Wednesday 27 November 2019

#SharjahSaturday - Rain Room

Rain Room. Funky outside, funky inside.

For the purposes of #SharjahSaturday, Rain Room is a two minute walk from the end of the Irani Souq (passing the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, which you can visit if you're too early for Rain Room or leave until afterwards if you are so minded).

I have posted about Rain Room before. It's linked here for your viewing pleasure and convenience. Having said all that, it would be folly to repeat it now.

You can't be bothered to click on the link and are wondering "What IS Rain Room?" It's an art installation or, if you prefer, a piece of experiential art. It was conceived and put together for the Sharjah Art Foundation by an insane international art collective called Random International and its permanent installation in Sharjah is unique in the world.

It's a great big underground space, all black, with an enormous rain shower in it - lit by a single lamp. You walk into the rain, hundreds of square feet of it. You walk slowly. Sensors pick up your movement and switch off the rain around you. You walk in the rain, surrounded by the sound of hissing droplets, and you are dry. Unless, of course, you have Naughty Neece Ava with you - who quickly works out how to move in order to game the sensors and get you wet.

Siiiiinging in the rain, just siiinging in the rain...

It's all a bit mad and quite, quite fun.

You need to book Rain Room online - you can't just rock up and expect to get a slot. The booking link is here. Each session lasts 15 minutes and can accommodate 6 people. I've booked the 3.30 pm slot on the 7th December and have some spares if anyone's interested.

From there we have the option of taking in some Islamic Civilisation or a slow wander back through the souq to perhaps have a leisurely look at Al Hisn Sharjah or enjoy a coffee in the gorgeous, whispering courtyards of the Al Bait Hotel - a place I would contend is probably the finest, most beautiful hotel property in the Emirates - and if not, certainly in the top five.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

#SharjahSaturday - Fen and the Heart of Sharjah

Fen's chocolate cake. This is actually legal.

Returning from the desert and its amazing wildlife, the idea is to drop into the achingly funky Fen Café, just behind the Iranian Mosque on the creek. Surrounded by art galleries and exhibition spaces (these are often packed with the most puzzling displays of strangenesses that have been created in the name of art, which is a thing that I do not even begin to pretend to comprehend), Fen Café is uniquely Sharjah. It's a collection of bonkers - hipster food served up in painfully 'on trend' furnishings with polished concrete and barasti surfaces all around, neatly packed up in a restored old house - part of the sprawling and visionary restoration of the 'Heart of Sharjah' - a project to restore the old town of Sharjah to its 1958 glories.

In this weather, the courtyard at Fen is a delight - shaded, filled with birdsong and often capped with a sky that can only, in all justice, be called cerulean.

Sitting outside at Fen

So here we take a leisurely lunch break before setting out on a dander through the 'Heart of Sharjah', perhaps stopping off at the Bait Al Naboodah to take a look at the opulent home of Sharjah's most successful pearl trader, with its teak colonnades and breezy summer room. With homes in Paris and Bombay and customers who ranged from jewellers to Maharajahs, Al Naboodah was doing alright, thank you very much, until the pearl market tanked.

By the way, pretty every historian will tell you this happened in 1929. It didn't, it happened much earlier. And they'll all tell you it was down to a double whammy of the Great Depression and the invention of the Mikimoto pearl but that is actually total rubbish. The truth is totally at odds with that lazy narrative and in Children of the Seven Sands I not only debunk the myth, but explain what actually happened, when it happened and why. That wasn't a book plug, honest. I was just saying.

The summer room at the Bait Al Naboodah - the woodwork's all fine Indian teak...

Anyway, we'll pop into the Souk Al Arsah and then pass the gorgeous Al Bait Hotel to take a wander down the shaded walkway of the Souk Al Shanasiyah with its tea rooms and shops selling cool Emirati designer thingies and then through the Irani Souk with its poor stores and groceries before we pootle over to Rain Room. There's no rush, is the idea - we've plenty of time to take it all in and enjoy exploring it all...

