KHARTOUM: Over 100 years after Lebanese expatriates in Khartoum established the city’s first bilingual newspaper, the first milk delivery service and built some of the capital’s most famous architecture, Lebanese are still seeking their fortunes in Sudan.
“I don’t feel like a foreigner here,” said Rene al-Dad, the general manager of Al-Waha Mall. “The people here in Sudan are very friendly, they are honest with you ... I like it here.”
“Whenever I go to Lebanon, after a few days I want to come back,” he added.
While most Lebanese know of the large diaspora in West Africa, few are aware of their country’s historical ties with Sudan that date back to the late 19th century.
Renown, as they seem to be everywhere, for their mercantile expertise and food, Lebanese are known to locals as “shwaam,” indicating that they come from Greater Syria.
Since the 1800s, skilled Lebanese were favored by Ottoman and British colonial authorities, who hired them to work as administrators, translators, doctors and clerks, or to work with their armed forces in Arabic-speaking regions.
Ghantous Antoine al-Gemayel, an ancestor of former President Amine Gemayel, worked in the government in Sudan between 1912 and 1933.
The first bilingual English and Arabic newspaper, the Sudan, was started by the Lebanese expatriate Khalil Thabit in 1899. His brother, Rashid, later joined him and continued as editor in both languages while also working at Sudan Times and the Moqattam.
Aziz Kfoury, born in Beirut in 1874 and educated in the College Saint Joseph school of Antoura, left an indelible mark on the Sudanese capital. In 1899, while living in Cairo, Kfoury learned that much of Khartoum had been destroyed by the recent Mahdi revolt. He decided to move his construction business there to meet the demand, and built several homes for British colonial figures that are still standing today in the city center.
After several shrewd business deals with the government and opportunistic purchases, Kfoury accumulated 465 hectares of land north of Khartoum’s Bahri neighborhood where he began dairy farming.
Soon after, Kfoury started Khartoum’s first milk delivery service. Bottles of milk were delivered to residents’ doors for three piasters that were left under the empty bottle for the next day. As the company grew, Kfoury’s name became well known throughout Khartoum.
Prior to his death in 1942, Kfoury consolidated all his businesses into one company called The Kfoury Company, which he passed on to his son Charles Aziz Kfoury.
Much like his father, Charles was a reserved man with little interest in politics but had a shrewd business sense. He further expanded the company into import/export and several other endeavors.
The Kfoury Company grew into a large workforce throughout Sudan. Even the father of Sudan’s controversial President, Omar al-Bashir, worked as an accountant on the Kfoury dairy farm.
In 1981, the Kfoury name was immortalized when the large dairy farms were turned into a residential neighborhood and named Kfoury City. Today, Kfoury City is one of the most lavish areas in Khartoum.
More recent arrivals from Lebanon were attracted by the 2005 peace agreement that ended Sudan’s North-South civil war, opening up the country’s vast oil wealth. Many of them were disappointed when the economic boom failed to materialize, and are now struggling to turn a profit.
“Maybe the expectations are very good but the reality is [not],” said Nazih Ashour, the Lebanese ambassador to Sudan, adding, “Sudan is in transition.”
“The number of Lebanese was previously in the thousands and is currently in the hundreds in Khartoum and [the surrounding areas],” he continued. “A lot of them have gone back to Lebanon or to other African countries, or back to Gulf states.”
Many of the Lebanese expatriates in Sudan are young men who left their families behind in Lebanon to seek their fortune.
Khodor Msheik, 23, came to Khartoum 18 months ago. Though he will soon mark the one-year anniversary of his store, Chocofruit, in Al-Waha Mall in Suq Al-Arabi, Msheik isn’t exactly celebrating.
“My friend had opened a place and I came to join him,” Msheik recalled. “When we first came to Sudan, the dollar was at a good rate. For people that wanted to take their money outside and build something elsewhere, there were a lot of opportunities here ... Now, to make money and send it back to Lebanon is very difficult.”
The U.S. dollar has gone from two Sudanese pounds to 9.7 Sudanese pounds over the past two years.
Ali Hilani, the owner of Fashion Cafe in the same mall, lamented that although he’s making the same amount in local currency, his income has dropped from $5,000 a month to $1,000.
“Sudan is tough. The dust, the broken roads ... everything is expensive and you’re constantly paying taxes,” Hilani said with a sigh.
Hilani moved to Sudan seven years ago and decided to stay after meeting his future wife at the Rotana hotel, a popular hangout for Lebanese, but he says he is struggling with life in Sudan.
Other Lebanese said they are having trouble adjusting to the local culture, especially when it comes to business. “Sudanese people like to relax, don’t get close to them with stress,” joked Msheik.
There is also a culture of gathering to mourn the deaths of family and friends for days at a time, even very distant relatives.
“Sometimes my Sudanese waitresses won’t come in because they will say their uncle died. You ask a bit more and you find out it’s their distant, distant uncle that they may have never met before,” Hilani said.
“In Lebanon it’s about close family – the mother, the father, the brother, sister. Here you find it’s their uncle’s cousin’s son that they’ve never met before and they take four days off!” continued Hassan Shamass, the manager of the Assaha hotel and restaurant.
Outside of work, Lebanese tend to meet up at each other’s houses for barbecues, or at the Rotana Hotel, or the Syrian Club, which was founded by a group of Lebanese expats, including Thabit and Antoine Gemayel, before Lebanon was a state.
You can also find Lebanese at the many Levantine restaurants that have started to sprout up around the capital, including the Phoenicia on Nile Street and the Assaha, which has a branch in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
“We’ve been open for seven years now ... our aim is to have a branch on every continent, so Sudan is our Africa location,” Shamass said.
Assaha’s menu is the same as the Beirut branch, serving all the traditional Lebanese dishes. The restaurant also occasionally has Levantine groups perform, as well as well-known Sudanese entertainers. The clientele are mostly well-off Sudanese, as the bill for a group dinner can easily cost the same as the average Sudanese’s monthly salary.
Despite the dire economic outlook, many Lebanese living in Khartoum said they were struck by the friendliness of the people. Moreover, given the deteriorating security in Lebanon, coupled with an economy that is not exactly thriving compared to Sudan, some Lebanese were prepared to stay.
“In Lebanon, if you ask someone for help and they don’t know you they just say no, but [in Sudan] someone will take you where you want to go and help you a lot,” explained Jamal Mazeh, the owner of Sanabel Bakery.
“It’s safe to go out, the security outside makes you feel safe,” Shamass added. “Even though Lebanon’s a country of tourism, there’s very little security.”
For this reason, despite the fact that his business has not been as successful as he would have hoped, Msheik sees himself in Khartoum for the foreseeable future.
“You know what’s happening in Syria and Egypt and elsewhere, that’s what brings you to a country like Sudan. If there was stability elsewhere, then I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “You hear about what’s happening in [Lebanon’s northeastern town of] Arsal and everywhere – there’s no security.”