Simple hotel offers rare delights in Khartoum

July 26, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

WHEN YOU ARE VISITING a city like Khartoum, the hot, dry, capital of Sudan, run by some pretty uncompromising Islamic fundamentalists, life's pleasures are rare, but treasured.

Khartoum is not a place for tourists. Not that it's a dangerous place, unless you happen to get on the wrong side of the government. The only reason to be there is if you're trying to cash in on the developing oil industry, you're a builder, an aid worker, an academic, a journalist, a diplomat, or a terrorist in good odor with the regime. Osama bin Laden used to live in Khartoum until the government decided he was a liability and everyone thought it would be a good idea to pack him off to Afghanistan.

The Nile flows through the city on its way to Cairo; both Niles actually, for the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet in Khartoum, near neighboring Omdurman. A few buildings left from the British colonial era, which ended half a century ago, give the parts where they are a touch of Western elegance (or decadence, depending on one's point of view).

There are no memorable restaurants. The most popular ones attract Westerners less for their food than for their beer. Under Islamic law followed by the government, alcohol is forbidden. The couple of places that do serve beer charge a fortune, a part of which must be going to some authority to look the other way. I will not name the restaurants, but one of them serves stale beer in large teapots, a disguise that seems ridiculous since the suds are poured into a clear glass.

Khartoum does become an attractive place after one has been traveling in the Sudanese outback, in places like Darfur, where even a bottle of chilled water, a shower and remotely edible food are rarities. (It is shameful to complain about traveling hardships in Darfur when the people who inhabit the region are hungry and terrorized.) But the attraction wears off quickly enough.

Except in one delightful place. This is the Acropole Hotel, a type of hostelry that tends to exist in places where there is conflict and unhappiness, serving those who come to help, study or write about upheavals. Beirut had such a place, called The Commodore, designed wholly to service the journalists who covered the civil war there, the Israeli invasion and America's fatal engagement there in the 1980s. In Jerusalem, it is the American Colony Hotel, though that establishment serves normal people, too, in excellent taste.

The Acropole, run by a family of Greeks whose patriarch came to live in Sudan in the 1940s, is not an elegant hotel. But the Pagoulatos brothers and their wives are warm and welcoming. They also speak excellent English, which is important to visitors.

The hotel has fewer rooms than it once had because in 1988, Palestinian terrorists bombed the hotel's main building, killing five people. Now the facilities are in what used to be the hotel annex. The rooms are large and comfortable. Most important, they are air-conditioned. The bathrooms are not en suite, but if you've been in a place like Darfur where you may have to walk half a mile to find a cold shower, walking across a hallway to get one is no challenge.

The hotel serves an excellent buffet breakfast and clean, edible meals that tend toward Italian cuisine. George Pagoulatos, one of the owners, is a tall, handsome fellow with a constant smile. He summoned me one night as I was climbing the steps to the hotel entrance.

"Come up here," he said with a hint of mischief. "We have entertainment!"

And there, in the dining room, the chairs and tables had been moved to make room for a local pianist and a beautiful German flutist, who played beneath a romanticized portrait of Jesus. During the intermission, the servants appeared with trays of chocolates and cups of real forbidden sangria.

As a finale, the flutist played "Moon River," which she announced, with a straight face, was dedicated to the Nile. Well, not really, but who cares. This was a rare and thrilling moment, a moment to be treasured.

G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.