Monday 25 November 2019

#SharjahSaturday - Arabia's Wildlife Centre

I'm wild, baby!

Our second stop on #SharjahSaturday, on the 7th December 2019, will be Arabia's Wildlife Centre. This zoological garden and animal sanctuary is about 30 minutes' drive away from our first stop, Mahatta Fort, but it's worth the journey out and we'll have the chance to point out some other things to do and places to see on the way.

The Wildlife Centre sits on the road to Dhaid, past the Bee'ah waste management complex and the little desert village of Saja'a - once the remote desert home of the fearsome Bani Qitab bedouin but now a bustling industrial area with a cement plant, cable factory and gas field as well as an extensive industrial zone.

It opened in 1999 after an expatriate lady called Marijke Jongbloed wrote to Dr Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi and expressed her concern about the parlous state of the Dhub or horny-tailed lizard. Long prized by the Bedouin as an aphrodisiac, it was in danger of being hunted to death - the lizard bred in a specific place, a bowl in the Sharjah desert interior. Dr Sultan's response was a bolt out of the blue - yes, by all means protect the lizard, but why not establish a proper wildlife centre and conservancy there, as well? Jongbloed, awed at the chance she'd been given, leaped at the opportunity to built her centre.

Arabia's Wildlife Centre consists of an extensive indoor series of collections of wildlife indigenous to The Emirates - from Ruppel's Foxes to scorpions and saw-tailed vipers. There is also a neat section where larger animals roam around, gawped at by humans in glass cages. As I have said many times before, this last bit amused Jongbloed no end.

There is also the Sharjah Natural History Museum, which looks at the deep history of planetary formation, plate tectonics, dinosaurs and the Emirates' flora and fauna in general. There's also a charming little Islamic Botanical Garden, a kids' petting zoo and, although you can't visit it as such, a breeding centre for endangered wildlife.

After this, we're heading back into town to grab lunch at Funky Fen Café...

Sunday 24 November 2019

#SharjahSaturday - The Death That Made Mahatta Fort

The Handley Page HP42 - in its time, a technological revolution

One of the reasons that Sharjah's Mahatta Fort is a favourite of mine is it has history - we're talking relatively recent, but nonetheless fascinating history that is little less than kaleidoscopic.

The fort was built by Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi in 1932 as part of a deal with the British Government to establish a landing strip and facilities in Sharjah to accommodate the Imperial Airways HP42 biplanes flying the 'Empire Route' from Croydon to Australia.

And it was at the centre of an epic drama that threatened to slash the most valuable link in Britain's Eastern Empire.

Now, I could tell you about the Empire Route and how it hopped across Europe to reach Alexandria and then made its way across the desert to Iraq and then Sharjah, accomplishing the journey in just four days. I could tell you about the trench that was laid across the black Jordanian and Iraqi deserts, using chains dragged behind tenders, to guide the planes. I could tell you of the desert fuel dumps, secured using lock and key against the marauding Bedouin of northern Arabia.

I could talk about the fight between the British and Persian governments that drove the necessity for an airport on the Arabian peninsula in the first place - or the desperate search for a suitable location, fighting against the clock to keep the Empire Route alive. I could sit you down and tell you about that search - about how Dibba was first investigated by a despairing Group Captain, who realised that the ground would take longer to prepare than the British had to hand as they lost their landing rights on Hengam Island. The Persians had insisted on putting their claim to the Tunbs Islands on the table before renegotiating the new agreement. The British had walked away rather than drop the Tunbs, which they saw as belonging to the Trucial States. But it left them with the urgent need to find a new landing strip.

Given a cup of cocoa or two, I'd certainly tell you the story of the HP42, a leviathan of its time, which could take up to 38 passengers (18 in the front, 20 in the back - all 1st class) up into the skies, flying at 100 miles per hour. Of how the dazzling advances in technology made the British flying boats redundant and favoured the long-range HP42. Or indeed of how the Rulers of the Trucial States resisted the British push to establish landing rights - of how Ras Al Khaimah put armed guards out to stop the British establishing a refuelling base and how Dubai refused to allow passengers from the flying boats to land.

