The Merchant House: Bliss in Bahrain

This recently opened boutique hotel is a strong contender for the GCC’s best. (Supplied)
Updated 26 August 2019

The Merchant House: Bliss in Bahrain

DUBAI: A couple of years ago, I interviewed the founder of Campbell GRAY Hotels, Gordon Campbell Gray, whose most well-known venture in the region is the spectacularly homely-yet-luxurious Le Gray in Beirut, Lebanon.

During our conversation, he discussed some of the gripes he had about other boutique hotels or chains. For instance, he questioned why a shower tap had to take a few minutes for the water to be warm.

“Imagine how wasteful that is,” he said, going on to add that guests should be able to jump into the shower and finish in a few minutes.

So, on my recent visit to Campbell GRAY’s The Merchant House in Manama, the first thing I did was, of course, test the shower. And true to form, the hot water was almost instant.

It’s this attention to detail that has enabled the company to retain its status as one of the best hoteliers in the world. Campbell Gray himself is apparently involved in every aspect of each hotel’s creation, design and philosophy. And no two properties are the same.

While the company has avoided rapid expansion in the region — it doesn’t want to lose its sense of exclusivity — it’s now beginning to establish a firm presence in the Middle East outside of Lebanon. First in Amman and now in Bahrain.

The Merchant House, which is just a short drive from Bahrain International Airport, is the brand’s first hotel in the GCC, and what a debut to make. Superb is an understatement. This boutique property — which launched earlier this year — consists of 46 uniquely-designed suites, each with its own art pieces.

And if you’re into your art, then this is a dream stay. Partnering with a VIP Bahraini collector (who has chosen to remain anonymous), The Merchant House features an extensive contemporary art collection, with works by local artists including Dawiya Al Alawiyat, some regional names, and some international heavyweights such as Virut Panchabuse, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol.

The rooms themselves are almost works of art too. Every little thing has been thought of, from the bathroom amenities where all packaging is recyclable (the hotel operates a non-waste policy, therefore expect things like biodegradable straws being used instead of plastic) to the shape of the ice. There is no ice bucket here. You get a pull-out fridge/mini-bar and an individual freezer filled with oval-shaped ice. And naturally, you can expect all the usual niceties like comfy robes and slippers.

The library on the first floor is not to be missed. It holds more than 1,000 curated books for guests and visitors to enjoy with a cup of tea. There’s also the property’s signature restaurant, Indigo on the rooftop, with a stunning terrace for the winter time. Lifestyle elements include an outdoor pool, a gym, and a spa promoting the Bahraini brand Green Bar.

If there is one drawback to staying at The Merchant House at the moment, it is the location. Yes, it’s next to the retro-styled faux-historic Bab el-Bahrain souk area, but a souvenir-hunting type of getaway isn’t for everyone.

The hotel is great for those staying in the city for business meetings nearby, but one can imagine it being quite tricky to lure visitors away from the more upscale Bahrain Bay area near the seafront. According to the hotel’s management, this has been accounted for. The Merchant House has arrived at a time when the surrounding area is being renovated to attract more visitors to downtown Manama. Judging by the progress, this will be become one of the Bahrain’s ‘must-visit’ places over the next year.

Film Review: Afghan tale of three troubled pregnancies fails to deliver

Director Sahraa Karimi profiles the lives of three young Afghan women. (Supplied)
Updated 16 September 2019

Film Review: Afghan tale of three troubled pregnancies fails to deliver

VENICE: Dubbed Afghanistan’s first female director, Sahraa Karimi grew up in Iran with her refugee parents, and later studied cinema in Slovakia.

With 30 shorts and a couple of documentaries under her belt, she travelled this year to the Venice Film Festival with her debut fiction feature, “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha.”

Studying and making movies in Europe was not her scene. “Somehow, from a storytelling perspective, I don’t belong to that part of the world,” she said, recalling her days in Slovakia. “I belong to Afghanistan.”

She returned to Kabul to shoot “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha,” which was produced by Katayoon Shahabi of Noori Pictures that once helped introduce Iranian directors such as Asghar Farhadi and Mohammad Rasoulof to the world.

In her film, Karimi profiles the lives of three young Afghan women, linked only by problems with the men in their lives.

Hava’s (Arezoo Ariapoor) husband is callous to the point of being cruel, and her only comfort is talking to the baby in her womb. But when it stops kicking, she panics.

Maryam (Fereshta Afshar) is a popular television news reporter who wants to divorce her philandering husband. However, he insists on giving their marriage one more chance, and Maryam finds out she is pregnant.

Another expectant mother, 18-year-old Ayesha (Hasiba Ebrahimi), comes from a middleclass family but is left with no choice but to marry her cousin after being dumped by her cowardly boyfriend.

The three stories, while seemingly interesting, fail to engage because there is hardly any dramatic curve in them.

Possibly the only high point about the movie was Karimi’s relaying of the real-life tales she drew from women during her travels as a UNICEF representative. The experience was cathartic for many.

“Women don’t share their secret lives with their families or their communities, because they’re scared of rumors and gossip,” said Karimi. But with the female director, they felt comfortable and began to speak “about their suffering, wishes, and dreams.”

The more difficult part for Karimi was the shoot itself. The crew had to film under trying conditions with at least four bombs exploding in and around Kabul. But she labored on.

This probably prevented her from getting better technical results from an interesting concept, but the film could still have been pepped up with livelier storytelling.