How Sharjah Has Become A Global Cultural Hub

Lindsay Judge   |   09-07-2024

Marwa Obaid Al Aqroubi, Executive Director of House of Wisdom, discusses how Sharjah has become a leading bastion of cultural development.

In 2019, Sharjah was awarded the title of the UNESCO World Book Capital and in celebration, the House of Wisdom was commissioned as a unique building that would represent a new era of learning. The building was designed by the award-winning architectural company, Foster + Partner and extends over 12,000 square metres. This unique structure houses a literary universe. So much more than a library, it has become a place of knowledge sharing, learning and community development and is now a crucial part of the Emirates’ cultural scene. Here, we talk to Executive Director Marwa Obaid Al Aqroubi to find out more about how the House of Wisdom is helping to shape up the UAE’s arts and cultural landscape. 

Tell us about the House of Wisdom and its concept.

The House of Wisdom was established under the visionary directives of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah and Member of the Supreme Council. It stands as a modern cultural hub that represents the enduring legacy of Sharjah’s prestigious designation as the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2019. This initiative was conceived with a deep sense of purpose — to celebrate this milestone and to communicate its profound significance to future generations, and aims to further the tireless efforts that seek to enhance knowledge and nurture thriving communities through quality events, activities, and exhibitions.

Why is it important to have such a place in Sharjah?

As someone who is proud to call Sharjah my home, I can attest that this emirate is the capital of all that is beautiful and unique, a distinction it has earned through its rich history in science and knowledge, a history that I feel deeply connected to. I believe that Sharjah’s natural and well-deserved status as the home for the House of Wisdom serves as a monument to the emirate’s strong presence in the cultural, educational, artistic, and scientific realms. I have had the privilege of experiencing firsthand the significant and impactful presence of creative people from around the world who have been drawn to Sharjah’s vibrant ecosystem. The emirate’s diverse range of programmes, exhibitions, festivals, and inclusive events have enriched countless lives and firmly aligned with our efforts and the objectives we seek to achieve.

What’s coming up this year at House of Wisdom?

For the second half of 2024, we plan to continue our monthly programmes, such as the panel discussions in the ‘Wisdom Talks’ and ‘HoW Talents’ programmes that educate the community on creative and talented people. We will also continue our programmes hosted at the Al Jazri Laboratory, named after Arab scientist, engineer and alchemist Badi Al Zaman Al Jazari (1206-1136), one of the most important inventors in history, in addition to The Little Reader’s programmes.

The beloved Enchanted Gardens Festival for children and families is set to return, offering a delightful opportunity to celebrate a renowned work of literature through immersive experiences. We also plan to launch the second edition of the Book Club in autumn, in addition to organising a plethora of programmes and events on the sideline of our participation in the upcoming Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) in November.

Sharjah has become a leading hub in culture and arts – tell us more about this.

In April 1979, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah said: “It is time to stop the concrete revolution in the country and replace it with a cultural revolution instead.” Since then, Sharjah has been celebrating culture and art in all of its cities, towns, neighbourhoods and landmarks, through institutions that work together to further enhance this position and ensure its continuity. Sharjah has become an artistic and cultural hub not only because of its renowned events and supportive entities but also because culture and arts have a very important role and are prioritised by the government. The cultural development process is seeing continuous expansion and progress to meet the needs of people while keeping up with the latest trends.

What would you like to see happen around this in the future?

At the House of Wisdom, our vision is inspired by and in line with Sharjah’s vision. Hence, we look forward to becoming a global centre for intellectual and artistic creativity. We not only want the House of Wisdom to be a place for social engagement and discussions, but also to play an undeniable role in the production of knowledge and creativity, so that creative ideas are born here, turned into visionary projects and inventions, and spread around the world.

In line with the vision and directives of His Highness, there are expansion plans in the future. We are considering opening new branches of the House of Wisdom in different locations across Sharjah. I believe that the new expansion will be a major step forward towards the enhancement of knowledge accessibility, and providing people with close destinations to interact, discuss, and read, as well as enjoy the rich programme of exhibitions and events we organise throughout the year.

The design of House of Wisdom is very special – tell us about this.

The House of Wisdom’s design was inspired by the vision of Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, Chairperson of the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) and Chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq). Her goal was to create a space reflecting Sharjah’s rich cultural achievements and cement the emirate’s position as a global hub that celebrates science, creativity, and culture. To bring this vision to life, the renowned architectural firm Foster + Partners was tasked with designing a building that encapsulates the essence of Sharjah.

