KHARTOUM (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 licenses 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 license.
“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.
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 4 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 truck loads 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 90s 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.
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.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall