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Fellah

Fellah

[fel-uh]

Fellah (فلاح) (plural Fellahin, فلاحين) is a peasant, farmer or agricultural laborer in the Middle East. The word derives from the Arabic word for ploughman or tiller. During the time of the spread of Islam, it was used to distinguish between Arab settlers who were usually nomadic (i.e, bedouin), and the indigenous rural population (i.e, fellahin) of the conquered territories, such as the Egyptians and the Syriacs of the Levant.

Fellahin in Egypt

After the 7th-century Arab invasion of Egypt a social hierarchy was created whereby Egyptians who converted to Islam acquired the status of mawali or "clients" to the ruling Arab elite, while those who remained Christian, the Copts, became dhimmis. The privilege enjoyed by the Arab minority continued in a modified form into the modern period in the countryside, where remnants of Bedouin Arab tribes lived alongside Egyptian fellahin. One author describes the social demographics of rural Upper Egypt as follows:

''Upper Egypt comprises the country's eight southernmost governorates. ... the region's history is one of isolated removal from the center of national life. The local relationships resulting from this centuries-old condition gave Upper Egypt an identity of its own within the modern Egyptian state. Alongside the even more ancient presence of Copts, tribal groupings dating from the Arab conquest combined to form a hierarchical order that placed two [minority] groups, the ashraf and the Arab, in dominating positions. These were followed by lesser tribes, with the [Egyptian] fellah at the bottom of the social scale(28) [...] Religion was central to the development of Upper Egyptian society. The ashraf claimed direct descent from the Prophet, while the Arabs traced their lineage to a group of tribes from Arabia. On the other hand, the status of the fellahin rested on the belief that they descended from Egypt's pre-Islamic community and had converted to Islam, a history that placed them inescapably beneath both the Ashraf and Arabs. [...] In Muslim as well as Christian communities, and particularly at the lower socio-economic levels, religious practices are strongly imbued with non-orthodox folk elements, some of pharaonic origin.

Comprising 60% of the Egyptian population , the fellahin lead humble lives and continue to live in mud-brick houses like their ancient ancestors. Their percentage was much higher in the early 20th century, before the large influx of Egyptian fellahin into urban towns and cities. In 1927, anthropologist Winifred Blackman, author of The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, conducted ethnographic research on the life of Upper Egyptian farmers and concluded that there were observable continuities between the cultural and religious beliefs and practices of the fellahin and those of ancient Egyptians.

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