I was recently a guest at my very first Emirati majlis held at Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. A majlis is a space in a home that is specifically set aside for discussion. Most of the time it is designated for men or women only, although it can also be a meeting place for multi-generations of an extended family to come together for discussions, celebrations, or even to grieve.
The majlis was an event held in conjunction with a remarkable exhibition at the museum, “So That You Might Know Each Other: The world of Islam from North Africa to China and beyond,” in collaboration with the Vatican Ethnological Museum. The exhibition is symbolic of a mutual desire for interfaith and intercultural understanding and came about as the result of the vision of Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, in celebration of the emirate’s appointment as Capital of Islamic Culture for 2014.
Stepping into Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the building’s architecture. The space is a former souk and the long hallways and high curved ceilings incorporate many principles of traditional Islamic design. Sneaking upstairs for a quick peek at the planetarium, I fell hard and fast for the gorgeous cobalt dome hand-laid in striking mosaic tiles, commemorating Islam’s connection to the heavens and stars.
My majlis experience began with an engaging private tour of the exhibition with curator Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis, who brought the artifacts to life by pointing out what each display said about material culture in early 19th-20 century Muslim communities. Each of 70 artifacts presented were hand-selected and researched by Sharjah Museums Department and come from all over the Muslim world, including communities in Asia. Although I’m not usually one to enjoy a guided tour (I sometimes find them to be too dry for my taste), I found my imagination snapping with interest as I visualized what it would have been like to visit a café in 19th century Iraq or embroider a tapestry with a group of Uzbek women more than 100 years ago.
Following the tour, we were asked to remove our shoes, step onto a carpet, and sit comfortably on low, embroidered cushions. An Emirati hostess passed around dainty porcelain teacups of strong coffee and a platter of dates, while Dr. Al-Khamis led a discussion about our perceptions of the exhibition and the implications concerning Islam’s diverse reach across borders and ages. Although ‘So That You Might Know Each Other’ runs through 14 June, I plan to return to Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization over the summer to write a poem or two under the planetarium dome and explore the extensive permanent collections.
Good Ideas: Admission to Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization is nominal (5 AED per adult and 10 AED per family), which makes it the perfect summer destination for you and your entire family. ‘So That You Might Know Each Other’ runs through 14 June, 2014 but there is a strong permanent collection and the planetarium is worth a visit alone. To plan your visit (or to check out the other 15 museums that fall under the directorship of Sharjah Museums Department) go here.