I could most certainly tell you the story of Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, dispossessed as a young man and exiled to Dubai before his triumphant return to Rule over Sharjah. Of the fight between his powerful father-in-law and the Ruler of Sharjah, Khalid, who had stolen Sultan's inheritance. And I could tell you about the war that erupted for control of Kalba, ruled by a slave called Barut on behalf of his Al Qasimi overlord. Because the Imperial Airways backup strip was laid in Kalba and in order to do this, the British recognised the tiny east coast township as being a Trucial State in its own right. At one time, Kalba was the seventh emirate.

But I'm not going to. You're going to have to buy the book for that. What I AM going to tell you about is how it took the death of a man to close the negotiations that were taking place against the clock as the British faced the breaking of the air route that connected their Empire to the East.

Hugh Biscoe was the British Political Resident in the Gulf, a life-long administrator in the government of Bombay who had little to no experience of the Arab world and who did not himself speak Arabic. Having gained Sultan bin Saqr's approval to establish a landing ground at Sharjah, a coup given that the British were desperate to find an alternative to Hengam before the clock ran out on their agreement with the Persian government, in May 1932 Biscoe found to his astonishment that Sultan bin Saqr had changed his mind and would no longer permit the airfield to be built.

There was no more time. The Empire Route was in danger of being shut down.

The Empire Route. Imagine, it'd take you about 2 weeks to fly all the way - at 100 mph!

Biscoe called in a flight of Westland Wapitis - at the time fearsome, noisy fighting machines that would undoubtedly have struck the fear of God into the hearts of anyone in Arabia - to reinforce his point. He had no time to spare and couldn't afford to mess around. He pressed anyone he could rally to support his cause, including Sultan bin Saqr's domineering father-in-law, to no avail.

Turning the screw even further, Biscoe now brought the British Navy, the traditional tool of British policy enforcement in the Trucial States, to bear. The pressure on Sultan bin Saqr to sign the deal was intense, but so was the local opposition. Biscoe finally resolved to sail to Sharjah and hammer out his deal with the reluctant ruler. On the way, he picked up the Political Agent to Kuwait, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Dickson. 

Biscoe had long suspected the British Residency Agent in Sharjah, Isa bin Abdullatif Al Serkal, of machinations against the airport deal. Al Serkal, whose role as British Agent made him one of the most powerful men on the coast, would see his influence wane considerably if the British established a direct presence. Biscoe thought Dickson, a fluent Arabic speaker with enormous experience in Arab affairs, would provide, let us say, a more dependable translation.

In the early hours of the 19th July 1932, the day of his intended arrival in Sharjah, sailing across the Gulf aboard HMS Bideford, Sir Hugh Vincent Biscoe KBE, His Britannic Majesty’s Political Resident in the Arabian Gulf, suffered a heart attack and promptly died.

Dickson barely hesitated. He had Biscoe buried at sea and, no sooner had the body wrapped in its Union Jack slid into the warm waters of the Gulf, but Dickson had cabled London to get permission to finalise the airport deal himself. London was desperate - yes, the more experienced Dickson was to proceed to Sharjah and try to get the deal done as soon as possible. On any terms.

The rest, as they say, is history...

Friday 22 November 2019

#SharjahSaturday - The Weeks Ahead

Here's your Second Reminder. Next week I'll post more detail about each of our intended locations.

The idea is you can come along and join us at any point and leave at any point. You can come along for the whole ride, or just follow the #SharjahSaturday hashtag on Twitter and pop by when you fancy. Your choice, entirely.

There's a ton more to see and do in and around Sharjah - let alone the emirates' east coast blandishments. But we'll save those for another time, hey?

The Plan 

9am - Jones
Meet at Jones The Grocer, Flag Island. Head to Mahatta Fort.

It was a close run thing at one time - the airport WAS going to be built in Dibba!

