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An Egyptian Cafe on the Sidelines of History

In his 68 years at Cafe Riche in Cairo, waiter Felfel has accumulated many tales of the movers and shakers in modern Egypt. 'It will take time to lift the country again,' he says of the latest upheaval.

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Waiter Mohamed Sadek, known to all as Felfel, has been working at Cairo's oldest cafe since the early 1940s. (Amro Hassan, For The Times / April 25, 2011)

By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
April 25, 2011


Reporting from Cairo—
Azer Farag Azer is here. So are the caricaturist and the writers, lots of writers, and that tall dentist, the son of the movie star. All here for lunch, herring and boiled egg.

 

Where is Felfel?

 

Praying.

 

He'll be back.

 

They're protesting again in the square. The revolution is over, but they march past with banners and rage. Maybe it's not over. There have been others. 1919. 1952. This one seems different, though. Who would have ever dreamed of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak? A throat clears.

 

"You know," says Azer, the owner of a railway company, sitting at a long table in Cafe Riche, where the famous and the infamous have gathered for generations. "I wrote six very good books on law, although I am not a lawyer. I've lived several parallel lives. I enjoy myself. I don't think my wife even knows me."

 

A laugh. A coil of smoke. Every empty chair a memory.

 

"The first president of southern Yemen used to sit right there. We didn't know it at the time. Then one day someone suddenly said, 'You remember the guy who used to sit there? He's now the president of south Yemen.' Lots of people used to come this cafe. If you were going to be someone, you had to be baptized in Cafe Riche. There was a journalist who was a KGB agent. The shoeshine boys eavesdropped around the communists."

 

Where is Felfel?

 

Praying in the mosque.

 

"Felfel is like a sphinx. Reveals no secrets."

 

Young men with signs and slogans hurry past the big window, disappearing down a street modeled to look like Paris; its balustrades now crumbling. A man in a tunic and a white skullcap slips through the door as quiet as candle flame. His hands are small and delicate, his sandals worn. He glides past the bar and Victrola.

 

Felfel has arrived.

 

The waiter first crossed Cafe Riche's threshold in 1943, a Nubian boy from the southern deserts. There was nothing for him there and he followed the Nile north to Cairo. He was 13 and his uncle was a friend of the cafe's owner, a onetime chef at the British Embassy. Felfel learned from the Greek waiters who served Egyptians, Turks, Yugoslavs, Italians and others, some quite mysterious, who wandered in from a world at war.

 

"No one was really rich back then, as I recall," he says, sitting in a back room beneath a picture of the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel laureate and a fixture at the Riche, one of the thousands of customers Felfel tended to in 68 years as a waiter.

 

"Mahfouz talked to everyone. He turned no one away," Felfel says. "He never drove a car. He walked here at 7 a.m., had his shoes polished and read the papers. He'd order two Turkish coffees. He never finished one of them. He was known for this. Then he'd take an aspirin and leave."

 

A man can contain a country within him; he can possess a cafe without having his signature on the deed. Felfel means "black pepper," the nickname given to him by his first boss, who was intrigued by his dark skin. No one calls him by his real name, Mohamed Sadek.

 

Felfel's watchband is held together by a rubber band. He speaks softly, as if sharing confidences, his white-gray hair curling at the edges of his skullcap, his mustache, clipped and sparse, rides high over his lip. He is omnipresent but at the same time not there, fading and reappearing like a spirit beneath overhead fans and yellow-globed lights.

 

The photographs around him tell the story of Egypt, dangerous and gracious eras winding from the fall of the British to the rise of Mubarak, from old Mercedeses to sequined dresses to singers who enchanted the Arab world with ballads of love and honor. In 1919, a would-be assassin waited in the cafe, then jumped into the street and hurled a bomb toward the passing prime minister. Folklore has it that Gamal Abdel Nasser sat here to plot the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk.

 

The intelligentsia all came to Cafe Riche, eating and drinking beneath Felfel's silver tray, getting married, having children, surviving a police state, dodging Islamic radicals, writing books, making films, and then one day a death notice and a vacant chair, until it was filled by someone new, like Azer, who arrived in the 1960s and now holds a spot by the window, his cigarettes dwindling on the table, his thoughts roaming through bright afternoons.

 

"Facebook is very dangerous. I don't even have email. How to use it?" Azer says, looking down at a plate. "This is the best white cheese in Cairo. When I first started coming, only two of us had regular salaries: Mahfouz and me.... A movie star once came in, drank a coffee and escaped without paying."

 

Felfel smiles.

 

"You have to understand the customer, to bear with him," he says. "If he has money or not is not my concern. He may have problems in his life, that's why he's not smiling or leaving a tip. You have to understand about the lives that come in here. After the 1952 revolution, the rich had lost all their wealth and some of them would come in and ask me to buy them a coffee. The other waiters wouldn't. They said, 'Go ahead if you want to.' It was hard to see the rich broken. They were my clients."

 

The old rich were replaced by the new rich; the rich are never broken for too long. The 1970s brought religious revival and bearded Islamists carrying Korans. The cafe, which served alcohol, eventually built a wall and roof around the adjacent sidewalk, a wise discretion to keep pious eyes out. Felfel remembers watching it on TV when Islamic fanatics assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and how everyone in the cafe worried and wondered what would come next.

 

"We didn't know," he says.

 

Mubarak rose with harshness, an army of informers and a sense of permanence. The downtown Cairo designed to resemble Europe slipped into disrepair and the poor built brick shacks on the desert outskirts. Felfel raised his children, four daughters and two sons. One year replacing the next.

 

And then one day in late January, the cafe closed as protests swelled through the city and tear gas soured the air.

 

"I never expected Mubarak to fall," Felfel says. "It was just young people in the street. Who would have thought they could have carried out a revolution? It seemed like something made up, something from God."

 

A silver ring, a gift from his son, shines on his small hand.

 

"It will take time to lift the country again. We have to get back to work."

 

The cafe stands opulent on the corner, polished wood, spotless windows, high ceilings, men and women, friends for years, sitting as if on stage beneath red letters trimmed in yellow: Cafe Riche. At dusk, shadows move over the windows and the lights glow, inviting and warm, amid the rattle of plates and silver.

 

This is how it used to be when Felfel was a young man in his white shirt and bow tie, a tip on his tray, the sky hard with stars. He lingers. No one predicts what this new revolution will bring or who will walk through the door and take a chair by the window. But Felfel will guess from the first utterance the kind of customer he is serving.

 

"I can tell about people," he says. "The way they speak, dress, walk, the sounds of their voices. I know what they're like."

 

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

 

Source: LA Times