The time-honoured traditions of the region date back to the desert tribes and the influence brought upon them by migration. These traditions have been passed on through generations by word of mouth and today are an integral part of modern Arabian lifestyle. Traditional customs and values continue to preserve and maintain family and social relationships and interactions.
Sharjah’s culture is firmly rooted in the Islamic traditions of Arabia. Islam is more than a religion; it touches all aspects of everyday life and lies at the heart of Sharjah’s living heritage. The values of Islam include honesty, courtesy and hospitality, attributes that visitors will be charmed by during their stay.
Comfortable and modest clothing has developed to suit the climate and lifestyle.
The distinguished men’s dress is the white dishdasha, a long robe or kaftan usually made from cotton or silk mixed with synthetic fibres and always immaculately pressed. Men’s headgear consists of three parts; the square shaped head cloth (ghuttrah) typically white in colour, a skull cap (gahfiya) worn under the head cloth and the head circlet or agaal, a twisted woollen braid used to hold the head cloth in place.
On special occasions, an outer cloak (mishlah) of a fine wool or cotton material, with gold and sometimes silver embroidered edges, is worn over the dishdasha. The black mishlah is worn at night, rather like a dinner jacket.
A light chiffon headscarf or sheyla is worn to cover the hair but in past times the abaya or black cloak draped the entire body from head to toe. Once a fairly plain and light cotton covering, the crepe or chiffon abaya of today comes richly decorated with sequins, crystals, embroidery etc.
The headgear is considered to be the most distinctive element of a woman’s attire distinguishing her origins from one region to another. The traditional mask worn in the Emirates is the burqa that covers the brow, cheekbones and nose.
Arabian Gulf Cuisine
In the past, the cuisine of the Arabian Gulf countries was dominated by the simple Bedouin and pearl diver's food. Breakfast consisted of bread and pancakes, with locally caught fish or meat for lunch and dinner, served on a bed of rice. Rice was imported from the east and delivered by dhow. On special occasions a sheep or a goat would be killed and roasted for a feast. All year round, highly nutritious dates, either fresh or dried, would accompany most meals. In time, a wide variety of imported food and cooking methods were brought into the region, along with the aromatic spices of the East. Popular dishes today are machbous (a meat and rice speciality seasoned with spices, tomatoes, onions and dried lemon), khouzi (a roasted lamb stuffed with nuts and spices), harees (a mixture of lamb and wheat), and Al threed (bread, meat and gravy dish). Arabic hospitality and traditions endure to ensure that visitors always feast in plenty, and in comfort.
Pastries & Sweets
As with the savoury dishes, there are many different and delicious desserts. Common ingredients include margarine, sugar, cinnamon, honey, dates and nuts. Among the most famous UAE pastries are Al Khabesa (flour, water, sugar and saffron mix), Al Khanfaroush (made from flour, water, sugar and eggs), Al Mohammar Beldebs (white rice cooked until it turns red), Al Betheeth (flour baked with margarine and dates), Al Qurs Al Mafrouk (a dough that is prepared and buried in the ground to bake, the earth then shaken off and the dough rubbed with margarine and sugar), Al Mahli (thin biscuits made with butter and eaten with eggs with sugar), Al Khameer (kneaded flour with dates and sugar), Al Saquo (pastry mixed with margarine, sugar and cardamom), Bilaleet (a cold dish of vermicelli noodles, served with a hot flat omelette), Mamroosa, Fouqua and Luqaimat. Many of the desserts are sweetened with sugar from local dates.
Music, Dance & Folklore
Ceremonial folk dances, poetry and songs from the past have become an integral part of modern Arabian culture. These arts have been influenced by traditional customs and values, social relations and trading with countries such as East Africa, Iran and India. Arabian folk arts from this region are based on either the arts of the desert Bedouins (nomadic tribes) or those of the seafarers.
Community spirit and tribal allegiances are reinforced at social ceremonies such as weddings and the Eids when singing, dancing and dressing up in one’s finest clothing is all important. A variety of hand carved instruments such as drums, woodwind and stringed instruments, like the rabaha and oud, tambourines and brass cymbals accompany the festivities. In the past wood was a precious commodity favoured for items of ceremonial significance. Men’s dances often feature the use of swords and canes, whilst women’s musical gatherings reflect the importance of jewellery and domestic crafts. Songs and the simple accompaniment of the small hand held frame drum (tar) and tambourine (daff) are popular at the bride’s party, whilst the vibrant drumbeat, swaying rhythms, firing of guns and festive music are part of the bridegroom’s ceremonies.
The earliest form of shelter after the nomadic Bedouin tents consisted of little huts constructed solely from palm fronds or arish. Later, houses were made from local coral and sea stones, held in place by mortar, with mangrove poles forming the wooden roof structure. Privacy, cooling and security were of the utmost importance in the construction of forts and homes and these features controlled the design of the buildings, along with the climate and available local resources. Windtowers are a unique feature to this region, used to create air circulation and cooling within a room. The beautifully restored Heritage and Arts Areas stand tribute to the charm and practicalities of the traditional buildings.
Today the word dhow is used for any ship made of wood. Traditionally handcrafted in wood, these vessels are working reminders of the long tradition of maritime trade in the area. Centuries ago their owners made voyages to places as far away as China and beyond. Today most of the dhows sail between the UAE, Iran, Pakistan and India trading in a variety of goods. The most common dhow is the Boom, characterised by a flat stem head with the black and white painted nose. The Sambuq with its pointed stem head and a more rounded bow was originally used for pearling but has been adapted for fishing. The other common design is the Jalibout, a stout boat with a straight, vertical stem.
Falconry is a sport in which wild falcons are trained to attack small prey and to bring the prey back for the evening meal. Originally, this was a primary means of obtaining fresh meat in the barren environment. The main prey is the Houbara Bustard but falcons also catch hares and Stone Curlew, which inhabit the gravel plains.
The Arab Thoroughbred is famous worldwide and it is believed that the first horse racing in Sharjah took place along Al Arouba Road in front of Al Hisn (Sharjah Fort). Today one can see these magnificent animals in action at Sharjah Equestrian & Racing Club.
Camels, popularly known as ‘Ships of the Desert’ have competed in Arabia for centuries. These ungainly creatures maintain speeds of up to 20 kilometres per hour and attending a race is a memorable experience.