You’d be hard-pressed to find an event better suited to take place at the Heart of Sharjah than Sharjah Heritage Days.
The cultural festival brings together the traditions and customs of 29 countries in a three-week programme that kicked off on Saturday.
The event, which ends on Saturday, April 10, transforms the open-air venue near the emirate's creek into a globetrotting adventure, taking you through dizzying Belarusian folk dances, smoky Omani halwa-making stations and more than 500 other cultural performances from around the world, including the UAE.
Stepping through the thermal scanners at the venue's entrance – put in place as a coronavirus precaution – the sound of sombre chants rises from behind the stone and stucco walls. The sound is coming from a group of Emirati men dressed in kanduras, sitting cross-legged and close-eyed on the carpeted floor, rocking gently as they chant poetry. It sounds beautiful, yet melancholic.
Ahmad Mohammed Ahmad Saeed, vice president of the Ras Al Khaimah Folk Arts Association, and one of the men leading the chant, explains the poetry was traditionally recited by Bedouins as they herded camels across the desert.
“They’d miss their loved ones and as they chanted these poems, they’d feel a rush of longing for them,” he says. “Others would chant these poems as a pastime, often in large groups, and even in weddings.
"Everyone had to know the poem being sung otherwise they couldn’t participate. Someone would lead the chant and others would follow, knowing precisely what techniques he was using. And they wouldn’t sit in a semi-circle as we are now, but in two facing lines.”
Saeed says the techniques incorporated in the chanted poetry are less practised today and risk being forgotten. The recital often draws out certain syllables of a word with a heavy vibrato that is difficult to master.
“It takes years of practice, not many people can perform these techniques today,” he says.
Behind, a zebu – a type of cattle – and its handler demonstrate a wooden contraption, suspended above a well, which would have traditionally been used to irrigate farms. Emirati Salem Obaid Al Shbeidi oversees the process, and explains how the device, known as an alyaza, was the primary source of livelihood for many in the region in the past.
“This is how they’d irrigate their farms, their palm trees and vegetables,” he says. “Without it many wouldn’t have water or anything to eat.”
At the Tunisian stand, a man wearing a traditional crimson vest and a chechia runs a sharp blade against pieces of wood. In front of him are deep-bellied drums of various sizes, as well as zukras, broad-lipped wooden flutes, and mizweds, bagpipes made of goat skin.
The man, Bashir Al Aswad, occasionally sets his craft tools aside and picks up one of the instruments to demonstrate its high-pitched timbre. His music, galvanising and upbeat, quickly draws a crowd.
“I’ve been playing and making these instruments for as long as I can remember,” Al Aswad says. “They are deeply ingrained in Tunisian culture and used in all kinds of ceremonies.”
Elsewhere, there are performances from Belarusian folk dancers. Spurred by an uplifting accordion melody, the dancers gyrate – their embroidered skirts widening into vibrant circles of blurred colours – before they hop this way and that, stomping the ground beneath their feet.
“At 76 years old, our dance group is one of the oldest in Belarus,” Igor Muzaleuski, director of the Kryzhachok Dance Ensemble, says. “It was formed at the Belarusian State University and originally was only open to students. But now, as you see, we are all different ages.”
Muzaleuski says it's the first time the group has come to Sharjah, but he hopes it isn’t the last. “The city is picturesque and rich,” he says. “We’re ecstatic to be here. It’s snowing in Belarus now so this change of weather is great.”
The Heart of Sharjah also has an area dedicated to food, most of which is homemade. Among the must-try dishes on offer is regional favourite, halwa. Made in a large steaming pot with almonds, farina, caramelised sugar, rose water, saffron and cardamom, the dessert is one of Oman’s most famous traditional dishes.
Fatteh warak enab is another must-try dish. The Emirati classic is unlike the rolled stuffed vine leaves you find in the Levant. Instead, the leaves are finely chopped and mixed with rice, toasted pita and a range of spices.
Sharjah Heritage Days could not have come at a better time. As the pandemic continues to disrupt travel plans around the world, its cultural offering may be enough to scratch that restless itch. With a bustling schedule planned across the next three-weeks, there's plenty to explore right here.
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