KHARTOUM: Political talk flowed as freely as booze in the lively Khartoum of decades past, and The Grand Hotel was its fountain.
Behind the colonial-era walls, deals were made and gossip exchanged by an elite group of civil servants, politicians, intellectuals and businessmen.
The chatter stopped long ago and The Grand, for decades the city’s only quality hotel, fell into disrepair and economic decline.
But new owners from Pakistan say they have begun refurbishing the five-star property – now known as Grand Holiday Villa – to woo clients back to what locals call simply “Funduk al-Kbir” (the biggest-oldest hotel).
“It used to be the meeting place of some of the great minds and politicians,” in the 1950s, said historian Abdullah Ali Ibrahim. “Sort of a political club, in a way.”
Among them was Mohammad Ahmad Mahjub, leader of the opposition when Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956.
Mahjub briefly served as prime minister about a decade later.
Other Grand regulars included leading businessman Abu Al-Ila, and Bashir Mohammad Saeed, who co-founded the Al-Ayaam newspaper in 1953, said his colleague Mahjoub Mohammad Salih, who has been at the newspaper ever since.
“It became a very famous group that normally would meet there every evening, practically,” said Salih, who sometimes joined them in a corner of the lobby lounge, near the bar.
“You would hear a lot of news and gossip,” he added.
Built in 1902, the hotel was run by the Sudanese railway as the country’s first accommodation catering mostly to foreigners, Salih said.
“The waiters used to dress in jalabiyas with a red belt,” he said, referring to Sudan’s traditional robes.
Khartoum had just 80,000 people at independence yet it was cosmopolitan with Syrians, Jews, Armenians, Britons and others, Salih says, calling it “a very interesting place at the time.”
In fact, Khartoum wasn’t very Sudanese, Ibrahim said. “It was a European town. One hundred percent.”
There were bars, and nightclubs where female dancers performed. Prostitution was legal.
But for the politically connected elite, The Grand was the center.
“It revolved mostly around alcohol, and they talked about politics ... Favors were exchanged,” Ibrahim said.
“This is the reason why people on the margins [of society] felt isolated.”
The tempestuous rule of Gaafar al-Nimeiry, which began with a 1969 coup, led to a decline in the hotel’s political role and in Khartoum’s vitality.
“Nimeiry grew very suspicious of these gatherings because ... all these people hated him,” Ibrahim said.
“People felt that some of the government spies were being planted in the hotel,” Salih said. “So people just drifted away.”
In the early 1980s Nimeiry banned alcohol under a policy of Islamization, which has continued with the current regime of President Omar al-Bashir.
The bars closed and much of the city’s multicultural population gradually emigrated.
The Grand lost its political focus but carried on.
Four decades ago it was still the city’s best hotel, said Simon Aziz, veteran general manager of a travel agency in Khartoum’s downtown.
“Everybody” stayed there, he said. “Or if he didn’t stay at the hotel, he visited there or had dinner at the hotel.”
Aziz, of Intercontinental Travels, said: “It’s one of the few hotels in all the African continent having this [Victorian] style.”
Members of Queen Elizabeth II’s delegation stayed at The Grand when she visited in 1965.
The legacy of Britain lives on not only through the hotel’s whitewashed architecture but also in its snooker hall and the Churchill Ballroom, which opens onto the chandeliered lobby and is named after the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In 1998 the hotel became part of the Malaysian Holiday Villa stable, a year before Sudan’s first oil exports ushered in years of growth for the country.
Grand Holiday Villa’s occupancy reached 80 to 90 percent on most days, an industry source said.
But crisis struck Sudan’s economy in 2011 when South Sudan separated, taking with it about 75 percent of Sudan’s oil production.
By the time the Pakistanis began their involvement late last year, occupancy was down to four or five rooms a day out of a total of about 150, said the new Pakistani front office manager, Muzaffar Hussain.
Now occupancy has rebounded to 40 to 50 percent as they focus on the local and regional business market for seminars and similar meetings, he said.
For the future, the owners are hoping a revival of the oil sector – expected in coming months – brings guests back.
Hussain said the Pakistani owner, Akhtar Qureshi, also operates the Ramada Plaza at Karachi’s airport and was looking for expansion opportunities in the Arab and African region.
The new management has repainted walls and upgraded audiovisual facilities as part of its push to win back clients to Grand Holiday Villa.
But Salih, who has rarely visited the hotel in recent years, says it will never regain its role at the heart of political debate.
Although Khartoum’s bars and nightclubs are gone the city has grown, with more luxury hotels, restaurants and cafes.
“And people are not in the habit of sitting around and talking freely in a leisure sense as they used to,” he says.