Wherever I've lived in the world - which includes at least 30 different residences - I've wanted the space surrounding me to have a sense of seclusion, uniqueness and self. When I moved to Abu Dhabi almost two years ago, I knew that in addition to starting a job and finding my way around a new city, country and culture, creating this sanctuary would be among the challenges I'd undertake. That said, I have, let us say, certain eccentric requirements. And this is where it gets weird - I don't like beds. While I can sleep just fine on your standard mattress-and-box-spring combo, I don't care to look at one when I only have a small space to call my own.
I believe a room should be set up as if guests might arrive at any moment. A bed is a personal item that needlessly occupies valuable surface area that could be better used by a coffee table, majlis cushions, musical instruments or anything else that invites people to relax and be entertained. Fortunately, the capital is home to dozens of carpenters that can saw and hammer whatever vision one has into reality. And the best part? Unlike in many Western countries, customising furniture can actually cost less than buying these items at conventional furniture stores, such as Ikea or The One.
Another way to save dirhams is to pay visits to any of the second-hand furniture and upholstery shops in Abu Dhabi, many of which are located in the Tanker Mai community, just off Muroor Road between 15th Street and Delma Street. Fortunately, when I moved to Abu Dhabi, these shops were right on my doorstep. Soon, I began walking around to carpenters to see if they could accommodate my dream of a seemingly bedless bedroom. I also had a few other flourishes in mind, such as walls wrapped in lustrous red velvet. I quickly realised, however, that any number of them would be willing to humour my plan, but at an exorbitant price. Like a visit to the souk, be prepared to shop around and haggle.
For example, when I brought one upholsterer to my room to get a quote for the cost of adorning my walls in velvet, he explained that he wanted to construct a framework over which he would stretch the material. Fine by me, but for this elaborate method he asked for Dh6,200, which is more than I had to spend on the entire project. No, this wouldn't do. Queries with other carpenters and upholsterers in the area proved equally expensive. I had all but given up and consigned myself to a "normal" bedroom, when after work one day I stumbled into small shop called Sadiq Carpentry (02 445 1467), a few blocks from home.
The man I found inside was middle-aged, with a paunch belly and wire-rimmed glasses. Ahsan Ilahi's English was good and something about his demeanour told me that he was different - that he actually knew what he was doing, and wasn't eyeing me like a dirham dropped on the floor. What if I were to build a loft and hide a bed on top of it? I said. He scrunched an eye and nodded. When he came over to my flat I found a scrap of paper and a pencil and he started sketching as I told him the dimensions. He pulled out his tape measure and jotted notes.
A loft of this size wouldn't be very sturdy, he said. I asked for the piece of paper and scribbled onto the design diagonal support beams. His eyebrows furrowed, and then he nodded again. "But", he said with a raised finger, "at this height you will have a problem." He noted that if I didn't allow for greater clearance, I would hear my alarm and bash my head on the ceiling each morning when I awoke.
My back and forth with Mr Ilahi continued, until finally, the design was agreed upon. Now it was bargaining time. But unlike other carpenters, Mr Ilahi wasn't into the usual process of setting a ridiculous figure and being haggled down to the point where the same words were always uttered: "OK, my friend, last price for you." Instead, what he offered was Dh2,800 for the wood and work, which was much less than I was expecting. So we struck a deal.
Now, about the velvet. The carpenter explained that it would be expensive to cover my walls with the stuff. Looking at the design of my soon-to-be loft, however, I came up with an alternative. What if I were to drape the posts of the structure with curtains rimmed with golden frill? That he could arrange, he said. We went to an upholstery shop a few doors down, and he helped me negotiate with the owner to have this done for about Dh1,800.
For Dh250 I also contracted Mr Ilahi's workers to paint my walls a light coral pink in order to brighten up what was otherwise becoming a very Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque lair. Within two weeks all the work was done. Now, with the structures in place, and no bed cluttering my room, I had the freedom to elaborate on a theme using inexpensive furnishings at hand. I went around to the dozens of used furniture shops in the neighbourhood, picking out such items as an old wooden desk, a rickety wicker-backed rocking chair, a Chinese vanity, a crimson Persian rug and some brass floor and desk lamps. What was shaping up was a motif that I began to think of as a 19th-century study in the sultan's palace for a sojourning wayfarer.
For the finishing touches, I made a trip to the area of Dubai's souk that sells saris and other cloth items, and bought a dozen Dh10 Somali-style silk headscarves that are black with red and white squares. When I got home, I staple-gunned them to the underside of the loft. At the carpet souk near Abu Dhabi's Mena I chose a red and black set of majlis cushions and a zebra-print duvet to throw on top of my elevated bed. In a rusty bucket in another used furniture shop I found two heavy brass spearhead-shaped finials that I screwed into the wood of my platform for added flair.
All of these purchases - in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai - cost a total of Dh1,500. My most spendthrifty indulgences were things I had bought before I left New York - in the corner of the room I planted my beloved Caliphone portable turntable and 100 or so records I have acquired over my lifetime. While such collectables are not cheap, I credit them with preserving my body and soul over the past two years.
All things considered, I doubt I'd want to shell out the cash for all of these items at a standard home-furnishing store. At the Ikea in Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall, a Hemnes bed frame alone costs Dh1,245. There are cheaper alternatives, such as an Aspelund bed, running Dh595. But remember, this price only includes the supporting structure, not the mattress. So add another Dh400 to Dh1,000 on top of that, depending on the make and quality. A Hemnes chest of drawers, of similar proportion to my Chinese vanity, costs Dh1,145 and a wardrobe for my clothes would be Dh2,085. A Hemmet rug is Dh879, a rocking chair about Dh460 and a floor lamp is about Dh175.
In all, to outfit my room with basic Ikea furniture would have cost at least Dh6,000 to Dh7,000, and that, of course, wouldn't include all the original knick-knacks and treasures I picked up along the way. And if I were to visit a more high-end local retailer, such as The One, the bed alone could easily have cost several thousand dirhams. The Gelo bed, for example, one of their cheaper models, costs a hefty Dh6,065, including the frame and mattress.
I got exactly the room I wanted, velvet and all, for a tidy Dh6,350. These days, my room continues to evolve as I find more things that fit. But this process itself has been a priceless source of entertainment. Instead of swinging through IKEA's aisles and tossing dissembled cookie-cutter furniture into the cart, I was able to outfit my bedroom in a way that fits with my tastes. And I have a few more dirhams in my pocket, too.