KHARTOUM (Reuters Life!) - Wars, protests, coups and famines — Khartoum hotelier Thanasis Pagoulatos has seen them all.
He even saw the man who almost killed him in a bomb attack at the hotel that he and his family have run for decades.
It was on a summer evening in May 1988. Pagoulatos said he was in his office in the Acropole Hotel when he saw a man come in and rush out shortly afterwards.
“The moment I went to see what was wrong with him, there was a huge explosion,” the 64-year-old soft-spoken Greek recalled. “Then there was chaos. It was a powerful bomb.”
The attack killed seven people and destroyed what used to be the hotel’s main building, which had a roof garden, a lobby and 11 rooms.
But the bombers failed to stop the 56-year-old hotel, among the oldest in Khartoum, from remaining a key destination for foreign visitors, offering top service and warm hospitality.
Nostalgic Sudanese intellectuals even view it as part of Khartoum’s modern history, a symbol of an era when foreigners saw themselves as long-term stakeholders in Sudan.
Pagoulatos said his father Panaghis came to Khartoum from Greece in 1944, fleeing the poverty that afflicted his country in the final days of World War Two. Four years after his arrival, he set up a confectionery shop and a liquor store.
The elder Pagoulatos opened the Acropole in 1952, relying on a clientele of foreign journalists, aid workers and business people.
Housed in a two-storey colonial building in central Khartoum, it now has 38 modern, air-conditioned rooms.
Gone are the days when the its liquor store was the distributor of Amstel beer in Sudan. It was closed in 1983 when the Islamist government of President Jaafar Nimeiri imposed Islamic law.
The confectionery shop closed, too, after it was damaged in an anti-government protest in 1967.
“In Sudan we have seen many things,” said Pagoulatos. “Many changes in governments, Islamisation, nationalizations and famine.”
He and his younger brothers George and Mike have seen a few celebrities too.
Irish pop-star-turned-activist Bob Geldof visited Sudan on behalf of his Band Aid charity project in the early 1980s, when famine struck the African country.
“I can see it,” reads a note he signed on the wall at the lobby. “The Acropole International. Six thousand rooms, swimming pool and a jacuzzi in each one. Live satellite TV, vibrating beds and call-girl service.”
More than 20 years after Geldof’s light-hearted note, other modern hotels have spread in Khartoum to cater for foreign investors, fulfilling the realistic part of his wishes, although not the call-girl service.
The Acropole takes on the competition with its particularly personal devotion to service to lure customers into returning.
A guest who left hundreds of dollars in a pair of jeans recalls how one of the brothers immediately drove in person to retrieve the jeans, and the money, from a laundry across town.
It’s an approach that seems to work. The hotel is busy for most of the year.
Yet while the brothers have spent their lives in Sudan, their children have no plans to settle there and run the hotel.
“It is very sad. Imagine, we are now at a certain age and we are working just for ourselves, not for our children,” Thanasis said. However he added that he understood their reasons.
“Come and do what apart from work? There is no future for the young generation here. No cinema, no theater, no clubs.”
Writing by Alaa Shahine, editing by Paul Casciato