A Living Legend

For nearly seven decade, ‘Felfel’ has been the face of Cafe’ Riche By Lamia Hassan

Courtesy Magdy Abdel Malak (current owner of Cafe' Riche)

(Egypt Today, July 2010)

Cairo in 1943 was a busy place. The Second World War was raging and out at the Mena
House, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and China’s
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek were negotiating the Allied resistance to Japan. Omm Kalthoum
was entertaining her audience with Ana Fy Entezarak (I’m Waiting For You) and Naguib
Mahfouz was finishing his Pharaonic love story Rhadopis of Nubia.

And 13-year-old Mohamed Sadek, newly arrived from his small Nubian village, showed up for
his first day of work at Downtown Cairo’s Café Riche.
Like Roosevelt, Churchill, Kalthoum and Mahfouz, Sadek — better known as simply Felfel —
has achieved the status of legend in the special world of Cafe Riche, where he has been greeting
customers for 67 years. With just a wooden door separating it from the street, Café Riche is a
world away from the rest of Downtown. For almost 100 years it has been standing, with new
people coming and going.
Even from the outside, Café Riche seems different from its modern Downtown surroundings,
having retained its old design even after renovations. Inside, Felfel is standing by the first table
on the left, organizing things for another working day. While the other waiters are dressed in
blue uniforms that used to be worn by servants at princes’ or pashas’ houses, Felfel stands out in
his classic black and white suit, complete with a bow tie.
“He has been working the same way every day for at least 60 years, without a single mistake,”
says Magdy Abdel Malek, the current owner of Café Riche, while watching him work.
If you have been there before, you must have heard his story, or at the very least you are able
to recognize him. Felfel is Café Riche’s oldest waiter, as much an institution as the restaurant
itself. “Felfel has witnessed all the different generations that came to this place,” says Abdel
Malek, “and he was able to see how each generation changed from the one before it.”
Egypt Today sat down with Felfel to find out how he has held his ground in a changing world.
A Lifelong Routine
Felfel leaves his house on Haram Street everyday around 8:30am to make it to Downtown by 10
am for the start of the workday. It is a more relaxed schedule than when he started.
“In the old times, you would find all the people here by 7am, and they were all early risers. But
now people are becoming very lazy; we open at 10am, and still people do not really show up
early, except for some of the foreigners that come here for breakfast,” Felfel says. “But it is not
only the world of Café Riche that is changing. Look around and you find that nothing is the same
anymore.”
We arrived as the restaurant opened, and after he organized and checked the patrons’ orders,

Felfel sat down with et to talk about his life’s work.
And then abruptly got up and walked quickly to the entrance when a pair of new customers
walked in.
“That’s Felfel; he would just leave you or anyone to get his job done,” says Abdel Malek, who is
very protective of Felfel. “He is very dedicated, and the clients are his first priority.”
Although Felfel runs towards each new customer to ask them what they would like to have, he
is not really interacting with them, just getting the work done. His heart lives in another world;
a world peopled with the intellectuals who used to fill the café tables. Echoes of their influence
linger in the old photos hanging on the walls and the memories Felfel carries of legends such as
Abdel Wahab, conversing in ages past.
“When I started here everything was different. Before, we had all the famous people and
intellectuals come here almost every day for coffee or to meet one another, and sit down. I used
to learn a lot from them being here,” he says. “Now you won’t really find people here interacting
with you; they just start talking to you if they have a question or need directions to a certain
place, and they are mostly foreigners.”
Felfel joined Café Riche’s staff in 1943, after coming with his uncle from the village of Tomas,
near Aswan. When he joined the team, he was barely a teenager, was very young for the job,
but he helped the older men by carrying things for them. He recalls that when he started, Café
Riche was still under Greek ownership, and all the other waiters were foreigners, mostly Greek.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that he got a real job there, when most of the foreign waiters were
leaving.


“It was around the time of the 1952 Revolution that most of the waiters started going back to
their countries, leaving more space for Egyptians to work,” he recalls. “Foreigners felt at the
time, after many things changed, that the Egyptians were more deserving of Egypt, so they left
and went back to their home countries.”
At the time Felfel was still known as Mohamed, but when another Mohamed joined the staff the
Greek owner Michael Nicolapolits, now long gone, gave him the nickname Felfel, saying that his
skin was the color of black pepper.
“Ever since that day I was known as Felfel,” he says. “No one here ever calls me Mohamed,
and I don’t think anyone thinks that Felfel is not my real name.”

Schooled by the Literati
When Felfel arrived at Café Riche, he was barely out of elementary school; he recalls he used
to read the newspapers to know what was going on around him, and to learn new words. But the
intellectuals who frequented the café were also his teachers, even if they paid little notice of the
boy who used to watch them to learn new manners and words.
In the 1940s, Café Riche was the morning coffee spot for everyone from journalists to lawyers,
poets, writers and filmmakers, and Felfel would find them waiting by the door for the café to
open. They would have a quick cup and then headed off to work.
Among the intellectuals and celebrities who used to sit at Café Riche back then was the late
Egyptian actor Estefan Rosty, who Felfel recalls fondly. “When I came from my village, I used
to love movies, and Rosty was one of the people I loved to see, and I was very happy when I saw
him playing tawla (backgammon),” says Felfel. “And other actors that I loved — like Roshdy
Abaza, Ismail Yassin and Abdel Moneim Ibrahim — also used to come to Café Riche, and I was
so delighted to see them.”
The people Felfel met not only shaped his education, but also his personality.

Naguib Mahfouz & Gamal El-Ghitany at Cafe Riche

“Dealing with such people helped me know how to deal with others,” he says. “With their good
manners, they taught me that my voice should be low all the time, and all my clients should be
treated the same, whether they pay or not, and no matter how they behave.”

In a world before the digital information age, the coffee shop was the community’s ‘chat
room,’ and even the news was communal experience. “Even with the simplest things, now you
can get coverage of the world’s news and the news in Egypt 24/7, but back then it was very
special how you had to wait for a certain hour to be able to listen to the news on the radio; it had
a totally different feeling.”
Naguib Mahfouz used the café to hold his weekly discussions in the 1960s, and Felfel had the a
chance to meet a wide variety of knowledgeable Egyptians and foreigners all speaking the same
language. Felfel used to see Mahfouz almost every day talking about his stories and chatting with
people at the café.
“Naguib was generous, and never embarrassed anyone; he used to answer all the people’s
questions. I felt really sorry about his death, as we did not lose just a normal person, but a rich
source who contributed a lot to the Egyptian society with his stories that people still learn from
now,” says Felfel. “I used to watch him walking to Café Riche every day and sit outside when
we still had an area outside, drink cups of coffee and take his Rivo [pain medication].”
In addition to Mahfouz, Felfel has met many influential figures in the course of his work,
including Youssef Idris, the poet Amal Donqol, Abbas El-Aswany (Alaa El-Aswany’s father).
Author Tawfik El-Hakim, Felfel recalls with a waiter’s typical attention to detail, used to order
vegetable soup.

“I remember we had many poets and writers from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon who used to come
here when they were studying in Egypt,” he says, “and they would come back [later] and see
how it has changed.”
While Café Riche is famed for attracting revolutionaries, Felfel’s focus was more literary than
political. “I also heard that Gamal Abdel Nasser and other political figures used to come here,”
he says, “but maybe I did not notice them.”
He says that Café Riche and other Downtown hangouts were an intellectual hub, attracting a
clientele with similar education or background who came to share ideas among themselves and
with the foreigners still residing in the capital.
Today, Café Riche typically draws the tourist drawn by an entry in a guide book or resident
foreigners for a Downtown get-together. The occasional Egyptian intellectual shows up to the
breakfast party that Abdel Malek throws every Friday.
“We sometimes now see a weird segment of people trying to get inside Café Riche, and some
couples who see it as any other café in Downtown,” says Felfel, “but Mr. Magdy does not allow
them in, to preserve the ambiance of this place.”
After watching the city go through a nationalistic phase, Felfel is struck by how Egyptians
unthinkingly imitate Western styles. “I feel sorry when I see them walking on the street because
they are actually without an identity; they are just a bad copy of the West,” he says. “I remember
when Camp David was signed, people 6 — Youssef Idris and others — left the café to go on a
strike protesting the signing. This has all changed.”
He says that in past decades, people were more willing to mix with someone of a different
background. “I remember we had at one table Muslims, Christians, Jews, Armenians, Italians
and Greeks, and no one actually cared what the nationality, religion or sect of the person sitting
next to him was,” he says. “They all used to come here on Saturdays and Sundays, before

heading to the horse races in the Gezirah Club and Heliopolis, and just anyone paid the check,
and they were all one. Now people really don’t care to mingle together.”
Looking toward Midan Talaat Harb, Felfel points out that everything has changed, even how
the buildings look. When he started working, he says, Downtown was a beautiful piece of art,
with gorgeous buildings and streets. “When I used to walk from my house to Café Riche, I used
to see all the elegant restaurants and places that all the people used to sit in, but now I don’t
see these places except for Café Riche and Groppi. They are now replaced by shoe stores and
European and American fast food chains.
“I even heard that they are selling the old Downtown buildings for a lot of money to
foreigners,” he continues. “The Egyptians deserve to keep these buildings more than anyone
else, but why would the Egyptians keep them if they barely make it to Downtown because of the
terrible traffic that makes you spend hours trying to reach your destination? The Egyptians that
make it to Downtown are those living in it, or those who have some errands to run.”
The General Organization for Physical Planning, part of the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and
Urban Development, is working working with consultants on a plan to pedestrianize Downtown
Cairo. Felfel says that he is not sure if this will bring in more people or less, but he hopes that it
will ease congestion.

A Legend in His Own Right
Recently turned 80, with grown sons and daughters, Felfel has been as much an influence as the
café’s famous customers.
“He is a rare figure that you would not come across in your life,” say Abdel Malek. “That is why
I would put a photo of him inside with the word qodwa (role model) on it, which is something I
did not even think of doing for my father.”
Louis Greiss is a prominent Egyptian journalist, member of the Supreme Council for Journalists
and a patron of Café Riche for more than 60 years. “I used to see Felfel working when he was
still 13,” Greiss says. “It is hard to find someone like him, with all the manners and experience
he’s learned from the people he met in his life. He is always active — he does not even give you
a chance to call or even clap to make him aware that someone needs something.”
The world of Café Riche is in a sense a time warp, a bubble from a vibrant period in the capital’s
cultural scene. Outside, the world is still a busy place but in its own, different ways. Instead of
Roosevelt, it is US President Barack Obama in Cairo, Mohamed El-Baradei on Facebook, and
filmmakers pondering a 3D movie version of Alf Leila Wa Leila (A Thousand and one Nights).
Inside, Felfel still greets the café customers, perhaps a little slower than when he was 13. He says
he is satisfied with all that he has done so far, and he is just living out his days with his memories
and one simple goal.
“One last wish I have from this world is to go on the Hajj before I die, and then just to leave this
world in peace.” et

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