Police shisha raids spread fear as Khartoum cracks down on the pipe
KHARTOUM - It is a memory Hannah al-Sayed recalls very clearly. One night, while chatting and smoking shisha with her girlfriends in a cafe near the Nile in Khartoum, Sayed, a civil servant, recalled how the outing almost cost her her freedom.
It was 8 January at around 7pm and Sayed had met her friends at the shisha cafe after work. What was meant to be a fun evening ended up with a police officer chasing them down, trying to arrest them.
“I was with my friends in the women-only section and we were having a good time, until two plain-clothed men walked into the place. One of them was on the phone and was describing the location of the cafe,” Sayed said.
Sayed suspected that they were officers and overheard them calling for back-up to raid the cafe, which is a common occurrence in Sudan.
'I was with my friends in the women-only section and we were having a good time, until two plain-clothed men walked into the place'
-Hannah al-Sayed, a civil servant
Sayed and others quickly began gathering their belongings to flee the premises, but one of the officers shut the door and told them that they “will get arrested today”.
To this day, Sayed is still terrified by flashbacks of the event.
“The other women began pushing him away from the door to leave and we were trying to get out, until he held my hand really tight and told us, 'you will not get out today',” Sayed recalled.
She broke free and while the officer was chasing Sayed and her friends as they bolted for Sayed's car, he continued to scream out that if they did not stop, he would create a scandal and shame them.
When they did reach her car, the officer opened the passenger door and forcefully tried to take away her car keys, refusing to let them leave.
To their fortune, a brave waiter from the cafe had followed them to the scene. He held the officer back and gave the friends the opportunity to escape. Sayed never found out what happened to the waiter after he helped them.
Minutes after Sayed and her friends left the cafe, all the women still in the cafe were arrested by the public order police.
“It could have been us on that police truck. I don’t even want to know what would have happened,” said Sayed, who has resorted to smoking shisha at home since the incident.
Through a decision announced via local newspapers, on 29 March 2017, the security affairs committee of Khartoum municipality issued a ban on public shisha smoking. They instructed the shutting down of all shisha cafes in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.
Headed by the mayor of Khartoum, General Ahmed Abu-Shanab, the committee is responsible for initiating plans to secure the capital during important events or national holidays, among other tasks.
According to local media, Abu-Shanab said that the municipality has ordered the closure of shisha cafes due to negative social and health effects. This decision effectively bans shisha in all streets, markets and public areas and puts an end to the issuance of permits to serve shisha.
Shisha is widely popular in the Middle East and North Africa. The water pipe, in which flavoured tobacco is burnt using coal, passes through a water vessel and is inhaled through a hose known as a hookah or arghila.
Before the official ban, LM, who preferred to use her initials only, used to work as a waitress in a cafe in Riyadh, an upscale suburb in Khartoum. She said that she had been arrested many times for working in a place that served shisha.
“I will never forget all the times that the police raided the cafe and arrested us, I have entered the police station more times than I can remember,” said LM, who is in her early twenties, in an interview with MEE.
‘I have entered the police station more times than I can remember’
- LM, waitress
After being unemployed for months, LM accepted the job despite fears of getting arrested. The lingering anxiety that she felt every morning as she walked into work did not stop her because of a decent salary, in addition to tips.
When the cafe was raided, the owner usually bailed the staff out so that they would not have to spend the night in prison. But in a raid last November, the cafe's owner was out of town, and LM and the rest of the staff were arrested, along with the customers.
“We were taken to the police station and as the staff, we were sentenced to hefty fines of more than 20,000 SDG (almost $3,000), and if the fine was not paid, we would serve six months in prison,” LM said.
Two days after her arrest, LM managed to secure the fine with the help of her acquaintances and was released. LM’s parents never found out she had been arrested.
According to LM, other staff members who could not afford the fine were sent to different prisons across Sudan, some as far as 700 kilometres from Khartoum.
“I remember having to look for their families who had no information about this, and informing them that they need to raise money to bail out their children. It was traumatising,” she said.
Until today, there has been no actual article in the criminal code banning smoking shisha in public, but a local order has been in place for a few years. According to experts, this is just as powerful.
