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by Fatma Athar Naqvi

The taxi driver left me in the Heritage Area, pointing vaguely toward the direction of the museum. Even with map and guidebook in hand, it was tricky trying to find it; there weren’t any signs in the narrow alleys to indicate its location. And the sweltering heat wasn’t helping.

The Heritage Area houses buildings restored to their original splendor, including the one I was searching for — Bait Al Naboodah. As the oldest house in Sharjah, it illustrates old Emirati lifestyle and is a symbol of authentic architecture dominated by the climate and natural resources of the United Arab Emirates and its neighboring countries.

Sharjah is the third-largest emirate of the UAE, renowned for its cultural and family atmosphere. Boasting more than 20 museums, a few souks and over 15 parks, it was awarded the title of “cultural capital of the Arab world” by UNESCO in 1998.

Time-honored Arab hospitality — succulent plump dates and a cup of hot, aromatic gahwa (traditional cardamom and clove tea) — welcomed me as I finally found and entered the villa.

This 150-year-old, two-story residence was used until the early 1970s by Obaid bin Essa Al Naboodah, who lived there with his family. Khalifah, the owner’s nephew, walked me through all 16 rooms situated round an enclosed, airy courtyard.

Khalifah opened a solid wood door lined with iron studs, and I entered the father’s bedroom. The coral walls are smooth milky white, with intricate relief and cut work in geometric squiggles. Poster beds from Pakistan have detailed carved wood work. Khalifah mentioned the age-old carpets in the bedrooms were imported from Turkey, with wooden beams on the ceilings from Pakistan.

The bedrooms are divided into two parts separated by a low wall — the sleeping chamber and tea lounge. I lifted a cone-shaped straw tea cozy to find a white tea pot and gahwa cups underneath. Khalifah showed me old clothes that belonged to the sons, inside a teak chest imported from India. The antique chest is elaborately carved and studded, its bottom lined with shiny brass and reddish copper — a piece of furniture antique collectors would snap up instantly.

The toys in the games room are fine examples of recycling. Cloth dolls are neatly laid on a table, the females wearing ankle-length dresses and head scarves while the males are wearing thobes (long white dress) and igal (black ring to hold the headdress), reflecting Arab culture. The dolls are seated on floor cushions in typical Arab style, and there is a very tiny cone-shaped straw tea cozy in front of them. No doubt, a little girl’s pretend tea party.

There are also cars made of oil tin cans, and toys constructed of starfish and palm wood — materials sourced locally from the land and sea.
Music apparently played an important part in the Naboodahs’ lives. Each bedroom boasts an old gramophone and radio, while the father’s room contains an ancient boxed TV set.

The kitchen and store are located in the backyard. Large metal pots in the kitchen sit on top of logs. A grain mill is positioned beside the cement trough, used for storing coal to heat water. A coarse cloth bag for storing laban (buttermilk) hangs on one side.

The store contains huge grain sacks and large, white ceramic pickle jars imported from Pakistan, and, my favorite, a 40cm tall mortar and pestle of coarse, yellowed African wood.

Stepping out of the villa, I realized the crafts and resources of several countries were employed to beautify this house and make it a welcoming place the Naboodah’s once proudly called “home.”

When you go:

Location: Heritage Area, between the waterfront and Al Burj Avenue
Telephone: 06-5681738 / 06-5566002 / 06-5512999
Timings: 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 8 pm; Friday 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. only. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Entry: Adult 5 Dhs, Family 10 Dhs, children free.

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