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
Reuters
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

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”