The resulting two-story structure is a testament to the emirate’s commitment to innovation and progress. The building’s facade is shaded by a floating roof, creating a light-spirited and resilient design. Surrounding the structure is a lush, verdant landscape featuring Fig, Ghaf, and Palm trees, as well as a striking sculpture by artist Gerry Judah called “The Scroll,” which commemorates Sharjah’s designation as the UNESCO World Book Capital in 2019.

The interior of the House of Wisdom is designed to be open and inviting, with natural elements such as plants, a tree, and fountains creating a serene and calming environment. The extensive use of transparent glass allows visitors to appreciate the beauty of the surrounding gardens from every angle, seamlessly blending the indoor and outdoor spaces.

How does House of Wisdom help to share what’s happening in Sharjah on an international scale?

There are two methods to achieve this objective. The first method is by participating in regional and global exhibitions and conferences, and we have been proud to be part of previous book fairs such as the Thessaloniki International Book Fair (TIBF) in Greece, and the Seoul International Book Fair (SIBF) in Korea, in addition to conferences like the Ithra conference in Saudi Arabia. The second method is to foster partnerships and collaborative events with active institutions, like the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

What’s the biggest challenge in your role today?

Any work includes a challenge in one way or another, but in the House of Wisdom, we have more of an objective than a challenge – to instil a love of our culture and heritage in young generations, particularly the youth and university students, and inspire them to preserve it and be proud of it. If our identity and culture was not preserved, we could not have reached this position and achieved such development, progress and prosperity. We want to harness this place, with its position, state-of-the-art facilities, premium services, and prestigious events, to achieve this objective.

What would you still like to achieve with HOW?

I am proud of Emirati culture, of Arab and Islamic identity, and the global recognition it receives. It is something that I see during each participation in an international book fair or a visit to another country. I always look forward to seeing the House of Wisdom play a vital role in promoting our culture all around the world, as a key contributor to human civilisation, and a key player in driving positive impact on nations worldwide, fostering cross-cultural communication, understanding and dialogue between them.

We seek to promote Emirati, Arab and Islamic culture worldwide, and this has been evident during the visits of our global guests, who have put the House of Wisdom on their agenda to explore our best practices.

We know you have a personal passion for writing – tell us about that?

Sixteen years ago, I started working under the leadership of Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, who established ‘Kalimat Group’, and has always inspired her teams to advance their careers in the writing and publishing field. Thanks to her support and encouragement, I published my first children’s book ‘Ahmed El Helo’ (Adorable Ahmad), followed by ‘Goodbye Nana’. I also translated many award-winning books, in addition to writing articles in newspapers.

As someone born and raised in Sharjah, I find it natural that my passion for writing has been nurtured by this emirate, which is renowned for its pioneering efforts in various fields, including the literary arts.

Why do you believe it’s important for people to read today?

Reading is life! Books are essential amidst the fuss and buzz and fast-paced lifestyles to give us the tranquillity, serenity and contemplation that we need to go on. Reading also opens the doors to the world and brings us closer to each other and to our culture. It makes us more capable of understanding the ‘other’ who shares the land and the passion for literature with us. This is why it is crucial that we read and continue reading every day, no matter what.

In this issue, we are talking about Emirati Women’s Day – what does this day mean to you?

Emirati women are partners in building our country and further elevating our society. They set the perfect example of striking a balance between personal, professional and family life. Dedicating a day to them is a token of appreciation from the wise leadership who has always believed in them and in their abilities, and open the doors for them to contribute and participate in the progress of our country. Such a day is an additional incentive that motivates them to achieve more creativity and excellence. It inspires them to make more achievements that further strengthen the community and boost its position worldwide.

What’s the professional motto that you live by?

Let your achievements speak for you, and be the best ambassador wherever you go.

What message would you send to our readers to invite them to the House of Wisdom?

Welcome to the most beautiful cultural and social centre in the UAE – the House of Wisdom in Sharjah. Here, you can read books, study, do research, and take part in many events that we organise regularly all year long. You can also make the most of the specialised digital libraries that provide rich and various sources. House of Wisdom is more than a library. It is a knowledge, creativity and cultural exchange hub, which makes it a premiere destination for everyone who seeks knowledge and culture, a place in which different cultures, ideas and interests interact, providing new opportunities for innovation, creativity, learning and entertainment. It is a must-visit destination.