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Sudan’s 'Grand Hotel' seeks past glory under Pakistani owners

Published Nov 17, 2012 09:09am


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Funduk al-Kbir, Khartoum, The Grand Hotel, Grand Holiday Villa, Abdullah Ali Ibrahim, Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub, Abu Al-Ila, Bashir Mohamed Saeed, Al-Ayaam, Mahjoub Mohamed Salih, Gaafar al-Nimeiry, Malaysian Holiday Villa, Winston Churchill, Muzaffar Hussain, Akhtar Qureshi,
Hotel employees prepare a buffet at the Grand Holiday Villa hotel in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. -Photo by AFP

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 Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub, leader of the opposition when Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. He briefly served as prime minister about a decade later.

Other Grand regulars included leading businessman Abu Al-Ila, and Bashir Mohamed Saeed, who co-founded the Al-Ayaam newspaper in 1953, said his colleague Mahjoub Mohamed 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.”

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, historian 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 centre.

“It revolved mostly around alcohol, and they talked about politics. Favours 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,” said Ibrahim.

“People felt that some of the government spies were being planted in the hotel,” said Salih. “So people just drifted away.”

In the early 1980s Nimeiry banned alcohol under a policy of Islamisation 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 now-crumbling downtown.

“Everybody” stayed there, he said.

“Or if he didn't stay at the hotel he visited there, 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 for the legendary 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, while awaiting a revival of the oil sector expected in coming months, he said.

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.

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.


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Comments (24) Closed

Yasir Nov 19, 2012 06:31am
Karim: not too sure if you have any nationality cause you have not seen a real beauty of Pakistan as you blind to me!
HADI SAKEY Nov 17, 2012 02:25pm
After the army coup this hotel was ruined .
Ghias Nov 19, 2012 01:02am
Karim what a ignorant you are? When American and British people operate hotels in Asian and African countries is than mean they are in worse conditions in their own countries and they have to invest in those countries? grow up man.
Muhammad Nov 19, 2012 02:35pm
Great really great, Pakistani business men are flourishing.We need these business men from Pakistan to be listed in Forbes magazine.
rational Nov 19, 2012 02:32pm
then why even bother to read pakistani news papers. You have enough papers in your country, go and spread hate there.
karim Nov 19, 2012 06:10pm
Please don't compare yourself to US and Britain, their citizens are not trying to flee the country at first opportunity.
Waqas Shaikh Nov 18, 2012 02:48pm
It is nice to know that a Pakistani business man is taking the courage to run a hotel in Khartoum. I wish him all the best.
karim Nov 19, 2012 06:11pm
What does this have to do with "beauty" ? Pakistan economy and job market is so poor Pakistanis are willing to escape anywhere, even wartorn Sudan.
Karim Nov 18, 2012 09:42am
Knowing Sudan very well, I don't think I will be booking my next family holiday there.
M Akmal Khan Nov 19, 2012 11:41am
Great, well done Pakistani
Mohdudul Huq Nov 19, 2012 10:26pm
Pakistani should build their country first.
Parvez Nov 17, 2012 11:16am
Ishfaq Muhammad Din Nov 18, 2012 06:45pm
Situation in Sudan is now under-control as partition has been done and merely u will see a collision. But it is sad that it did. Good Luck Sudan
THR Nov 19, 2012 04:46am
Mr. Karim I would suggest you re-visit Khratoum at least once. Peaceful city. I remained in Khartoum for 6 months in 2010, I really enjoyed it.
mohammad Nov 19, 2012 04:34am
commendable really.
Nadeem Mirza Nov 18, 2012 06:10pm
Good Luck !!!
yashan22 Nov 19, 2012 06:33am
Sorry to say, you have a poor knowledge.
Akram Nov 17, 2012 12:51pm
good to hear Pakistani firms are moving outside Pakistan and building such trade links, it bodes well for both countries.
M. Ali Nov 18, 2012 12:26pm
I am sure you are a very successful businessman and teach us.
manghirmalani Nov 17, 2012 09:32pm
Pakistani cannot run thee own country forget the hotels
karim Nov 18, 2012 12:41am
Pakistan is such a bad place that Pakistanis are even willing to go to Sudan for investment.
a Nov 18, 2012 12:29am
kush we could all be open minded
Agha Ata Nov 17, 2012 01:20pm
The same thing happened to Karachi. Reminds me of Beach Luxury and Metropole hotels of that time. Was the change desirable? I don
Skaukat Farooq Nov 18, 2012 05:13am
AS i live in khartoum it was very interesting to see a pakistani newspaper writing about a realy exciting hotel next to presidency overlooking the river NILE.It used to prepare nice traditional pakistani breakfast on fridays for pakistanis on request. Good luck Mr Qureshi and WELCOME TO SUDAN.