He has always been there, fixing the perfect cappuccino or precise espresso. Long before the days of skimmed milk, lattes and mochas. Am Hussein is the most famous face of Brazilian Coffee in Ramleh, Alexandria. He has been making coffee and listening to the political chit chat of his clientele for over half a century.
Today, with the same pleasant smile and exact, well-syncronised body movement, Am Hussein is still serving coffee with a smile – and for his old time clients, also with a little chat that does not of course interrupt the flow of cappuccino-making.
“I will tell you one thing," he says, opening a new topic while still managing effortlessly the flow of caffeine to his customers: "There were many days where I saw Egyptians happy. Mostly under Gamal Abdel Nasser. People really loved him. But the days when I saw Egyptians the happiest was during the October War.”
After his morning-to-afternoon shift at Brazilian Coffee in Ramleh on Saturday, 6 October 1973, Hussein was walking the street to the bus that would take him home when he heard people talking “about the crossing.”
At first, Hussein thought he got it wrong. Then when he saw the street coming to a standstill and joined a small crowd at a traditional cafe. People “were so joyful and they were screaming and hugging each other.”
On 6 October 1973, Egypt's armed forces managed to cross the Suez Canal, breaking down the Bar Lev Line in Israeli-occupied Sinai. The victory reversed the strategic losses of the 1967 war and laid the ground for the eventual restitution of Sinai.
The following day, also on the morning-to-afternoon shift, Hussein was again serving coffee. “There was no need for words. One could just look at the body posture and facial expression of those coming in. It really was a marked difference since the day before, since the years before. Since 1967. God bless the souls of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat,” he said.
For Hussein, Gamal Abdel Nasser is Egypt's “number one hero.” “Nobody is like Abdel Nasser. He was the one who nationalised the Suez Canal. I clearly remember that day. I was then a waiter at a small one-floor hotel owned by a Hungarian lady, close to Borsa Square, where the nationalisation was announced. I can still hear the words of Gamal Abdel Nasser."
Hussein did not always agree with what Abdel Nasser did, or like all the consequences. He misses the cosmopolitan days of Alexandria before the nationalisation move drove most foreigners away.
“The rest left after 1967 and things changed. Egypt lost something on that day. Alexandria too. People looked down, and the talk was depressive. Some, however, remained hopeful and kept the faith that we would be able to make it through — especially with the victories made during the War of Attrition. Others were defeated and they spoke only of the need to find another life elsewhere,” Hussein said.
Hussein never reminded those clients of their pessimism. He just served coffee with a smile, and sometimes with extra sugar.
“I think there is something about politics that makes people who talk about it want coffee,” Hussein stated.
Hussein remembers from those days an elderly men speaking of gratitude to the Almighty for living to see the day that the 1967 defeat was reversed, and of people lamenting that Nasser died before arriving to that day, which he worked so hard for.
Hussein recalls other days of "national glory," including the 1956 war, “where the French and British, with Israel at their tail, tried to reverse the nationalisation of the Suez Canal,” and of re-opening of the Suez Canal in 1975. But he insists that “nothing compares to the happiness in the eyes and the joy in the spirit of Egyptians upon the 1973 victory.”
For Hussein, the magnitude of those sentiments could only be matched with the severe sadness “that befell us when Gamal Abdel Nasser died. I think it was worse than the day of the 1967 defeat, because when the defeat happened we knew we could reverse it with the leadership of Abdel Nasser. But when he died, we were not so sure."
The death of Anwar El-Sadat on 6 October 1981, eight years after the victory, prompted mixed feelings among Hussein's clients. “God bless the soul of Sadat. But some people were happy he was killed because they said he made a big mistake when he signed a peace deal with Israel without enough assurances on the rights of Palestinians.”
For Hussein, the highest crest for Egyptians will remain the October War, and the lowest ebb the death of Nasser. The rest, he says, including the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the day Mohamed Morsi was ousted, are of lesser significance.
Hussein is convinced that for Egyptians the biggest days of history were 28 September 1970 when Nasser passed away and 6 October 1973 when the armed forces managed to cross the Suez Canal and to break down the Bar Lev edifice “that we used to think was invincible”.