"She would mingle with her guests, serving them with her eyes and her hands her wines and liqueurs."
That is the descriptions the late Sudanese historian Hassan Nagila gives of the climate at the literary salon of famed Madam Foz (1920-1925) in Khartoum, in his book Snapshots of Sudanese Society.
Madame Foz’s salon was not the only place that offered alcohol in Sudan, a vast old country that has known spirits for centuries if not millenia. Yet Foz's gatherings became synonymous with the drinking sessions that brought together politicians, writers, and artists in that period of Sudan's history. But Foz and her mother Hilwa did not make Arak at home; they bought it from taverns for their guests.
The good wife's ale
Traditional Sudanese ale dates back to the Nubian era, around 7000 BC. The most famous ale of these is "Dakai". It is consumed all year around unlike "Mraiseh" and "Nabit", one consumed in the winter and the other in summer.
“The ales of Nuba are not sold, but prepared for gatherings and banquets. Arak is prepared at home too but is also sold (ready-made)," says Sudanese historian Mohammad Abu Salim.
Preparing the traditional ales was the specialty of women. Wives would make it for their husbands and guests. In fact, the historian says, making decent ale was an indicator of a good wife. Arak, however, is the specialty of men.
Although drinking alcohol is prohibited in Islam, the Sudanese viewed the prohibition with much leniency. They would say the water and the dates they use to make the ale were their own, so what reason was there to outlaw it, according to Abu Salim.
Until recently, every Nubian home in northern Sudan had a special corner for fermentation and distillation of Arak, made from Palm dates. In other areas of Sudan, ales could be made from wheat or fruits, especially guava.
Many archaeological excavations in Sudan have found ale paraphernalia like pots and cups, highlighting the longstanding history of ale in the Sudanese civilization from ancient times.
The rituals and the economics
The late Sudanese writer Mohammed al Tayeb documented many of the rituals associated with drinking and brewing ale in the country in his book Al-Indaya. He travelled to the Anadi of Sudan (plural of Indaya, the popular taverns frequented by ordinary folk).
In his recently published book A Fistful of Dirt, internationally renowned Sudanese artist Ibrahim al-Sulhi alluded to these taverns in Um Durman, and included accounts of the Anadi there and the women who owned them who had a prominent social role.
Arak is distilled in all parts of Sudan. The process starts with fermentation, lasting about three days. Then the product is put through an elaborate but traditional distillation system, and that process takes several hours. In most cases, women handle the process.
The concentration is usually 40 percent or less, according to Shahinaz Jamal, a chemist who spoke to Raseef22.
But given the dismal economic situation and inflation, adulterated Arak became common. Chemicals are added instead of the more expensive natural ingredients causing health hazards, according to Jamal.
A bottle of Arak in Khartoum today costs around twenty-five pounds or three US dollars.
The state cracks down unsuccessfully
Perceptions of Arak in Sudan have changed over time, as mainly determined by politics and conflict between different values. In Sudan's modern history, the proliferation of bars and taverns suggested society did not frown upon drinking.
This leniency towards drinking ales despite being prohibited by Islam is the result of folk secularism, according to Sudanese writer Haidar Ibrahim.
Many Sudanese know that a former president of their country was very fond of Arak; his rule had started with a leftist outlook before it turned to the right, and then came to an abrupt end through a popular revolt.
According to one popular “urban legend”, that president – when he was still an officer in the army – would frequent the shop of an Arak seller in the city of Qadarif in eastern Sudan. However, he never paid his tab, and one day, when he returned to the city as president, it is said the lady who owned the shop confronted him and asked to be paid. The president offered her a house instead of cash.
Likewise, many Sudanese celebrities were known for their drinking, and yet this did not dent their popularity. In those years, and perhaps even today, a Sudanese suitor was rarely refused just for being a drinker.
The Mahdist state (1885-1898) outlawed alcohol and punished offenders with lashes. The May Regime (1969-1985), led by the late president Jaafar Numeiri, then completely banned alcoholic drinks by September 1983, after declaring the imposition of Sharia or Islamic Law. Many Sudanese from that time still lament the dumping of thousands of liters of ale, Arak, and other spirits in the belly of the Nile. The Bashir Regime, which has ruled Sudan since 1989, followed suit with the ban.
The prohibition of alcoholic drinks, and the punishment of drinkers, however, could not bring an end to the drinking culture in Sudan. In fact, the opposite could be true.
Indeed, consumption of alcohol doubled under the current regime, despite the tightening of penalties, according to the 2014 Arab alcohol consumption index, which put Sudan in second place behind Tunisia.