10am - Mahatta Fort
Faithfully restored, Sharjah's Mahatta Fort was built by Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi in 1932 and leased to the British government as a 'safe house' for overnighting travellers on the British Imperial Airways route from Croydon to Canberra. It houses a collection of the early 'planes flown by 'Gulf Aviation' (Gulf Air to you, mate) as well as a VC10 flight deck you can sit in. For anyone willing to listen, I'll be sharing the 'backstory' to Mahatta - including how it took a good man to die in order to get the agreement to build the fort signed.

Who you lookin' at, punk?

11am - Arabia's Wildlife Centre
Just off the Sharjah/Dhaid highway, you'll find this gem - the Sharjah Natural History Museum, the Islamic Botanical Garden, a petting zoo and Arabia's Wildlife Centre, a zoological park designed so that - in part - the humans are caged and the animals are free outdoors. 

Fen being funky, neeces being cheeky...

Lunch at Fen Café
So funky it'll make your knee joints ache, Fen is Sharjah's home grown art cafe, a vision in smoothed concrete and chilled out ambience with a good dose of hipster menu and a chocolate cake that sits somewhere above lead on the periodic table.

Al Naboodah was a Sharjah pearl merchant so rich he had houses in Bombay and Paris...

The Heart of Sharjah
We'll take a leisurely wander through the Heart of Sharjah, visiting the Bait Al Naboodah and walking along the Souk Al Shanasiyah to reach Rain Room at around 3-3.30ish. Those folks who actually want to experience the amazing sensation of walking through a rain shower in a dark cavern without actually getting wet will have to book for themselves. Visits are every 15 minutes for groups of no more than 6 and you book online here.

Islamic Civilisation? Check. Museum? Check. Sharjah? Check.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation 
A rather wonderful collection of Islamic innovation, history and artefacts housed in what used to be a not terribly successful souq but which is now a thoroughly successful museum!

Sharjah Fort. When I first got here it had been demolished and only one small tower remained...

Al Hisn Sharjah/Souq Al Arsah/Coffee at Al Bait Hotel
Sharjah Fort was totally and faithfully rebuilt by the current Ruler of Sharjah after its almost total destruction in the late 1960s and has some interesting displays in it, apart from its interest as a big, traditional forty thing. The Souq Al Arsah - a faithful reconstruction of the traditional souk - backs onto the uber-luxurious, Chedi-run Al Bait Hotel, a Dhs 27 million conversion of three traditional old merchants' houses in the centre of Sharjah.

Wave goodbyes/head for Ajman

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Something for the Weekend? The Green Planet

Neece holding cockroach at Green Planet. This is the expensive way to do it. 
For the same experience at zero cost, pop the nearest drain head and scoop your hand in. 
No, no, please it's nothing. You're welcome...

Okay, let me be quite clear about this - this one's pricey, but it's worth it. To be fair, we're a bit spoiled on the general cost of a thing to do with the kids front - look at parks and attractions in the UK and you're straight into second mortgage territory right there. So if this sets you back Dhs 840 for a family of four, that's sort of fine, right?

The Green Planet by Meraas (they're a property developer or, if you prefer, lifestyle-shaping dream enabler) is a largish  but otherwise relatively unprepossessing building to the north of Satwa, near enough to the Coka Cola Arena. Inside is a tropical rainforest. And it's pretty cool as indoor rainforests go.

Now, before you get all sniffy about fake rainforests, let me just remind you that one of the most amazing tourist attractions in Cornwall, UK, is the Eden Project, a series of biomes contained in double-skinned, climate-controlled domes. And, like the Eden Project, Green Planet is a great platform for teaching kids about the world and some of its most brilliant nature.

There are 3,000 species of thing in Green Planet, from cockroaches you can handle (or, in my case, not handle the sight of, let alone touch) to sloths you can sloth at. There's a bat cave and a bit of outback and loads of little tactile experiences and things to do, see, handle, touch and generally gawp at. The whole journey starts at the top of the rainforest canopy (Green Planet is built around a massive 'tree') and then wends its way down past waterfalls and tree houses, rope bridges and walkways. There are monkeys and parrots, dazzling birds and slithery snakes, fish (including - cue dramatic sounds - piranhas) and insects everywhere.

