“This Could be Heaven or This Could be Hell”

The music wasn’t exactly my cup of tea – I could have done with a bit more Khaled and a little less Eagles – but it was music in the heart of Khartoum. And that was the point. In a city once dominated by Islamists, life is starting to relax and the music is starting to return.
Brave restaurateurs like Omar Yahia are bringing back the bands that used to grace Khartoum nightlife, banging out jazz standards through the 1960s and early 1970s. His open-air courtyard at Papa Costa’s is packed with people dancing on a Thursday night. But it is not easy. Every time he attracts any sort of publicity he gets another visit from the city council enforcers checking his licence.
But there seems to be no stopping the trend. Khartoum is awash with money and foreigners making it increasingly difficult for hardliners to keep a tight hold of the reins. New hotels, business parks and coffeeshops are springing up as oil money pours in. Humvees can be spotted in fashionable districts. And anyone with a bit of cash has satellite TV.
At the same time, there are plenty of pragmatists who recognize the value of doing a Gadaffi – opening up to the West, or more importantly Western oil companies and their 21st century technology. It has been an open secret in Khartoum that parts of the government are keen to normalise relations with the US. In recent weeks the story has been repeatedly confirmed then denied.
It is all a far cry from the days when Osama bin Laden was invited to live here. Extremist terrorists are now as much a threat to the government as Westerners in the city.
Yet still not everyone gets it. It is fashionable for Darfur campaigners to brand the Khartoum government as Islamist – even though a faltering 2005 peace deal gave a handful or seats in cabinet to southern, mostly Christian rebels.
Yes, the Khartoum government is guilty of crimes against humanity in Darfur. Only it’s not because the Islamists are in charge.
Sudan is far from being a liberal oasis. Women can be beaten if they fail to wear a headscarf, alcohol is banned and websites are carefully filtered. But the answer has to be engagement otherwise the hardliners will be justified in their accusations that the West is motivated by something other than helping the desperate people of Darfur.