Quarters of an urban nomad

The home of Hajar Ali, the first woman to cross the world's largest sand desert, is filled with quirky items, mostly picked up on her travels to far-flung locales.

A VISIT to Hajar Ali's home is much like stepping into a curio shop. There are plenty of quirky items, from kilims to exotic looking sculptures, antique lamps, elaborate headdress, even to a wooden door with detailed carvings on them.

But unlike curio shops, which tend to be dark and dingy, Ms Hajar's penthouse apartment off Serangoon Road is bright and airy, and gets unblocked views of the city. The items around the home were bought from Ms Hajar's numerous trips to far-flung locales.

The founder of Urbane Nomads, a luxury travel company, has lived in this apartment for 10 years, and doesn't see herself moving out any time soon. "It doesn't feel like it has been 10 years," says Ms Hajar. She chose the location to be near her parents' home.

The 196 square metre apartment comes with a bedroom on the lower floor and two bedrooms on the upper floor, along with a spacious balcony, adorned with Bengal wood panels from Thailand. "I don't use this balcony space much, but the panels look perfect here," she says, of her purchases. One of her bedrooms doubles as her home office.

The former real estate agent founded Urbane Nomads in 2008, while on a trip to Patagonia. "I didn't like the job as I was limited by the inventory. Sometimes clients can't find the right home as there aren't any houses that fit the bill," she says. "But with travel, there is so much more leeway. Urbane Nomads specialises in luxury travel to remote places."

Some of the places where Ms Hajar has been to include Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Morocco. In 2012, she made the local headlines for being the first woman to cross the world's largest sand desert, the Middle East's "Empty Quarter".

The Empty Quarter, which spans 650,000 sq km across the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, consists of stretches of few hundred-metre-high sand dunes, and cracked salt flats with quicksand. As its name suggests, the area is almost devoid of human settlement because of its extreme heat and scarce rain.

A rock made of millions of tiny crystals was her souvenir from that trip, now perched on a stand in the living room.

When she moved in 10 years ago, Ms Hajar had an idea of how she wanted her home to look. She did the interior design herself.

Running along the length of the living room wall, is a poem by Hafez, a Persian poet, which Ms Hajar hand painted herself. Hafez's collected works are regarded as the pinnacle of Persian literature and can be found in the homes of most people in Iran, who learn his poems by heart and use them as proverbs and sayings to this day.

She painted the walls at the staircase black, so as to better display her collection of accessories from her trips to Africa. "I have a soft spot for African items, because they are so colourful," she says, of a multi-coloured Maasai necklace, and a pink African chief headdress that resembles a piece of coral. "I would have loved to ship back furniture from Africa, but I can't, as the pieces are often wooden and very heavy, and shipping would be too costly."

Elsewhere in the home are courtship balls which Ms Hajar bought from Vietnam. "These balls are thrown at potential mates among the Hmong people. I bought them because they are so colourful," she says.

She also has items from Morocco, such as lamps, and a door, which she installed as the door to her bedroom.

The door, which she bought from an antique shop, has the Hand of Fatima on it. Also known as the hamsa, it is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The hamsa, so named to commemorate Muhammad's daughter Fatima Zahra, is believed to provide defence against the evil eye.

Ms Hajar recalls a funny story when she was buying it. "I waited very long for it to be shipped here. It was only later I found out, that somehow the storekeeper heard Shanghai instead of Singapore, so the door was shipped to China by accident, before making its way here," she says.

Not everything in the home is from her travels. Ms Hajar also has a growing collection of all things equestrian, such as riding boots and hats, a saddle and polo sticks. "I have been riding for a long time, and it sounds lame to just be riding, so I decided to take up polo lessons," she says. "Even though I have experience riding, it is not good enough for polo. So after a year of lessons, I've finally been given the green light to hold the polo stick."

While she is happy to have the whole apartment to herself, "my cat Loki, is getting more and more real estate". Loki has his own space under the staircase, and soon, he will get a cat wheel for him to run on. Ms Hajar wanted to a dog but could not for religious reasons, so "I got a cat that behaves like a dog". The Bengal cat loves following her around, "he does not have a sense of 'me' time", she quips.

With Ms Hajar picking up things from her travels for her home, it is very likely there will be more exotic items that will fill the home soon. On her list of places to go? "More of Africa, an expedition to Afghanistan, Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia and even to Antarctica."

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