We went with the neeces and a magnificent, royally entertaining time was had by all. Ellen wants to be a vet, so she was holding snakes and letting cockroaches run over her hand and doing all manner of other animally stuff that normal people would flip out over and that kids can, well, do.

If you want to make a real day out of it, maybe do lunch somewhere in City Walk and then nip over to the Dubai Frame for an afternoon treat...

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Ten Wildlife Reserves to Visit in the Emirates

Wildlife. Rawr.

Many, many years ago I interviewed a lady called Marijke Joengbloed. She was the archetypal Expat Expert - a woman who had landed in Al Ain sometime in the dusty, distant past and who had turned her curiosity about the Emirates' natural history into becoming something of a centre of expertise. Like many before her, because Marijke cared about this stuff - and nobody else did - she became the de facto expert on the UAE's flora and fauna - as others became experts on the history, archaeology and ethnography of the place. The only people who seemed to care were the amateurs - the 'experts' had no expertise to offer. They'd never even been here.

Of course, the Bedouin knew every track in the sand, every shrub and tree, but nobody was asking them and now it's too late (I'm currently reading Aida Kanafani's 'Aesthetics and Ritual in the United Arab Emirates' from 1979, which you'll be hard pressed to find a copy of anywhere - it's a fascinating snapshot of life before, well, now).

The Emirates was, literally, uncharted territory - even when I arrived here, blinking, in the late 1980s.

Marijke was a big lady in every way and when I interviewed her back in the '90s, she was cradling a little pink baby hedgehog in her arm, nursing it with a pipette of milk. I discovered that there are actually three species of hedgehog in the Emirates - I had been amazed to find there was even one. I posted about it - and her role in the establishment of Arabia's Wildlife Centre in Sharjah - over here.

These days, we not only have a wealth of knowledge about the biodiversity and wildlife of the Emirates, we have active conservation projects in place. Some of these are eminently visitable and many make for great weekend explorations.

Of them all, the centre that Marijke established remains the most brilliant and diverse place to visit, with an Islamic Garden, Natural History Museum, a petting zoo for the kids and the centre itself. It's so good, we're going there on #SharjahSaturday...

Marmoom and Al Qudra Lakes are a great winter visit, with walks around the man-made lakes rewarded with all sorts of wildlife - including a huge amount of birds. There are a range of recreational facilities around here (with funky eats provided by the traileropolis of Last Exit) and, of course, the desert luxury of the Bab Al Shams hotel is just around the corner. Although there's no visitor centre at the Ras Al Khor Nature Reserve, there's a viewing point where you can look out for the plentiful flamingoes and other birds - but if you want a bird-spotter's paradise, head north of Sharjah to the award-winning and thoroughly delightful Wasit Wetland Centre, where you can whistle at Fulvous Whistling Ducks among others.

Heading inland, you can make for the desert village of Nazwa and the Al Ghaf Conservation Reserve, intended to preserve important desert populations of the UAE's national tree, the Ghaf (or prosopis cineraria to you, mate). Again, no visitor centres here (although some lovely drives) but close by you'll find Badayer, the homeplace of the Dune Formerly Known As Big Red and home to numerous dune buggy rental joints as well as the brand new (and achingly cool) Badayer Oasis, a 21-room hotel with 10 tents built on a desert theme, developed by Sharjah's Shurooq. If achingly funky desert hotels is your thing, I'd heartily recommend taking a look at Al Maha, which is at the centre of the extensive Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, itself home to herds of gazelles and Arabian oryx. I have to note, we haven't been back since it was managed by Emirates - it's now a Marriott, but the property itself is utterly gorgeous, with each tented 'chalet' equipped with its own infinity pool overlooking the desert. Quite, quite magical.

