News / Arts & Entertainment

Shisha Smoking Makes Quiet Reappearance in Khartoum

Customers smoke water pipes at a shisha cafe in Khartoum, April 28, 2013
Customers smoke water pipes at a shisha cafe in Khartoum, April 28, 2013
For Sudanese businessman Mohamed Ali the tedium of the evening hours is finally over - his favorite shisha cafe in the capital Khartoum has reopened after a two-year break.
"I come here every day. I love to be here and smoke water pipe with my friends and socialize,'' said Ali, sitting at a table in a noisy shisha cafe on the top floor of a hotel.
Enormously popular across the Middle East and in North Africa, shisha smoking is frowned upon in conservative Muslim countries such as Sudan or Saudi Arabia on "morality'' grounds.
Khartoum city authorities revoked the licences of shisha cafes two years ago after radical preachers said the practice - which involves inhaling flavored tobacco, or shisha, through a water pipe also known as a hookah or arghila - not only damaged the health but also provided unmarried men and women an opportunity to mix.
But the realities of the country's moribund business environment and economy since South Sudan seceded in 2011 mean it is creeping back into daily life.
Local authorities have allowed shisha smoking back in "touristic hotels and restaurants'', and they tend to look the other way in some other venues.
A few large restaurants have also started to stage live music events that they stopped with the shisha ban because some Islamists deem such performances as "haram'', or forbidden.
The return of the cafes is welcome news for the young Sudanese who complain about the capital's dull nightlife.
While Cairo's Nile banks bustle with diners, there are hardly any cafes on the river promenade in Khartoum. The dusty streets are deserted from 11 p.m., when most restaurants and the country's only shopping malls close.
"If I don't have a shisha, I'm unhappy,'' said Mohamed Ismail, another smoker in the busy hotel cafe.
Hotel owners hope the business of shisha will offset a sharp drop in the occupancy rates since southern secession.
The loss of oil reserves has drained the government's coffers and hit spending on infrastructure, driving away executives from China and other Asian countries who used to do a good business in Sudan. Most Western firms shun Sudan due to U.S. sanctions over its human rights record.
"Demand for rooms is very weak. I've been thinking of closing one floor,'' said Majid Osman, a lawyer who owns the hotel with the shisha lounge.
"We have some 70 people coming every day, spending at least 20 [Sudanese] pounds [$3.20],'' said Osman, who has to pay an annual fee of 5,000 pounds for the shisha licence.
"There are other places who even sell 500 shishas every night,'' he said.
Mohamed Ali spends $200 a month there on water pipes alone. Like other regular visitors, the cafe has reserved a personal shisha for him with his name written on it.

Still very conservative       

But the relaxation of the water pipe ban doesn't mean Khartoum is not still a very conservative place. Alcohol is banned, and those caught brewing beer at home are flogged.
The few tourists who make it to the capital these days would never know from walking Jumhuriya (Republican) street now that this was once the heart of a cosmopolitan capital with a nightlife as vibrant as Dubai or Beirut today.
Home to shops selling mainly cheap Chinese goods during the day and deserted and unlit at night, the street was lined in the 60s and 70s with luxury shops selling the latest Italian fashion, delicatessen shops offering French cheese - and bars and nightclubs.
"Here was an ice cream parlor where you would get the same standard like in Europe,'' said Omar El Fadli, showing a small stall opposite his restaurant, the Papa Costa.
Further down he points to an empty strip of land where once stood a nightclub founded by British colonial rulers who left in 1956.
"Life was completely different. It was amazing,'' said 56-year-old Fadli, who left in 1974 to study in Cambridge and came back in 2005 when Sudan made peace with the south. 

"Businesses were booming. We had a large community of expatriates. Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Egyptians, who were mainly running businesses. Even social habits were different,'' he said, sitting in his almost empty restaurant. "We had entertainment, parties, weddings which started at midnight and would go until four o'clock in the morning.''
His restaurant, founded by Greek merchants in the 1950s initially as a bakery, is one of the few outlets from the old times that still exist on the street. It doesn't serve alcohol anymore, of course.
The booming scene was harshly curbed when late President Jaafar Nimeiri decided to introduce Islamic law in 1983, closing all bars and banning alcohol.
"They took it [the alcohol] by truckloads and dropped it into the Nile,'' said Fadli, laughing.
What little was left of the nightlife was snuffed out in the 1989 Islamist revolution of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, which made Sudan in the 1990s a haven for Islamic militants such as Osama bin Laden. "Morality'' police started hassling diners, who hurried home early to beat the curfew.
The mood relaxed in the early 2000s when the government tried to open up more to the West, but tightened up again as the time for southern secession approached.

No formal ban       

There is currently no formal law in Sudan banning shishas, but Khartoum authorities are handing out licenses selectively because of health concerns, said Rabie Abdelati, a senior official at the ruling National Congress Party.
"Five-star hotels and restaurants can offer shishas, but there is a local act not to allow them in public places,'' he said. "The government is also trying to ban [cigarette] smoking in public offices due to health concerns.''
Although the government is trying to soften its Islamist image, many hotel and restaurant owners are wary of any future swing in sentiment.
Lawyer Osman only allows men to smoke shisha in his cafe, and Fadli said the water pipes will not be featured on the menu at the Papa Costa anytime soon.
Fadli said he tried to offer shisha and it ended up being bad for his restaurant business, even after accounting for the extra money it brought in, because of its associations with loose morals and independent women, even prostitution.
"Yes, it makes money but it can affect the reputation of a place. It can attract ... women who like to smoke shisha,'' Fadli said. "That brings a conflict with families who come and find young girls [hanging around]. It doesn't go together and is not accepted.''
Other restaurants offer shisha but, without official licenses, keep a low profile to avoid attracting attention.
The city's biggest shisha place, a garden cafe in an upmarket villa area visited by hundreds of people every day, is shielded from prying eyes by bushes. There is no sign at the unlit entrance.
In a residential building on an unpaved side street close to the cafe, its owner has opened a special section for trusted regular customers who enjoy fast service and comfortable chairs.
"I come here every night because you cannot go all the time to Cairo and Ethiopia to enjoy yourself,'' said a man who gave his name only as Abdallah, like others worried about attracting the attention of the police. "There is so little to do in Khartoum.''

You May Like

Nearly Every Job in America Mapped in Detail

A nifty map pinpoints practically every job in the United States, revealing the economic character of America’s metropolitan areas, which also helps to inform the local culture

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category: Keiko Matsuii
|| 0:00:00
November 25, 2015 1:45 PM
Keiko Matsui’s music has been labeled many things – Jazz, Smooth Jazz, New Age, World Music. But whatever the label, the pianist-composer’s sound is always her own. Keiko Matsui takes the VOA Stage to perform some of her best-loved songs, and to talk with Beyond Category host Eric Felten about her life in music.

Keiko Matsui’s music has been labeled many things – Jazz, Smooth Jazz, New Age, World Music. But whatever the label, the pianist-composer’s sound is always her own. Keiko Matsui takes the VOA Stage to perform some of her best-loved songs, and to talk with Beyond Category host Eric Felten about her life in music.