One man aims to bring Sudan's nights back to life
Decades after an Islamic revolution, an old-school cat returns to the capital, Khartoum, to start a jazz club.
To see downtown Khartoum today – with its sidewalks of broken masonry, piles of trash, and storefronts closed at dusk – it's hard to imagine that just 30 years ago, this used to be Sudan's version of Bourbon Street.Skip to next paragraph
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Nightclubs lined the streets, shoppers would browse stores full of imported goods until midnight, and couples would walk down the street, hand in hand. In 1983, Sudanese Prime Minister Gafar Nimeiry – a former Socialist – imposed strict Islamic law on the country, and the good times were gone.
What a difference an Islamist revolution can make.
But in a sign of how Sudan is changing, one can see a glimpse of old Khartoum in the leafy courtyard of a restaurant called Papa Costa.
Omar Yahya opened the restaurant six months ago as much as a personal mission to bring back the Khartoum he left as a teenager in the early 1970s as for profit. And one of the first things he did was to bring back something that had been banned for decades: music.
"I wanted from the first day to bring back what this part of Khartoum was like, not to make money, but to bring these values," says Mr. Yahya. "I'm coming to bring life back to Sudan."
To a returning expatriate like Yahya, change is coming to Sudan at a snail's pace. Yet the very fact that a restaurant such as Papa Costa – with its nightly live music, including a full jazz band on Thursday nights – is itself a revolution of sorts under a government that still considers itself a conservator of Islamic values. And gauging by the reaction of Papa Costa's customers on a recent cool breezy Thursday night, Sudanese families are welcoming the change with open arms.
Still got it, baby
Up on stage is a band of men in their 50s and 60s, a Sudanese version of the Buena Vista Social Club, playing songs from their heyday in the 1970s, when lapels were wide, America was loved, and disco was king.
Behind the microphone, Ali Doka belts out the Bee Gees' 1976 hit, "Staying Alive," Bob Marley's "Don't Worry," and the Eagles' "Hotel California," while a handful of Sudanese preteens dance under the stars. Dancing is encouraged at Papa Costa, but only for children. It is still illegal for adults to dance to secular music.