Exploring the mountains, you can spend some time walking around (or driving around) the fertile wadis of Wadi Helo, a protected nature reserve you'll likely pass through on your way to visiting the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre. Here you'll find over 30 species of Arabian wildlife, including that tartiest of all big cats, the endangered (in the UAE likely extinct in the wild) Arabian Leopard. Just over the road from Al Hefaiyah, you'll find the Kalba Birds of Prey Centre which features a fierce collection of avian predators who'd all rip your eyes out as soon as look at you. They do stuff like flying demonstrations here. While you're in Kalba, you might like to stay at Shurooq's glamping retreat near to the Kalba Nature Reserve. If you do and you fancy something to get up to next day, you'd do worse than visit the UNESCO listed biosphere reserve at Wadi Wurayah, inland of Bidya in Fujairah - although I have to confess last time I went it wasn't open to the public, the Radisson Blu website suggests very strongly that is no longer the case. Just in case it is, and to be sure to be sure of my ten reserves, you can go south and take a hike around the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve in Abu Dhabi.

There are actually loads of wildlife reserves and parks dotted around the UAE and they all provide a pleasant wander in these cool winter months...

Monday 18 November 2019

Is the Emirates the Safest Place on Earth?

Seen in Mirdif City Centre...

Now, I'm the first to admit that I've drunk the Kool Aid. I reckon that most expats in their first couple of years are ambivalent about this place, those that make it to five years are generally going to be pretty much in favour of it all. Get to ten years, buy a villa in the Ranches or whatever expat ghetto suits you best, and you're probably raving about how marvellous it all is - despite your Shiny perhaps being a tiny little bit less sparkly than you were promised. It's a Shiny, after all, and that's shiny enough for most people.

We perhaps tend to forget sometimes how, far from Shiny, home was grimy. Rain, tax, tea, in that order. That's why we're here, no?

I admire those that came out here with a game plan. Two years, five years, once you've got that deposit on a flat in Richmond or a sixteen bedroom mansion in Leicester or whatever it was that you wanted to get done, you've done it and gone back. That's great, but it was never for us. We just liked the place and we meandered - we never had an objective, as such. A vague idea that we'd go home one day, perhaps, but that was as concrete as anything got.

I remember saying to Sarah just after we arrived that we'd been £1,000 in debt every month in the UK and now that we'd been in the Emirates a while, we'd bought the household things we needed (and could never afford back home) and had a thousand quid in hand. If we did a year here and went home a thousand quid better off, we'd have done a year in the sun and have £2,000 more than when we arrived. That, I said, would be just as true if we did 25 years and went home two thousand quid better off. And it is, at that.

I'm very well aware that there are those who don't - for whom the Emirates hasn't been as kind or who have just found themselves out of step with the whole place. There are people who have found themselves trapped in a job they've hated, been bilked by a dodgy employer or who have just generally hated it and everything it stands for. There are those who have left here and re-cast their old home in the sun as a horrible, empty place (funnily enough, many who have done that seemed happy enough when they were here).

But, clearly, over 25 years later something's keeping us here - we like it, very much so in fact. Is that a bad thing?

One of the very many things I like about here is the sense of personal security. I've got used to keeping my wallet in my back pocket, to leaving the car open as I nip into the shop - to having loose change in the little pot thing by the handbrake (I'm reliably informed I wouldn't have a side window if I did that in the UK - I still find that hard to believe, but you tend to listen to the locals).

Walking past charity collection boxes in the malls stuffed with notes and noticing that a) they're not chained down and b) they're still there two seconds later, one is occasionally reminded that the crime rate here is so low as to be almost negligible. Sarah's safe out walking alone or with a friend, day or night. You forget that until you have to wise up when you're on holiday back in Europe. Until you hear the horror stories.

The photo above was taken in a jewellery shop in Mirdif City Centre. Even being as used as we are to the safety and security of here, we found it was an amusing 'where else in the world?' moment...

Sunday 17 November 2019

Into The Light - Remembering the 2005 Amman Bombings

The names of the 57 victims of the 2005 Amman bombing remembered 

We have got into the habit of collecting a poster from all the places we visit and there's a very big, very white wall in our villa which is hung with many of these. It's full now, so we've started using the floor. So Bohemian, dahling.

