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

Multimedia US Nurse ‘Cured of Ebola,’ NIH Says

Nina Pham, Texas nurse who treated first Ebola patient in US, received no experimental drugs; WHO expects vaccine surge in 2015 More

Video Islamic State Militants Encroach on Baghdad

Iraqi capital not under ‘imminent threat,’ US military says, amid worries about foothold More

Video Hong Kong Protesters Focus on Holding Volatile Mong Kok

Activists say holding Mong Kok is key to their movement's success, despite confrontations with angry residents and police More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Joe Taylor sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his distinction as New York’s “Subway Idol,” and how he beat out thousands for that title. Joe performs several songs from his new CD, “Anything’s Possible.”