Sharjah More than just cricket

There is a lot to see and do in Sharjah, from museums to operas to food
There is a lot to see and do in Sharjah, from museums to operas to food
There is a lot to see and do in Sharjah, from museums to operas to food

Minutes before Air Arabia touched down in Sharjah on a red-eye from Bengaluru, we bumped over low, dark clouds. The April weather &mdash 26 Celsius &mdash so resembled Bangalore (which, the day I left, roasted at 38 Celsius) that I started to feel quite at home. And which Malayalee doesn&rsquot feel at home in the Gulf, where every third person is an Indian, and every second Indian, as the Emiratis know them, a &lsquoMalabari&rsquo

One country cousin volunteered the conspiracy theory that, come weekend, the weather improves remarkably. &ldquoIn Dubai, they seed the clouds for tourists,&rdquo he whispered.

Dubai, unreal as a mirage with its ice caf&eacutes, indoor ski slopes and mall dwelling penguins, is 45 minutes away &mdash except during peak hours when SUV-clogged freeways make the ordeal interminable. Yet, despite the weather that it cannot but borrow from its neighbour, Sharjah tries its utmost to have as little in common as it can with the flashier emirate.

Third in land area and primacy after Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Sharjah was until recently off the tourist map except, of course, when India and Pakistan played some famously memorable (and painfully forgettable) cricket tournaments in the late 1980s and &rsquo90s. Today&rsquos Sharjah is a city-state on the rise. And not merely in terms of its skyline which, though less ambitious than the Viagra-addled pinnacles of Dubai, is more given to aesthetics.

A constitutional monarchy ruled by the Wahhabi Al Qasimi dynasty since the 18th century, Sharjah is the most conservative of the United Arab Emirates, and custodian of the title of Cultural Capital of the region. While that doesn&rsquot mean mounted policemen will crack your elbows with a staff should you so much as reveal your arms, it does mean that you can forget about a tipple when you&rsquore in Sharjah (for that and other vices, Dubai is not far). On the other hand, if you&rsquore into heritage tours and good eating, the city has more than enough to quench your thirst.

Museum Surfing
You could learn more about Bijapur&rsquos Gol Gumbaz at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization than by trawling the National Archives in Delhi. The crown jewel of Sharjah&rsquos 16 museums, this erstwhile souq with its gold-plated dome is a city landmark that curates over 5,000 artefacts including working models,artworks and relics documenting the living history of Islam across the world, replete with video-viewing enclaves, audio tours, cafeteria and bookstore. In 2008, Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, supreme ruler of Sharjah, who is also an aesthete, historian and literary figure, established the Sharjah Museums Department, which also manages the Maritime, Calligraphy and Heritage museums. Kids will delight in the Sharjah Discovery Centre, Aquarium and Science Museum. If automobiles weaken your knees, don&rsquot miss the Classic Cars Museum. And, it will interest you to discover at Al Mahatta Museum that Sharjah had an airport, the oldest in the Emirates, as early as 1932.

A Night at the Opera
Honestly, when handed a gratis ticket to an Islamic opera, I accepted out of polite curiosity. I didn&rsquot expect to be overwhelmed by a phenomenal tableau of sound and light, live music and theatrics that a performance of Clusters of Light &mdash the story of Islam &mdash offered at the magnificent Al Majaz  Amphitheatre on the Corniche. For reasons that became obvious as I watched, tickets (AED 50) are hard to come by free tickets even more. My eyes misted over with gratitude, and the sky with rain. Ponchos were handed out, and lightning only enhanced the onstage drama. I clapped till my palms hurt.

The amphitheatre, which opened in March, has become the cynosure of Al Majaz Waterfront, a recreation area with a kids&rsquo activity centre, a musical fountain, boating on Khalid Lagoon in traditional Middle-Eastern abras, and a raft of dining options.

History, Strung with Pearls
Sharjah&rsquos history of settlement dates back 5,000 years. Pearl fishers, who built structures of coral plastered with ground seashells, inhabited the shores where the Emirate, which has land on the coasts of both the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, now stands. Pearl fishingeb bed after Japan began to culture the coveted jewels, and Sharjah receded into obscurity. Restoration is ongoing at this Unesco heritage site, which aims to recreate the city as it appeared half a century ago, before the discovery of oil changed its fortunes. By the time it is ready in 2025, Heart of Sharjah will concentrate the city&rsquos museums, studios and crafts institutes in this heritage precinct.

