Fellah - Encyclopedia

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FELLAH (pl. Fellahin), Arabic for "ploughman" or "tiller," the word used in Arabic-speaking countries to designate peasantry. It is employed especially of the peasantry of Egypt, "Fellahin" in modern English usage being almost equivalent to "Egyptians." In Egypt the name is applied to the peasantry as opposed to the Arabs of the desert (and even those who have settled on the land), the Turks and the townsfolk. Fellah is used by the Arabs as a term of reproach, somewhat like the English "boor," but rather implying a slavish disposition; the fellahin, however, are not ashamed of the name and may pride themselves on being of good fellah descent, as a "fellah of a fellah." They may be classified as Hamito-Semites, and preserve to some extent the blood of the ancient Egyptians. They form the bulk of the population of Egypt and are mainly Mahommedan, though some villages in Upper Egypt are almost exclusively Copt (Christian). Their hybridism is well shown by their great divergence of colour, fellahin in the Delta being sometimes lighter than Arabs, while in Upper Egypt the prevailing complexion is dark brown. The average fellah is somewhat above medium height, big-boned, of clumsy but powerful build, with head and face of fine oval shape, cheek-bones high, forehead broad, short flattish nose with wide nostrils, and black but not woolly hair. The eyebrows are always straight and smooth, never bushy. The mouth is thick-lipped and large but well formed. The eyes are large and black, and are remarkable for the closeness of the eyelashes. The women and girls are particularly noted for their graceful and slender figures and their fine carriage, due to the custom of carrying burdens, especially water-jars, on their heads. The men's heads are usually shaved. The women are not as a rule closely veiled: they generally paint the lips a deep blue, and tattoo a floral device on the chin, sometimes on the forehead and other parts of the body. All but the poorest wear necklaces of cheap pearls, coins or gilt disks. The men wear a blue or brown cotton shirt, linen drawers and a plain skull-cap, or on occasion the tarbush or fez, round which sometimes a turban is wound; the women wear a single cotton smock. The common fellah's home is a mere mud hut, roofed with durra straw. Inside are a few mats, a sheepskin, baskets and some earthenware and wooden vessels. He lives almost entirely on vegetables, millet bread, beans, lentils, dates and onions. But some of the sheikhs are wealthy, and have large houses built of crude brick and whitewashed with lime, with courtyard, many apartments and good furniture. The fellah is laborious in the fields, and abominates absence from his occupations, which generally means loss of money to him. Military service on the old oriental plan was both ruinous and distasteful to him; hence voluntary mutilations to avoid conscription were formerly common and the ingrained prejudice against military service remains. Trained by British officers the fellahin make, however, excellent soldiers, as was proved in the Sudan campaigns of 1896-98. The fellah is intelligent, cheerful and sober, and as hospitable as his poverty allows. (See COPTS and EGYPT.)

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