“A local order is a decision made by the municipality,” explained Ahmed Sibar, a human rights lawyer working in Khartoum. And “a local order is valid and gives the judge the authority to prosecute and fine shisha consumers and providers based on it,” he added.
Before the ban in March, authorities had sometimes looked the other way and selectively issued permits for some hotels and cafes to serve shisha, especially those that cater to tourists, but the raids continued.
The local order is implemented by the public order police, who also act as "morality police" and can arrest men and women for everything from smoking shisha to indecent clothing, under the Sudanese criminal law of 1991.
Raids conducted by the public order police usually happen very abruptly. They storm the venue, confiscate the shisha and arrest the staff and customers who are smoking.
Cafe owners can be fined 1,000 SDG (about $150) and those smoking shisha can be fined from 200-300 SDG each ($29 to $35). If they can't afford to pay the fine, they can be jailed from one to three months.
“Because the local order fines the consumer of shisha a relatively small amount. The public order police always find other charges mostly related to dress code to increase the fine and arrest the shisha smokers, particularly the women,” said Al-Fatih Hussein, a defence lawyer in several cases filed against women.
Eyewitnesses to raids on shisha cafes in recent months have confirmed that women not wearing headscarves or wearing trousers are always arrested, even if they are not smoking shisha.
In December, journalist and novelist Hussam Hilali was sitting with a female friend in Pataya, a cafe in a wealthy area of Khartoum.
As a precaution, they ordered only one shisha, with Hilali stating that he would assume total responsibility for smoking if the police were to show up.
“We had just begun smoking the shisha and talking when the public order police raided the cafe,” Hilali said.
He added that the officers were aggressive and he was immediately asked to drop the shisha.
“All the women sitting in the cafe were asked to stand, all of them were wearing [long] skirts except my friend who was wearing trousers and they used this as a pretext to arrest her," said Hilali, who refused to let his friend get arrested alone and insisted on going with her.
'All of them were wearing [long] skirts except my friend who was wearing trousers and they used this as a pretext to arrest her'
-Hussam Hilali, journalist and novelist
Women arrested in shisha cafes are usually arrested for “indecent clothing,” as per Article 152 of the criminal law. It is punishable by a hefty fine that can reach up to 7,000 SDG (over $1,000), 40 lashes and sometimes a jail sentence of approximately one month if detainees are unable to pay fines.
Amel Habbani, a journalist and founding member of the group, No to Women’s Oppression, estimates that at least 40,000–50,000 women are arrested every year by the public order police because of their clothing.
Repercussions of the ban
A waiter at the Coral Hotel, a prominent venue in Khartoum, said that they had stopped serving shisha following the implementation of the ban in March.
“As an administration, we tried to complain against this decision, but to no avail, even though we have paid our taxes and we have a separate space for women,” said waiter Ahmed Adil.
The hotel used to serve between 100-120 shishas every day, costing 80 Sudanese Pounds ($12). Clients would also order juice, tea or food along with the shisha that brought a hefty income to the hotel.
“We are losing a lot of money on a daily basis as a result of this decision,” said Adil, who worked in the women-only shisha section, which is now deserted.
'We are losing a lot of money on a daily basis as a result of this decision'
- Ahmed Adil, waiter
A regular client at the hotel told Middle East Eye that she had come on 9 April and was surprised about this decision.
“After that, I began looking for other options and I found other closed areas and even apartments that serve shisha, but I didn’t go. I am too scared that the police will also come there,” said the client.
Some cafes, however, are still discretely serving shisha behind closed doors. A small Ethiopian-run cafe in Khartoum is one of these cafes that is trying to keep a low profile.
The door leading to the cafe is always closed and photos of coffee greet customers at the entrance.
“We try to protect ourselves and our clients because we serve shisha; you can only enter if you’ve my number or the number of one of the other waitresses,” said Ababa, a waitress working at the cafe.
Some offer the service inside furnished apartments, but the risks are much greater. If arrested in one of these venues, a woman can face charges of practising prostitution.
“The closed cafes serving shisha are now seen as a threat because the authorities believe that other business transactions such as the drugs trade, prostitution and even human trafficking are taking place there," Sibar told MEE.