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An acoustic art installation by Cevdet Erek occupies the courtyard of Bait Gholoum Ibrahim during the 11th Sharjah Biennial Art festival. (Photograph by Iain Masterton, Alamy)

Postcard From the Unsung Emirate

While strife-weary Middle Eastern grandes dames Beirut, Cairo, and Tehran have all seen better days, Sharjah—glitzy Dubai’s demure neighbor in the United Arab Emirates—is a cultural doyenne with a vision.

Crowned “Islamic Cultural Capital” in 2014, the emirate of Sharjah manages to combine artistic progress and an affection for conservative tradition.

A total of 16 museums—including the Sharjah Art Museum, featuring an extensive orientalist painting collection—canvas the small emirate of around 700,000 people, but artistic beauty isn’t confined to galleries.

Here stately barjeels, or wind towers, top timeworn houses that hug a creek teeming with traditional dhows (sailboats). On the eastern coast, crumbling 17th-century Portuguese forts punctuate the shorelines along the Gulf of Oman.

In February, the city’s refined landmarks turn kaleidoscopic during the Sharjah Light Festival, where designers project a psychedelic palette of lights onto mosques, squares, and souks.

Bet you didn’t know that in contemporary art circles, the emirate boasts an avant-garde reputation due to the 22-year-old Sharjah Biennial—three months of thought-provoking exhibits, performances, and screenings that galvanize the worldwide art set.

This year’s biennial begins March 5, when installations will dot the desert landscape—past commissions include a giant interactive cymbal mobile and a pop-up garden with tea service.

This piece, written by Kevin Jones, first appeared in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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