SHARJAH // When Sharjah springs to mind, too often the emirate is associated with what most people experience from their car windows.
“Traffic, urban, populated,” said Hamdan Iqbal, a 21-year-old photographer who recently visited the emirate. “But what people often don’t get, though, is Sharjah is also more cultural. It is staying true to its roots.”
A community outreach initiative operated by the Sharjah Art Foundation is helping to address some misconceptions the public might hold of the third-largest emirate.
The foundation recently hosted a photo tour of its spaces and galleries, which are currently exhibiting large-scale art installations as part of the Sharjah Biennial, and guided guests through historical streets filled with original shops and bakeries.
The idea was to engage participants with the residents and shopkeepers to help tell the story of Sharjah’s rich history, said Hessa Al Ajmani, one of the tour’s organisers.
“A lot of these shops are very, very old,” said Ms Al Ajmani. “They are part of the history here. They are hidden, yet they are so rich in culture. You don’t realise that unless you actually go and talk with these shopkeepers.”
The first stop, adjacent to Al Mureija Square, was a small one-room bakery called Al Muneer operated by three men: one mixing the dough, another rolling it into round, flat pieces and a third who placed the bread into a hot cylindrical clay oven. The bakery has been in the neighbourhood for between 20 and 25 years, according to one of the bakers.
“We are very lucky to have some amazing food in this neighbourhood,” said Nahla Tabbaa, the foundation’s community and outreach programme coordinator and tour guide.
The bakery was at the entrance of a small, unpaved alley lined with tailors and embroidery shops and one gems and jewellery store. The hum of sewing machines filled the air as some other shop keepers sat outside watching the tour group pass by.
“It’s lovely to see the relationship between the tailors here. I don’t feel like they’re competitive, I feel like they are more family,” said Ali Mrad, another community outreach coordinator with the foundation.
Mr Mrad, who lives in Sharjah, said the laid-back shopkeepers embodied the essence of the emirate, “simple and true”.
“Everything here is real. It’s peaceful, family oriented,” said Mr Mrad. “It has so many hidden secrets and beautiful places. The more you walk, the more you discover.”
The tour continued into the Souq Al Arsah, which “is probably the oldest market place in the UAE”, according to the Heart of Sharjah website.
It is here one will find antiques like an old Remington typewriter with Indian origins, John F Kennedy memorabilia and musical instruments from Japan. The prices are negotiable, but as one shopkeeper said, visitors “don’t have to bargain with us”.
“We give them a reasonable price,” said Mohammed Mizan, a Bangladeshi who has worked at the souq for 12 years selling items for Al Nukhbah Persian Carpets & Antiques and its two neighbouring sister stores.
But perhaps one of the biggest attractions in the souq can be found at Honey Moon Studio, a photo shop that has been in operation since 1968. The walls in the small shop are covered floor to ceiling with portraits of Rulers from each emirate and historical photos of Sharjah all taken by owner Mohammed Hamid Durrani.
Mr Durrani, now in his 70s, moved from Lahore to Sharjah in 1967 and has been photographing the emirate’s growth since before the union.
“Before, all they know me very well,” Mr Durrani said of the Rulers. “Before, we have on the main road doing outdoor photography. So we took these pictures of all the sheikhs.”
One of his prized photographs is a framed portrait of a young Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed wearing a grey suit jacket over his kandura and smiling for the camera.
“It’s 1973 I made this picture. He would come here and I take his photograph,” he said. “This is a very important photo.”
Ms Al Ajmani said Mr Durrani’s portraits are true treasures.
“There was such a limited number of photographers back then, so any photographer was important,” she said. “All of these pictures are very rare. Any picture you find is very rare for that time.”
Photographs from the tour have been shared on social media through #SB13Photowalk and #SAFNeighbourhood. For information about future SAF initiatives and programmes, visit sharjahart.org.