Sherifa Madgwick - Sharjah Centre for Cultural Communication conducts a cultural session for tourists. Satish Kumar/The National
Sep 4, 2011
Sharjah // The Al Noor Mosque has become the third in the country to open its doors to non-Muslims to promote cross-cultural understanding.
Sherifa Madgwick, the general manager of the Sharjah Centre for Cultural Communication, said the increasing number of visitors to the emirate brought a need to bridge the cultural divide.
"When tourists come here they have all these snippets of information about Islam and the UAE, mostly influenced by what they have read in books or through the media," said Ms. Madgwick.
"This makes our job - giving them a full and true understanding - even more important."
Noura Al Ali, a volunteer mosque guide, begins her tour of Al Noor by talking about its history, then goes into intricate detail about its Turkish-inspired minarets and domes before explaining the call to prayer and the other tenets of Islam.
The Emirati volunteer encourages questions from tourists as she guides them through the mosque on the banks of Khalid Lagoon, explaining various aspects of her religion and customs.
"We never get offended. In fact we try to politely understand their perspective and give ours," said Ms Al Ali, a student at Sharjah Women's College.
"One of the most striking conversations I have had with a visitor was when he asked me what my opinion was about Osama bin Laden.
"I told him his [bin Laden's] actions had nothing to do with religion and that what he did was a personal choice. No religion promotes violence."
The mosque tours will be part of a series of programmes offered by the Sharjah Centre for Cultural Communication, a non-profit organisation supported by the Awqaf General Trust.
Ms. Madgwick, who was also involved in setting up the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, said the tours would be different to those at the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
"We have developed foreign language tours so we can cater to tour operators, the corporate sector and tourist groups," she said.
"This provides the opportunity for those who do not speak English to have a translated mosque visit in their native language."
The tours were introduced this year and organisers have already hosted small hotel groups.
"I found being a guide is an exciting way to share ideas and my culture with the people I meet," said Ms Al Ali, who heard about the tours from her uncle.
"When I talk to them I feel happy. I now feel like I have friends from Germany, Russia, Norway, Switzerland … from all over the world."
The centre will also offer Arabic classes, cultural question and answer gatherings, and a school outing programme for private schools, which begins this month.
Cultural questions were also tackled at a recent event organised by the centre at the Coral Beach Hotel, where a tent was set up for an information session and iftar.
One of the people who attended was Ludmiha Makovenco from Serbia, who was on a 10-day holiday and had several questions about women, their freedom and marriage.
"It was interesting to see openness of the society and the progress the country has made," said Ms Makovenco.
Ms Madgwick answered questions such as "why do women wear black?" and "is it true that women here do not have passports?"
"We are all very naive about each other's cultures," she said. "That is why we want to conduct these two-way forums more often and plan to set this up at different hotels, once a week."
The organisation operates with a team of seven volunteers in the Awqaf premises but is planning to expand and move into the heritage area of the city.
"Our future plans include building a house-like atmosphere with a library where people can immerse themselves, cook, have lunches and just meet up for some cultural talk," she said.
More information about the centre and its activities can be found at shjculture.com