UAE: A trip down memory lane with Sharjah Heritage Days
Every aspect of Arab culture and heritage has been delicately recreated, featuring traditional food, homes, clothes, decoration, alongside re-enactments of village life.
After navigating through a complex network of narrow and congested roads to get to the very heart of Sharjah, a myriad of external stimuli not surprisingly took me down a genuinely immersive trip down memory lane late last week.
A right turn from Hisn Avenue, located near the historic district of Sharjah reminded me of how my parents would force my siblings and me to visit the UAE places with immense historical and cultural value in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai.
It’s almost like time travel. My father arrived here in 1992, and a family trip to the historic districts most weekend was mandatory. Even though I’d stubbornly use my Walkman during all these ‘forced’ visits, Arab heritage and culture had knowingly or unknowingly become a big part of identity in the few growing up years I spent in Sharjah.
Not the concrete jungles, but the whiff of aromatic oud, faint sounds of the rababa (traditional stringed instrument), and the sizzling of raqaq (Emirati crepes) being cooked on a giant aluminium Tawa are smells and sounds of a place I’d lovingly learned to call home.
18 years of Sharjah Heritage Days
A visit to the Sharjah Heritage Days, an ongoing cultural extravaganza organised by the Directorate of Heritage, Department of Culture and Information served as a journey into the past. In its 18th year, the annual event is organised at the Heart of Sharjah, the region’s most significant historical preservation and restoration project.
It coincides with UNESCO’s celebrations of the Heritage International Day during April every year. The festival is a rich and vibrant showcase of the unique customs and traditions of 29 nations around the world. The festival began on March 20 and will conclude on April 10.
If roosters crowing in the distance and the bellowing of a bull are sounds you would not expect to hear in a desert environment, think again. Think opportunities to sink your teeth into the indulgent gelatinous sweet that is a symbol of Omani hospitality are a matter of the past? Think again! Every aspect of traditional culture has been recreated, featuring traditional food, homes, clothes, decoration, and village life re-enactments.
Cultural extravaganza amid a pandemic
Keeping in mind Covid-19 protocols, the central courtyards at Heart of Sharjah come alive every evening with colourful performances of traditional Emirati Ayyala and Andima arts dances, in addition to folk shows from Belarus, Kazakhstan, India and Lebanon. Other participating nations include Macedonia, Bashkortostan, Tajikistan, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Maldives, Yemen, Egypt, Italy, Spain, France and Sudan, in addition to the guest of honour, Montenegro.
Abdulaziz Al Musallam, chairman of the Sharjah Institute for Heritage and chairman of the Higher Committee of Sharjah Heritage Days, had said during the opening ceremony, “This year, Sharjah Heritage Days is being held under exceptional circumstances.”
He added, “The festival’s theme ‘Cultural heritage gathers us’ seeks to emphasise that heritage is a bridge between people and plays an especially vital role in shaping the intellects and experiences of younger generations as they forge their way into the future.”
The World Heritage village undergoes 30-minute sterilisation after each activity and visitor entry is limited to 3,000 on weekdays and 6,000 during the weekend. Finding a good parking spot might be a bit of a hassle; arrive early to enjoy the festivities.
All things Emirati
Sharjah Heritage Days have paid a great deal of care and attention to highlight the best aspects of Emirati culture. For example, the ‘agriculture environment’, where women were seen engaged in the Emirati craft of palm frond weaving or ‘Safeefah’. Products crafted include baskets of varying sizes, food covers, rugs, and mats.
On the other hand, I saw men weaving larger bags to pack ripe dates while also fashioning ropes and cords from the coarse sheath. If you are lucky, you can spot a farmer making his way up the trunk of the date palm with the Habool, a broad climbing belt, for support.
Eight Emirati traditional arts and dances — Ayyala, Nuban, Andima, Razif and Rawahh, Harbiya, Liwa, Habban, and Daan — are on display.
Taste of Oman
The festival is a paradise for those with a sweet tooth. Sarfaraz, a skilled halwa maker at the 60-year-old Al Omani Sweet Factory daily churns out 40 kg of the famed Omani halwa that is the cornerstone of every social gathering in the region.
As he stirs the bubbling caramelised sugar in a large round copper pot, the sweet aroma draws a crowd of onlookers. Continuously stirring with a large, flat spoon, to ensure that no lumps are formed, he throws spoonfuls of saffron-infused rose water into the copper vessel.
Six main ingredients go into the vessel — cornstarch, saffron, ghee, plain or caramelised sugar, rose water and powdered cardamom. Special varieties are created with the addition of nuts. Three hours later, the sticky sweet halwa is ready to serve.
Traditionally served with coffee (gahwa), the Omani halwa is enjoyed at any social event, be it weddings or religious festivals, funeral or birth, said Issam Al-Siyabi, who manages eight outlets of the Al Omani Sweet Factory in the UAE, originally founded by his father.
“Omani halwa is a symbol of our ancient cultural heritage, and has been in existence for centuries; traditionally passed down from generation to generation,” said Al-Siyabi. “You can serve it to kings and the common man, and it will be welcomed everywhere,” he added, “The recipe has not changed since 1961,” he asserts, and judging by the crowds, its exquisite flavour has only intensified over the years.
Oldest cradle of civilisation – Iraq
Iraq pavilion at the heritage festival takes visitors on an intriguing journey back into Iraq’s prosperous days and its ancient history from the time it was known as Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilisation.
Zahra Yassin, one of the stall managers, said all the unique characteristics of the wares and paintings make them uniquely Iraqi — the jewellery with blue beads to ward off the evil eye or leather wall hangings featuring old Sumerian script. Others sport symbols and images of all the things and civilisations Mesopotamia was known for in the past: the old cities, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate.
A corner of the stall is set up like the famous Al Mutanabbi street in Baghdad, a 1,000-year-old books market and the centre of the city’s literary and intellectual community. More curiosities are displayed in the form of now discontinued currency notes, and perhaps the most attractive of all — the traditional Hashimi outfits were worn by the women at the stall, featuring silver and gold embroidery and even Arabic script.
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Handicrafts from Sudan
Sudan pavilion has an eclectic fusion of wares, with intricately worked and embossed leather bags, traditional items like wicker baskets, jewellery boxes carved with inlaid shell, and plenty of leather wall hangings in animal and wildlife motifs.
Vibrant varieties of the misbaha
From natural and milky-white amber to golden-tinged and multi-hued variants of the stone in orange, clear, cherry, yellow, and more, the Sharjah Rosary stand paid tribute to the beauty of Kahraman, a specific type of amber, that has been used to craft its large collection of misbaha or prayer beads. The pavilion displays an eclectic collection of prayer beads of different sizes, designs, colours and materials.
Get a taste of UAE’s childhood at the Namlet dukkan
Namlet, the UAE’s first and now vintage soft drink was popular up until the 1970s. Considered to be the first soda drink introduced to the GCC countries, dating back to the 1920s, before all the famous sodas were introduced to the region, Namlet was originally available in three flavours — lemon, orange and rose. The drink was hugely popular because it was one of the few treats at the time and for its packaging in transparent Codd-neck glass bottles with the marble stopper inside.