History, heritage and heart

A doll-making tent will be among the highlights at the Sharjah heritage carnival from now through April 20.

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The 10th Sharjah heritage days carnival has begun, a colourful celebration of Emirati traditions and culture. This year's theme aims to stimulate the senses, using everything from Arabic cuisine to doll making. Rym Ghazal reports

Their faces are white and blank until Hooriya Faraj draws in their eyes with her special pen. Made of white cotton, with round, football-shaped heads, the handmade "Al Kura" dolls are "little Emiratis".

The male figurines are dressed in white kanduras and traditional head gear, while the females are in colourful thoubs or dresses, with head scarves and burqas.

Ms Faraj can make each one in less than an hour and she encourages others to try, too.

"You can come and make your own mini-Emirati doll," said Ms Faraj, in her 30s, a member of the Emirati artisan group and one of the coordinators of this year's "Sharjah's heritage days" event.

In its 10th year, the carnival, set up in the heart of old Sharjah - known as the Sharjah Heritage area - continues until April 20 under the slogan "a decade of heritage".

This year's theme includes a celebration of the "five senses". The sense of sight will be celebrated with colourful activities. Smell will be represented by a perfume and traditional incense burning, hearing will ring in with drums and singing and taste will be fed with Emirati and other Arabian cuisine. Last but not least, doll making will honour the sense of touch.

"It is a lot of fun. You make the dolls from scratch," Ms Faraj said. "You sew their clothes using traditional sewing techniques and crafts and design them whatever way you want."

Inside two tents fashioned out of palm-tree fronds and stalk, more than 12 elder Emirati women work from 4pm to 10pm each day, and later on the weekends. They teach traditional cooking, handcrafts and doll making.

Different workshops are run every night and all are free.

Among the handicrafts they teach is Al Sadu, a traditional form of weaving practiced by Bedouin women in the UAE and across the Arabian Peninsula.

It was added last year to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) global list of traditions "in need of urgent safeguarding".

The raw material for Al Sadu is shaved off of sheep, goats and camels, so its traditional colours are white, black and orange.

Visitors who come into the tent get to sit with the elders in a circle and chat away as they learn to weave intricate geometric and floral designs.

Other crafts taught includes the popular "Al Tali", found in traditional women's wear, consisting of a distinct stripe woven from cotton threads and a golden or silver-coloured palm leaf.

"You learn for free and you take home whatever you make inside the tent," said Ms Faraj. "You can come out of the tent a traditional woman."

In addition to the workshops, there are ongoing activities such as traditional games, dances, singing and even a re-enactment of a Bedouin wedding. There is something for almost everyone.

The eight-year-old horror house of "mystical creatures" from Emirati fairy tales will haunt people again this year.

Characters such as the evil but popular figure Um Al Duwais come back to life during this festival. Um Al Duwais is the story of the beautiful temptress who lures unsuspecting men and then turns into a repulsive old demon before killing them with a sickle.

"Expect all your five senses to get excited at every corner of the carnival," said Abdulaziz Al Musallam, Sharjah's director of Heritage and Cultural Affairs.

Mr Al Musallam is also an author of fairy tales and was the organiser of the mystical horror house.

"We brought back the popular activities and added so many new ones, like specialised pavilions of Kuwait, Morocco, Yemen and the Swahili Arabs of East Africa," he said.

There will also be another district dedicated to the way of life in the mountains, in the desert, the sea, and within the oases and farms, as well as how development has evolved over the decades.

The festival is not just limited to the heritage area of Sharjah. It will take place at the same time across the eastern areas of the UAE, such as Al Dhaid, Khor Fakkan, Al Madam Kalba, Maleihah and Dibba Al Hisn.

"It is one of the few times in the year where you can just come and relax and enjoy traditional food, and relive the old way of life," said Mr Al Musallam.