Two of special significance (I've mentioned 'em before) come from an exhibition held in Amman to protest the 2005 Amman Bombings. One of the sponsors of the show was the PR company wot I used to work for, Spot On PR, which was one of very many reasons I was deeply proud of said company.

Our Jordan office was in the Zara Centre, connected to the Grand Hyatt Amman - one of the three hotels targeted by Al Qaeda/Daesh in the attack. We had organised a large number of, often very large scale, events there over the years and we knew the staff of the hotel very well indeed. A great number of them were cut down by the bomb, a 'dirty bomb' packed with nails and ball bearings, which ricocheted around the stone-walled lobby lounge in an evil fusillade of high speed projectiles that tore through flesh and smashed glass and furniture.

A friend was at the front desk in the lobby at the time of the blast, thankfully for her it was set in a dogleg away from the main lobby and she watched the glass walled entrance of the hotel shatter as the concussion wave and deadly hail of projectiles passed her by. She was entirely unharmed by the whole thing.
The bomb scythed through them, an awful parabola of concussing violence, bodies flung against the screaming living, glass flying and tearing cloth, biting flesh. The bar in pieces, bottles smashed. Drink streamed down the broken wood.
The force hit me, shards flying in the air, tossed me back against the wall. I saw Aisha’s hair thrown up in a surreal halo as she jerked backwards and hit the bar with a sickening force that distorted her fine features.
Faux beams falling, a woman crawling towards me as I staggered to my feet, deafened. An awful silence, mouths open, soundless screaming. A man walking, his hands to his ears and blood running down his face like rain, the falling drops spattering on the dusty floor in a steady flow like a broken gutter. I felt wetness on my cheek, saw the blood on my fingers. Aisha. Aish.
A woman lay on the floor, her head thrown back and her eyes impossibly wide, her hair fanned out on the wooden boards, her hips jerking obscenely, nostrils flared. The iron tang of blood.
Dust, coughing, thick dust. Ring a ring of roses. I turned, alone. Small fires as the drapes burned up, smoke and dust, choking me. Silence as I turned, gaping, torn flesh around me, open wounds, tangled limbs and open mouths, dresses torn and dead eyes blurring as I turned around, brown flesh, white flesh, red flesh. Brown, white, red. Children playing and mother calling us in from the sun for tea. A pocket full of posies. Whirling madness. Choking smoke and stillness, except for a single dark figure, spinning in the middle of the deadly tableau.
Aisha. Aisha. Aisha.
I’m somewhere white and beautiful, the breeze caressing my skin and she calls out, answering me as I come to a standstill, screaming her name as I double up in pain.
The olive trees are her courtiers, the olive princess.
I actually first wrote Olives - A Violent Romance in 2004*, and the idea of a bombing in an Amman hotel back then was inconceivable. Despite being in a very tough neighbourhood indeed, Amman had been a peaceful haven for decades. When the actual bombings happened, I never thought of my fictional bombing for a second - it was later, much later, that I went back to that manuscript and saw the bomb I had imagined and made the connection to the one that actually took place.

When I checked into the Grand Hyatt on my trip to attend the show, the week after the bombings, I was one of sixteen guests in the 311-room hotel. The lobby had been completely blocked off with plasterboard. Behind it was wreckage and dark bloodstains - the cleanup and reconstruction hadn't even started. There was a gift-wrapped book waiting for me in my room and I thought it was a 'Thanks for being a brave little guest' present. It wasn't - it was to mark my 40th stay in the hotel. I hadn't been counting, but the Grand Hyatt team had.

I added my stays in other hotels and started keeping track myself. Now, when I land in Jordan and the airport pick-up asks the inevitable, 'Is this your first time in Jordan, Seer?' I can happily tell them, 'No, it's my 74th.'

It does tend to rather take the wind out of their sails, bless 'em...

*Oh, God. 19 years ago!

Friday 15 November 2019


Al Hisn Sharjah

Here it is, folks, the news you've all been waiting for. We're going to find out what's happening in the Cultured Emirate - Sharjah!!!

