From Khartoum to Cape Town/An African Journey: Meet the Pagoulatoses and their hotel, the place to stay in Khartoum

``You've got to go to the Hotel Acropole,'' said a friend of mine from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as we stood overlooking the Blue Nile. From where we stood, we could see the enormous mantle of White Nile silt that regularly ebbs and flows against the clearer waters of the Blue from the confluence of the two rivers a mile downstream. On the opposite bank, gray and withered in the sun, lie the rotting hulks of British paddlesteamers, reminders of this land's 19th century heritage.

``It really is the only place to stay if you want atmosphere in Khartoum,'' continued my friend, still intent on his impressions of the hotel. ``You'll love it. All the aficionados go there, you know, the relief crowd, the journalists -- and the spies.''

The 50-room Hotel Acropole, as I quickly discovered, is one of Sudan's most unusual, and unexpected, institutions. It is the Khartoum equivalent, I suppose, of Rick's American Caf'e in Casablanca (the movie, that is).

As a first impression (I stayed nearly six weeks), the bustling dining room with its Greek-island watercolors on whitewashed walls, and its moody, turbaned waiters was a scene in itself.

A handful of reporters who sat huddled over baked Nile perch with fresh lemons commented loudly on the latest developments within the ``TMC'' (the country's recently established Transitional Military Council), while relief workers discussed refugee influxes in ``aidspeak,'' the language that has grown up among those involved with the arrival of aid.

Occasionally the conversation would touch on groups who, by their names, seemed out of the ordinary: Vegetable Outreach, Life Experiment, and Cherry Blossom After.

Take Cherry Blossom After, for instance. It's a well-heeled Japanese group investigating UFO sightings worldwide. But the sightings that have brought the group to Khartoum are unique. They concern reports of refugees along the Ethiopian border being fed by ``antigravitational containers'' from outer space.

In a country where nothing seems to work properly, and where any undertaking -- be it clearing relief supplies at customs or purchasing an airline ticket -- requires utmost patience and effort, the Hotel Acropole stands out as a rare example of private enterprise and efficiency.

The history and charm of the Acropole are not only that of a hotel, but also of the hard-working Sudanese Greeks who run it: the Pagoulatos family.

``The Acropole has not got much to offer in the way of material comforts,'' earnestly explained George Pagoulatos. He and his brother, Athanasios (Thanasis for short), together with their wives, manage the hotel their father started nearly 35 years ago.

Their management, it should be noted, has an assist from their mother who, since the death of her husband, has vigilantly overseen the Acropole. A tiny, frail-looking, but energetic woman known as ``Mummie,'' she rises at dawn, as she has been doing for the past 20 years, to orchestrate the cooking, the laundry, and the well-being of her guests. She never retires before 11 p.m.

``We have few private bathrooms, no telephones in the rooms, and no swimming pool. But people come to us -- even those who can afford better -- for the atmosphere and the service,'' added George, who tends to client relations while Thanasis manages the business side.

The Acropole's clientele is a devoted one. Recently, an affluent businessman volunteered to sleep on the terrace of the fully-booked hotel rather than seek accommodation elsewhere. Many guests, when coming in unannounced from the field, do not hesitate to share rooms with perfect strangers.

From the outside the Acropole is totally unassuming: just another one of the drab, mustard-colored buildings that line the dusty, potholed streets in the heart of the Sudanese capital. Yet the Acropole's halls, rooms, and streetside balconies are spotlessly clean, simply but tastefully decorated in an airy, almost graceful 1930s Art Deco style.

To reach the crammed, first-floor reception, a visitor must maneuver past the knots of hawkers, shoeshine boys, and beggars who line the arcades below. It is here, behind the usually open glass doors of the office, that the raison d'^etre of the Acropole first becomes apparent.

Against a backdrop of letter pigeonholes marked with the names of the almost two dozen international relief agencies that frequent the hotel either George or Thanasis, or both, can be found on the phone, at the telex, or sorting out for their guests problems that have nothing to do with conventional hotel management.

The brothers seem constantly involved in arranging visa extensions for relief workers, hunting down lost aid consignments, lining up interviews for journalists, dispatching hand-carried documents to Europe, or personally running emergency errands for someone stuck out in Port Sudan or the famine-stricken Darfur region. The family's concern also stretches to their 70 employees, most of whom have been with them for years.

``We do a lot of small things which have nothing to do with running a hotel, but we feel they matter,'' explained George, a trim, well-dressed man in his mid-30s, who directs Acropole affairs with the courtesy and aplomb of the captain of a luxury liner. ``We don't do it because we have to. It's simply become part of our character.''

But the present attraction of the Hotel Acropole is based on the long struggle of a closely knit family determined not to be defeated. Like many other Greeks who, in the wake of the British, came to Sudan as merchants and shopkeepers, the Pagoulatoses started small. When the father opened the Acropole in 1953 there were only 10 rooms.

``It was totally bare and we had to bring furniture and silverware from our own home,'' recalled George, who was born in Sudan.

The hotel gradually expanded as did the family business: a catering service, a farm enterprise in the Gezira cotton region east of Khartoum, and several liquor stores.

``It was very hard work for all of us,'' he said. ``My father was a very ambitious man, very hard and very strict. But it was really my mother who held the family together during tough times. She was and still is the pillar of the Acropole.''

Following independence in 1956, the Pagoulatoses stayed on as did most other Greeks. Family life during those years was still characterized by hardship, but also by enormous fun. The different communities -- the Greeks, the Italians, the British, the Syrians, and the Sudanese -- were perpetually playing host to social events ranging from dances to tennis matches and picnics.

``Khartoum was one of the best places to be in Africa,'' said Thanasis, the ``bad boy'' of the family. His childhood escapades included locking hotel guests out of their rooms when they ventured down the hall to the bathroom.

Then, in 1970, President Jaafar Nimeiry nationalized the country's private enterprises, causing many foreigners to pack up and leave. The Pagoulatoses stayed. But they did give some thought to emigrating if things got worse.

By 1973, however, with Sudan facing bankruptcy, Nimeiry was begging foreigners to return, offering to give them back the businesses he had earlier nationalized.

With the introduction of Sharia or Islamic law in September 1983, conditions grew worse. Ironically, the war in Ethiopia, the drought, and the famine, marked the turning point. Relief workers, development officials, and journalists converged on Khartoum.

It was a prosperity that affected most medium- to top-grade hotels.

``We immediately found ourselves caught up in what was happening,'' George said. ``We began helping the relief people staying with us, and one thing led to another. It's made our lives very exciting.''

On my last night in Khartoum, I felt honored to be invited for dinner at the Pagoulatoses' home, a spacious, modern house on the outskirts of Khartoum shared by the two brothers and their families.

Since the April revolution, life in Khartoum has definitely improved, and there is still considerable enthusiasm about the prospects for democracy, they said.

``There will probably be a great deal of political infighting, but I think we shall see elections,'' George said.

As we headed toward the garden gate, royal palms crinkling in a soft breeze, the two brothers traded stories about the past.

``It was very different then. We were crazy,'' mused George.

``Maybe we're getting older? Maybe we are right now?'' laughed Thanasis.

``But these are just our stories. Everybody has stories to tell. Khartoum used to have lots of sophistication and elegance. There were celebrations, dances, and parties. Everybody threw them.''

A smile broke across Thanasis's face. ``Yes. But we always had the best bands!''

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