inside this area is transported back to the way people lived, prayed, studied and made a living," says Dr Parween Arif, the folklore expert at the department and chair of the special local committee working on the Unesco file.

"You can sit in one of the homes' courtyard and simply take it all in and relax."

The homes, built of coral and gypsum, are open for viewing. Visitors can even see the washroom, called "al Adab", derived from a term that means etiquette.

The peaceful, two-storey houses are a great contrast to the structures in the souq.

The souq, along with 85 structures of what is collectively known as "Old Sharjah", includes homes of prominent Emirati families, mosques, informal schools that were once presided over by a mutawa or religious cleric, and a house with the UAE's only circular wind tower.

Anyone coming to the area can still see the majlis of the writer Ibrahim Al Midfa, where the first newspaper of the Trucial States was launched in 1927.

It is just a few steps from Al Eslah school, the UAE's first formal institute.

The school opened 75 years ago and was attended by the Ruler of Sharjah. The school and the majlis are now museums.

Inside the twisted alleys of the souq, roofed over by African sandalwood and palm fronds and kept cool by barajeel or wind towers, there are shops carrying goods ranging from clothes to tools to piles of tobacco.

In the centre of the souq, a money-exchange stall that has lasted to this day was built with the biggest wind tower to accommodate its regulars, the richest merchants in the region.

Life revolved around this open market for the residents and travellers who came to take advantage of it.

After the formation of the UAE in 1971, the camels and donkeys disappeared and air conditioning was introduced. But the reliance on the souq remained, with Mr Al Saif regularly dropping in on his scooter to do his shopping there for his mother.

"She would give me Dh10 and I would buy many sacks of mango, tomato and all sorts of things, with that little money," he said, recalling the 1980s. "Al baqi? [The rest?] she would demand. Even if it was just a dirham."

While the original residents of the area have long left their homes for modern ones nearby, they still come back to the souq to run their family shops.

"The souq was born out of a need and it allowed for anyone to just come and showcase their products or even talents without penalties," said Dr Abdul Sattar Al Azzawi, an archaeologist who has overseen renovations of the area for more than 20 years.

"It was an open market and hence its name, Al Arsa - an old, forgotten term that used to be given to open ground without an owner."