Sharjah's Al Wahda Street. It used to be where Dubai came for the night out, you know. Honestly. It was a really kickin’ place by night – even today, its cellars can tell some stories from back then. After the big change in Sharjah, Al Wahda Street had to fall back on its other trade – being a second Beirut. During the civil war, so many families made their homes in Sharjah and Al Wahda Street was where they loved to live, eat and shop. There were classics: Red Shoe, Old Shoe, Bird, Valencia, Penguin – mad shoe shops, sharp suit shops: tailors that called you ‘Seer’ and knew what they were doing and more slicked back hair and Lebanese shop assistant attitude than you could shake a stick at. Everyone used to ‘do’ Al Wahda Street for clothes and stuff. It was just class – Al Aroubah Street was always Indian, all saris and souks, but Al Wahda was where you’d do the maddest Mediterranean magnificence.
At one stage in the '80s, some wag produced a spoof UAE job application form. It was one of those things that plays on the various nationalities that make up the 'entrepot' that everyone used to go on about so much. You had to tick your nationality and give your address. If you ticked Lebanese, it directed you to the question, "Where on Al Wahda Street do you live?"
It was funny because it rang true - Al Wahda Street was always a Little Lebanon. And that's what made it wonderful.
Shopping on Al Wahda Street was just a total pleasure; it always rewarded an evening’s wander, dipping into the stores, dropping by at Al Mallah for a shawarma or fatayeh and maybe a jooce cocktail. It was always part discovery, part entertainment – flashing neon lights and amazing, flashy fashions. And during the very height of the civil war, it was a place where a community in diaspora still lived as if nothing was happening, as if their families weren’t sitting in the cellars listening to the crack and thud of gunfire above and living off cream crackers or whatever else they could get their hands on that day. Somehow, Al Wahda Street's zeitgeist was to escape the civil war but was of it. It’s sort of complicated.
And now it’s gone. Dead. A few sad, gasping vestiges of what was life and drama, laughter and celebration still remain, but they won’t outlast the roadworks. The traffic problems and then the sliproad started the rot, the parking metres confirmed it as a rot. Now the Wahda Street Masterplan Phase Four or whatever they’re calling it has really screwed things. Wahda Street is dead, extinguished by a strange and cack-handed attempt to do something, anything, with Sharjah’s traffic.
In the meantime, possibly the strangest and most dangerous diversion in the country now takes traffic from Dubaiwards up through the backroads between Al Wahda Street and the Industrial Estate: the mad two and three and two lane route snakes past shops and workshops, godowns and sideroads. Men on bicycles career around the corners, cycling against the traffic and groups of shalwar khameeses scurry across the road as the cars try and work out what they’re supposed to do in the face of a total lack of road markings and signage, let alone lighting. There are few barriers and those that are there have come askew. It’s a Wacky Races alleyway of death through the backstreets and someone’s going to get hurt pretty soon.
Is this really the best thing to have done? Is this really the apogee of urban planning? I really do wonder...