My First Majlis: Sharjah Museum Of Islamic Civilization Hosts A Special Exhibition From The Vatican

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.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization is a stunning historic building set along the water

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization is a stunning historic building set along the water

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.

The building once served as a major souk where the people of Sharjah would pick up everything from carpets to everyday groceries like honey and coffee

The building once served as a major souk where the people of Sharjah would pick up everything from carpets to everyday groceries like honey and coffee

The planetarium tucked away upstairs takes my breath away each time I stand in its presence. The dome is an homage to the tradition of astronomy in the Arab world and the continued role that the moon and stars play in the practice of Islam even today

The planetarium tucked away upstairs takes my breath away each time I stand in its presence. The dome is an homage to the tradition of astronomy in the Arab world and the continued role that the moon and stars play in the practice of Islam even today

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.

Elements of traditional Islamic design can be discovered in nooks and crannies throughout the gorgeous building

Elements of traditional Islamic design can be discovered in nooks and crannies throughout the gorgeous building

The lute is the instrument that has probably had the most impact on Middle Eastern music. This beauty is a short-necked variety inlaid with mother of pearl and originating in Morocco in the late 19th or early 20th century.

The lute is the instrument that has probably had the most impact on Middle Eastern music. This beauty is a short-necked variety inlaid with mother of pearl and originating in Morocco in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Perhaps the most common social setting in the Arab world is a cafe or teahouse traditionally filled with men (and nowadays women too), playing backgammon, sipping mint tea, and smoking a shisha. The shisha or hookah has its origins in 16th century Iran and India. This particular artifact originates from Iraq in the late 19th or early 20th century and proves that people spent their leisure time in much the same way as we do today

Perhaps the most common social setting in the Arab world is a cafe or teahouse traditionally filled with men (and nowadays women too), playing backgammon, sipping mint tea, and smoking a shisha. The shisha or hookah has its origins in 16th century Iran and India. This particular artifact originates from Iraq in the late 19th or early 20th century and proves that people spent their leisure time in much the same way as we do today

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.

Taking thorough notes along our tour and truly enjoying learning about women's embroidery circles, dress and weddings around the Muslim world

Taking thorough notes along our tour and truly enjoying learning about women’s embroidery circles, traditional dress and weddings around the Muslim world

This ornately embroidered velvet jacket from early 20th century Bethlehem would still be considered fashionable today. This particular design may be inspired by British colonial military uniforms and sadly replaces the more traditional Palestinian embroidery that the area once was known for

This ornately embroidered velvet jacket from early 20th century Bethlehem would still be considered fashionable today. This particular design may be inspired by British colonial military uniforms and sadly replaces the more traditional Palestinian embroidery that the area once was known for

Dr. Al-Khamis explained that this Suzani tapestry was woven by a community of 19th century Uzbek women who would sit and share their stories, problems, and jokes as they worked. The tapestry was part of a young bride's dowry and you can almost hear the tears and laugher sewn by hand into the vibrant pattern

Dr. Al-Khamis explained that this Suzani tapestry was woven by a community of Uzbek women who would sit and share their stories, problems, and jokes as they worked. The tapestry was part of a young bride’s dowry and you can almost hear the tears and laugher sewn by hand into the vibrant pattern

Here we are seated in a traditional majlis, sipping strong Emirati coffee and nibbling politely on dates while learning about how the space is typically used in locals' homes. I want a majlis in my house!

Here we are seated in a traditional majlis, sipping strong Emirati coffee and nibbling politely on dates while learning about how the space is typically used in locals’ homes. I want a majlis in my house!

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.