Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

CULTURE: Little Sharjah Big on Culture

Ahmad Mardini

ABU DHABI, Mar 17 1998 (IPS) - Tiny Sharjah, the tiny Arab Emirate sandwiched between its bigger and wealthier neighbours Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is the acknowledged “cultural capital” of the Gulf – according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The Paris-based organisation named Sharjah “Arab Cultural Capital” after Cairo and Tunisia in January – a title the emirate richly deserves for hosting the region’s only annual book fair, art biennial, myriad exhibitions and museums.

The emirate’s book fair, held every November in a big tent and full of visitors from morning to night, is the social event of the winter tourist season. Last year some 620 publishers from 37 Arab and foreign countries participated.

That apart, there are its museums, beautifully restored heritage buildings that line the Creek, the green and landscaped inlet of the sea around which this desert city has grown.

Bait (house) Al Serkal – Sharjah Arts Centre, Bait Al Shamsi – Sharjah Arts Museum, Emirates Fine Arts Society, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Children’s Farm and Sharjah Desert Park buzz with activity all year round.

At a conference last month of Middle Eastern archaeologists, the chief of the Arab League’s Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation, Dr. Mohammed Al Meli, said Sharjah was chosen the venue because of its “geo-cultural” significance.

The emirate has built this reputation neither on the immense petrodollar wealth of Abu Dhabi nor the money from trans-shipment that has poured into Dubai. Its earnings are mainly from natural gas reserves.

The cultural path was chosen by its ruler Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, the only one of the UAE’s seven rulers who has had a modern education. Ajman, Ras al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah are the other emirates.

“We do not plan to make all our citizens artists or painters but we can refine their artistic taste,” Sheikh Sultan, a passionate student of regional history, said recently.

Towards this end, he has invested a substantial part of Sharjah’s income and a large part of his own personal fortune in different projects, often donating from his personal collections of priceless art. His library is believed to be one of the finest.

The Muslim League’s cultural and educational organisation and Sharjah Satellite Television signed an agreement last week to spread Arab and Islamic culture through joint programmes, studies and research. The emirate’s Department of Information and Culture organises most cultural events.

There are international exhibitions, fairs, seminars, symposiums on cinema, poetry festivals and workshops to choose from every month. The local amateur dramatics group gives benefit programmes for the school for the disabled children.

Modern Korean art was on display last year, followed by an exhibition of Sudanese art. Among countries more regularly represented in Sharjah are Palestine and Oman which has a rich cultural heritage of music and dance.

Last month, a 100 million dirhams (roughly 25 million dollars) was raised in support of Jerusalem for preserving its Arab identity and culture during the Jerusalem Appeal Week.

In the summer, during the Arab Theatre Festival and international Youth Theatre Festival, special programmes focus on children who have time on their hands during school holidays. In fact six specialised centres are being opened for children between 11 and 18 years, to develop an appreciation of the arts.

Majida Karam, a Lebanese artist who lives in Sharjah, said the emirate has become the hub of cultural activity in the Gulf region. Writers, intellectuals and artists – among them Emirati women – meet regularly in the new ‘literature area’ on the Creek, inaugurated by Sheikh Sultan during the last book fair in November. This former house of the Sharjah ruler was renovated at the cost of millions of dollars.

“We simply cannot afford to destroy old places in order to build new ones. We cannot compete technologically with advanced western societies but culturally, we are blessed with a rich history and an ancient heritage,” said Ahmed al Awazi of the emirate’s showpiece Arts Museum.

The most remarkable of the museums, the Sharjah Arts Museum opened last April. With 72 galleries and an exhibition hall, it has eight permanent collections housing three masterpieces gifted by the ruler: the 300-year-old painting by Jacob Godanza titled ‘The Prize of the Caliphate Haroun Al Rasheed to Shalimar’; ‘The Secret Rock, Jerusalem’ by William Simpson, 1876; and ‘The Grocery Market in the Evening’ by Peter Van Sheneland.

Over the last year, the museum has hosted more than 40 exhibitions and workshops for arts students in the art galleries and studios that have been built in a smaller building on the side.

The Sharjah Archaeological Museum, Sharjah Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and Desert Park also attracts thousands of visitors, many of them from neighbouring Gulf countries.

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