Sharjah:15 hours in the Cultural Capitol of the Arab World    

The Sharjah skyline

I had never heard of Sharjah until, while searching for a cheap flight to India, I came across it as a layover point between Tehran and Delhi. Hmm... Sharjah... Where's that? I assumed it must be in Saudi Arabia because the stop over was on Air Arabia. I didn't look into it further until, after realizing we couldn't get Indian visas in Iran, we were looking for other route alternatives. The cheapest, most logical option was Kathmandu via Sharjah. Sharjah is not in Saudi Arabia but in the United Arab Emirates. It is described as a sleeper community where people who work in Dubai live because it is cheaper than living in Dubai. This evoked exciting images in my mind of.... Fresno! Or.... Riverside! Doing a bit more research, I found the Sharjah Tourism website which describes Sharjah as the “cultural capitol of the Arab World.” The website listed the historic Heritage District, an arts district and so many museums I wasn't able to check them all before I lost our Internet connection.

A brand new art museum had recently opened. Add to this a location on the Arab Gulf, Sharjah didn't sound too shabby. At least, I figured, we could find something to do for our 15 hour layover.

Rowshan's parents drove us to the airport this morning. Somewhere, not anywhere near the airport, Rowshan's dad's car broke down. He said it was a fuse and sent Rowshan digging through the glove compartment for an extra he had. Once Rowshan found it, he, his mom, and I grabbed a taxi and left his dad to fix the car. At the airport we checked in then went back out through security to say “bye” to Rowshan's mother and father (who had fixed the car and was pulling into the airport).

We went back through the security. I had to go through the women's side. Meanwhile the male security guy informed Rowshan he was, “dressed suspiciously.” For future reference to anyone traveling in Iran, “suspicious dress” is neutral colored travel plants (the kind that dry quickly and the legs can be zipped off into shorts), a black Thai cotton long sleeved shirt with ornamental neck embroidery, and hiking shoes. One has to feel sorry for Rowshan. In the US the airport security finds him suspicious because he is Iranian. In Iran the airport security finds him suspicious because he wears travel clothing. The security guy let him through anyway. We managed to leave Iran without any further problems and soon we had crossed the Arab Gulf and were descending over rippled beige sands dotted with scraggy plants, and landed in the Sharjah airport.

Upon leaving the airport, I was struck by a wave of balmy heat (the temperature was 29 degrees C)as well as a faint scent of the sea which managed to drift above the smell of the car exhaust.

The bus to the center (#14) had only one other person on it. The driver signaled to me to sit in one of the front seats marked “Ladies only”. He wouldn't let Rowshan sit next to me so Rowshan sat in one of the seats behind. The bus left the airport and headed down a straight road over flat desert which seemed to be quickly being developed and covered with newly constructed houses and palm trees. Above the flat flat landscape, white and cream minarets rose in slender pinnacles which caught the light of the golden sun.

We were moving along at a good pace through empty streets when all of a sudden the bus came to a halt. Ahead of us was a big line of trucks. In the distance we could see the skyscrapers of downtown. It took an hour to go the couple kilometers to the downtown. A little farther down the street, the bus stopped at a legitimate bus stop. Within a few minutes it was full of young men who were definitely not Arab. They were probably workers from Nepal or India. The driver herded them on making sure each paid and a few times rather rudely threw one or two off. Rowshan, seeing the crowd of men boarding, jumped into the seat next to me. The driver approved and let him stay though later when one other woman boarded, Rowshan stood up and let her sit.

Dismayed, we saw the sun set, a glowing ball behind industrial buildings. By the time we got off the bus it was dark. We walked towards the lagoon past restaurants and cafeterias. However, instead of shwarma, the smells of Indian curry drifted from them. Along the Khaled lagoon was a paved path following the shore with benches. Next to the path was a manicured lawn dotted with palm trees.

Palm trees at night
Across the water was a skyline reminiscent of cities in the US. In fact, with the skyline across the water, the smell of ocean, the palm trees and the balmy air, it made me think of San Diego. Across from the park there was even several US fast food joints: KFC, Pizza Hut, and Burger King (McDonalds was on the next street over.) After 3 weeks in Iran and 3 months in Central Asia, it was an odd feeling being in some place so modern and heavily influenced by the US. In the park, people jogged, couples strolled and families had picnics on the grass. We ate our lunch which Rowshan's mom had provided, then walked up the path admiring the Al Noor mosque and the Central Souq. Both were lit so they seemed like they were carved from alabaster. The Souq was decorated with rows of fake wind towers. The tourist info brochure says it was the first souq with air conditioning (assuming of the electronic variety) which made the fake wind towers kind of ironic.

The Al Noor Mosque

The Central Souq
From the park the city seemed very rich, modern and elegant. However, I was eager to leave in search of the Heritage District. The historic area, we walked away from the water and soon were in a busy, though perhaps slightly seedy area of stores, “cheap” hotels, lots of men and very few women. The signs were in Arabic and English but the dominant smell was still curry and most of the restaurants served Indian food. The Heritage district isn't obvious because its buildings are hidden behind the new skyscrapers. I saw the space behind the skyscrapers (ie. an area lacking skyscrapers) before I saw the low stone/coral buildings.

It was getting late so most of the buildings were closed, however we were able to wander around. The area was peaceful and quiet. The buildings were let by small lanterns along the walls. Some were on open squares. Others were right next to each other with narrow mysterious looking paths between.

The buildings were calm and simple with pretty wind towers rising above them from the inside. The walls were smooth covered with either plaster or adobe. Though some walls showed stone or coral (as I think I've read). People were mostly just using the area to cut through to the other side but in some places groups of men sat on the ground talking.

uilding in the Heritage District
Though I would have liked to eat a meal of Gulf food, most of the food options seemed to be Indian or US fast food. Finally we found a chicken shwarma place and we got a chicken sandwich and stuffed grape leaves. By the time we finished it was midnight. We thought there was a bus to the airport at 1 but it turned out R and the bus driver misunderstood each other. R was piecing together Arabic words to ask what time the last bus was creating a phrase “time bus night”. The driver answered “one”. Later we decided the driver had interpreted it as asking how long the bus trip was and answered “one” meaning “one hour” not “one o'clock” as we had believed. We easily caught a taxi to the airport.

After more espresso (we had coffee drinks earlier as well), we killed time waiting for our flight to board (check-in at 4:15AM, boarding 6:45). The waiting area beyond passport control is a makeshift dormitory with people sleeping on chairs stretched out with blankets on the floor. We found a couple seats in the less crowded area and settled down to watch the time go by.

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