Mosques Unmasked
A mosque-hop of Sharjah isn&rsquot a practical idea for two reasons one, there are nearly 600 of them two, most do not allow entry to non-Muslims. The Ottoman-inspired Al Noor Mosque, with its cascading domes, is far too tempting. It is one of the city&rsquos newer mosques, opened in 2005 by order of the wife of the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed al Qassimi. The Sharjah Centre for Cultural Communication opens the mosque to tour groups by prior appointment, and it helps immensely that Sherifa Madgwick, a vivacious Briton from West Sussex married into an Emirati family, leads the interpretative tour. Guests are required to dress conservatively (abayas are provided to women at the entrance) and the illumining visit includes, besides an overview of the Pillars of Islam and the architecture of the mosque, an introduction to Emirati attire and etiquette. Questions, even radical ones, are invited and answered with Sherifa&rsquos doughty British humour.

Wheel of a Time
Dubai is erecting a 210-metre ferris wheel that will dwarf every other in the world. Till such time, its modest cousin, the 60-metre Eye of the Emirates, turns with a non-competitive air at Al Qasba. This is Sharjah&rsquos Venice, minus the gondoliers, but with everything from pizzerias to concert arenas. The 10,000-hectare waterfront, equidistant from Dubai and Sharjah airports, is packed on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays).

Back to School
About 12 km from the city centre, landscaped gardens skirt a cluster of almost identical buildings with colonnaded fa&ccedilades and stately domes. This is Sharjah University City, enfolding within its 1,600 acres the University of Sharjah, the American University, a police academy, colleges of fine arts, law, management, engineering, dentistry and medicine for men and women, and other institutions and libraries. Sharjah University, besides being the largest in the region, is private and non-profit. For nature lovers, a tour of the verdant, bird-filled campus is a veritable walk in the park.

All You Can Eat
Sharjah abounds in cuisines and restaurants to enjoy them at. The perquisite of conservatism is that nearly all places are kid-friendly, and likewise the spread. Wash it down with fresh juices, sodas or plenty of qahwa (rosewater-infused Arabic coffee). Highly recommended are K&oumlsebas (Sahara Mall, 971-6-574-4777, for authentic Anatolian cuisine, Sammach (Boardwalk, Sharjah Aquarium-Al Khan Corniche Street, 971-6-528-0095) on the Boardwalk at Sharjah Aquarium for scrumptious Emirati seafood, and the tasteful ambience of El Manza (Al Majaz 2, 971-6-552-1882 at Al Majaz waterfront for exquisite Moroccan cuisine.

Till you Drop
You&rsquoll never be far from a souq in the Emirates. Though shopping isn&rsquot as obscenely rampant a compulsion as it is in Dubai, Sharjah makes ample room for mall rats at the Sahara Centre (, Safeer Mall ( and Sharjah City Centre ( I was more charmed by the Central Souq, built in 1978, with an adorably kitschy Arabic fa&ccedilade pictured on a 5 Dirham note. Glittery gold-and-jewel stores occupy an entire wing and, while the clothing stores are tacky, great bargains can be had on perfumes and watches. Traditional bazaars full of local colour are to be found on the rougher side of town. An hour&rsquos drive towards the coastal Emirate of Fujeirah is Masafi, where the Friday Market is a huge draw. Bargain for anything from carpets to souvenirs, utensils, fish and meat, fruits, vegetables, flowers and garden plants at the incense-scented stalls lining the highway.

Been There, Dune That
How can you not go dune-bashing in the Emirates Though tours are booked in Sharjah, most operators tend to drive you into Dubai territory, where the after-party includes alcohol, and some risqué, but in authentic, belly dancing performed by Ukrainian dancers. After all the bumping around, soothe your upturned bowels with meat, kebabs and carnival games.

The information

Getting there Air Arabia ( flies to nine Indian cities including Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. Fares (round-trip) from Rs 20,000 (ex-Delhi).

Currency 1 AED = Rs 17

Where to stay Sharjah has a range of luxury, mid-range and budget hotels. Offering the best views of Khalid Lagoon from the Corniche are Hilton Sharjah (from AED 500 971-6-519-2222, and Copthorne Hotel (from AED 374 971-6-593-0555,

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