#SharjahSaturday started on Twitter as a result of my infamous rant about the fact that the Emirates is packed with things to do, places to go, stuff to see and an amazingly rich culture, heritage and diversity of locations. I'm still finding new stuff after over 32 years here and simply can't understand anyone sitting on their hands (particularly, not that I'm nagging, you understand, in Dubai) and moaning that there's nothing to do here - or that there's no depth, no culture, no bla bla bla.

So here's the skinny. On Saturday the 7th December, we're going to go to Sharjah (I'm cheating, I'll already be there) and we're going to spend the day together having fun. And then in the evening, decent folk can go home or perhaps find a restaurant for dinner while the naughty kids are going to go to Ajman and play. Not too hard, it's a school night, but enough to see some of what's there.

As anyone wot remembers the joys of GeekFest will recall, I have an instinctive horror of organisation. So #SharjahSaturday is UNorganised. You're welcome to come along for the whole thing, drop in at one or another of the destinations or just pop by and say 'Hi', as you please. The idea is that if you follow the hashtag, #SharjahSaturday you can see where we've got to and what we're doing.

The idea's to get a taste for what's there, so we're not necessarily hanging around and wringing the last ounce out of each location - we're finding them, taking a wander around and moving on! If people like, I'll play tour guide and share some of the history and pageantry of Sharjah's more than colouful past - and if not, I'll happily shut up!

Please note, in the nicest possible way, it doesn't matter to me if 6 or 60 turn up so don't go feeling obligated to confirm or whatever. If it works out for you on the day, it'll be lovely to see you. If not, you can follow the hashtag and have a vicarious day out!!!

Do feel free to bring the kids, BTW...

The Plan 

Meet at Jones The Grocer, Flag Island.
Here we gather, do coffee and stuff before heading at around 9.45 to Mahatta Fort, via Al Hisn Sharjah.

Mahatta Fort
This delightful little museum celebrates the first airport in the Emirates, built in 1932 by the Ruler of Sharjah to house travellers on the Empire Route from Croydon to Australia on enormous Handley Page HP42 biplanes - 18 of them on a full flight! At about 10.30 we're going to head for Arabia's Wildlife Centre.

Arabia's Wildlife Centre
Just off the Sharjah/Dhaid highway, you'll find this gem - the Sharjah Natural History Museum, the Islamic Garden, a petting zoo and Arabia's Wildlife Centre, a zoo designed so that - in part - the humans are caged and the animals are free outdoors. I met its designer once and she, a fervent environmentalist, was delighted by that. At around 12.30 we'll head back into town, passing by the Discovery Centre and Sharjah Car Museum.

Lunch at Fen Café
So funky it'll make your knee joints ache, Fen is Sharjah's home grown art cafe, a vision in smoothed concrete and chilled out ambience with a good dose of hipster menu and a chocolate cake that sits somewhere above lead on the periodic table.

Heart of Sharjah
We'll take a wander through the Heart of Sharjah, the Bait Al Naboodah and the Souk Al Shanasiyah to reach Rain Room at around 3-3.30ish. Those folks who actually want to experience the amazing sensation of walking through a rain shower in a dark cavern without actually getting wet will have to book for themselves. Visits are every 15 minutes for groups of no more than 6 and you book online here.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation 
A rather wonderful collection of Islamic innovation, history and artefacts housed in what used to be a not terribly successful souq but which is now a thoroughly successful museum!

Al Hisn Sharjah/Souq Al Arsah/Coffee at Al Bait Hotel
Sharjah Fort was totally and faithfully rebuilt by the current Ruler of Sharjah after its almost total destruction in the late 1960s. The Souq Al Arsah backs the uber-luxurious, Chedi-run Al Bait Hotel, a Dhs 27 million conversion of three traditional old merchants' houses in the centre of Sharjah into a hotel that is so gorgeous it makes Pat Mustard look unattractive.

Wave goodbyes/head for Ajman

Sounds like fun? Join us at Jones at 9am on Saturday the 7th December, then!

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