The Gulf's shared heritage is at the heart of Bahraini interior designer Ammar Basheir's latest project. He worked alongside the UAE's Ministry of Culture and Bahrain's Sheikh Ebrahim Centre to create Nuzul Al Salam, a restored heritage house and boutique hotel on the island of Muharraq that will open its doors to guests by the end of the year.
Look through the gallery above to see more inside the hotel.
The building is in one of Bahrain's oldest towns and is the first hotel to form part of the Pearling Path, which connects several key components of the region's pearling industry.
Considering its location and cultural significance, it was important to Basheir, who grew up in the kingdom and started his multi-million-dollar business there, to put traditional techniques front and centre. "We've always tried to emphasise heritage [in our work], but it can often be portrayed in a very cliche way," says Basheir when we speak to him about the hotel.
"Old places in Doha or Oman [for example] have a predictable environment. They have lots of Arabic patterns, mashrabiyas, maroons, golds. It works well with the outside world, though – they like it ... I take responsibility as a designer to educate tourists with more refined, more sophisticated and avant-garde choices."
The aim with this project was to recreate an old Bahraini house that reflects those built in the early 20th century. Basheir and his team have incorporated external influences, brought to the Gulf from Britain and India, and made furniture that would have been available during the 1930s and 1940s. Materials such as wood and rattan are used generously, adding to the more minimalist aesthetic. "It looks very retro, but it's relevant to the period of the house," he explains.
Basheir also used this project to employ local artisans. "We believe in empowering small businesses and maintaining traditional skills," he says. "For example, we did a lot of research into old flooring material and found terrazzo was used."
This composite material was very trendy among Bahraini families back then, he explains. "So we went for terrazzo flooring [in the hotel] and casted it on site. Instead of going for smaller tiles, we did the entire floor. While restoring the house, we found lots of broken glass and marble and we poured this into the terrazzo as well." This took a team three months to finish.
It is this kind of attention to detail that makes the project stand out. A local weaver and fashion designer made the bathrobes, the uniforms were stitched locally and guests can even take a bespoke prayer mat away with them as a souvenir. Italian artist and long-term Bahrain resident Giuse Maggi worked with a Bahraini craftsperson to make glass baskets interwoven with palm leaves, which have been used as decoration across the hotel.
Basheir's vision also incorporated nods to the ancient Dilmun civilisation and The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from Mesopotamia that's thought to be the oldest surviving piece of epic world literature. "In the tale, there's an eternal search for the flower of eternity. They believed in the old days that if they dive deep in the sea they would find a flower and this will give them immortality. So we didn't follow any Arabesque motifs, we went with our imagination and were inspired by a fairy tale."
This influence can be seen in the hotel's rooms, as each are named after a phrase in the poem. One is called Amal, which means "hope". Another is Shams, or the "sun". A third is called Bahr, which means "sea" (the word Bahrain comes from the Arabic for "two seas"). In the latter, you'll see blue textured walls, green woven textiles and wooden floors that pay homage to the country's fishing trade.
Back in the reception area, a central parametric staircase catches the eye. "It's a hotel, so it must have this incredible feature," says Basheir. For design inspiration, his team studied Bahrain's boats, taking the main elements that create a fishing vessel and using 700 pieces of oak wood that were hand-carved on site by Bahraini carpenters who took three-and-a-half-months to complete the work.
There’s also a bistro serving contemporary Bahraini food, a central courtyard that’s home to eight lemon and orange trees and a secret garden on the roof. “This rooftop in the old days used to be an extension for a kitchen,” Basheir explains. “It’s been turned into the most beautiful roof terrace you’ll ever see. It’s the most charming place in the hotel. It looks like a garden you’d see in Portofino, in the south of France. It’s very intimate.”
The UAE’s influence is also visible throughout, as they pay homage to Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, and his famously generous, tolerant nature.
“One room in the project has a living wall called the Spirit of Zayed,” says Basheir. “This is a kinetic wall using the latest technology with moons and suns that move with a sensor. As soon as you walk by, the moon will become a crescent and then full. This wall is also adorned with quotes from Sheikh Zayed that are relevant to peace, prosperity and heritage. It shows how his spirit still lives on.”
For more than a decade, London-educated Basheir has been building a career out of fusing sentiment with cutting-edge design. He's worked on several cultural projects – from the recently revamped Post Office Museum in Bahrain to Dubai's Women's Museum – but also large-scale parties, including Amal and George Clooney's post-wedding bash. He's now working on revamping Bahrain's first hotel, which played host to many Arab and world leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, into a modern property complete with 55 rooms.
Nuzul Al Salam was different to Basheir’s usual projects, however. “We are known for our dramatic interiors that are over the top, but the main aim of this hotel was for it not to overwhelm whoever walks in. We wanted it to be inviting, intimate and welcoming.”