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The Egyptian Peasant

The Egyptian Peasant

Henry Habib Ayrout
Translated and introduced by John Alden Williams
Introduction by Morroe Berger
Photographs by Margo Veillon
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 186
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  • Book Info
    The Egyptian Peasant
    Book Description:

    Egypt has changed enormously in the last half century, and nowhere more so than in the villages of the Nile Valley. Electrification, radio, and television have brought the larger world into the houses. Government schools have increased educational horizons for the children. Opportunities to work in other areas of the Arab world have been extended to peasants as well as to young artisans from the towns. Urbanization has brought many families to live in the belts of substandard housing around the major cities. But the conservative and traditional world of unremitting labor that characterizes the lives of the Egyptian peasants, or fellaheen, also survives, and nowhere has it been better described than in this classic account by Father Henry Habib Ayrout, an Egyptian Jesuit sociologist who dedicated most of his life to creating a network of free schools for rural children at a time when there were very few. First published in French in 1938, the book went through several revisions by the author before being translated and published in English in 1963. The often poetic yet factual and deeply empathetic description Father Ayrout left of fellah life is still reliable and still poignant; a measure by which the progress of the countryside must always be gauged.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-249-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-xiv)
    John Alden Williams

    The author of this book was a distinguished member of a group who contributed greatly to the modernization of Egypt, but have not always received their due. These were Syrian Arab Catholics of the Greek rite, usually of merchant or artisan background. They were brought into the country from the time of Muhammad ‘Ali in the nineteenth century for their fluency in Arabic and for the education they had received in church-sponsored schools in their homeland. This generally included proficiency in French, and their energy, their ambition, and their ability to move with comparative ease in two civilizations made them...

  4. List of Maps and Illustrations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
    Morroe Berger

    In 1960, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of the United Arab Republic incidentally focused attention upon the Egyptian peasant in a speech explaining his reasons for nationalizing the press. Devoted to sensational trivialities, he said, the press ignored the “true” Egypt. Where might that be found? The president pointed to a village near Alexandria, Kafr el Battikh, or “Water-melonville.”

    Taking the president at his word, aNew York Timesreporter went to Watermelonville and found a situation confirming what the reader will find in Father Ayrout’s sensitive portrayal first written more than a generation earlier. This similarity, I think, immediately answers...

  6. Introduction: On Understanding the Fellah
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)

    Like grammatical particles which tie together a sentence and give it stability, or like the strips of leading which retain and hold together a stained-glass window, a country’s peasantry gives the nation its peculiar character. It provides the humble but indispensable support on which economic and social systems rely. In producing more than it consumes, it maintains society in health and ensures a sound regularity to the state finances.

    But the peasantry, though a class, is made up of separate individuals, of men. Enslaved as they may be to soil and climate, long suffering and slow, hidebound and unprogressive as...

  7. Chapter 1 Changelessness
    (pp. 1-6)

    The fellahin, that is to say the rural proletariat of Egypt, whose life is the subject of these chapters, represent something more than a mere class. As a uniform, autochthonous mass, constituting more than three quarters of the total population, they may be rightly called the people of Egypt.

    This people, which probably produced the first civilization (or in any case a civilization of great originality which lasted for thirty centuries), offer no less original powers of survival and persistence.

    They have changed their masters, their religion, their language and their crops, but not their way of life. From the...

  8. Chapter 2 Egypt, an Agricultural Country
    (pp. 7-12)

    Industrialization is a common topic in Egypt today. Since World War II, progress has been as widespread as it has been rapid. An industrial proletariat has emerged, with its legislation and its problems. Yet, properly speaking, Egypt is not an industrial country. It is, and will be for some time to come, agricultural, because of its structure and resources.

    By reason of its flat surface, its rich damp loam, the river and the dry warm climate, the Nile Valley is geographically suited for intensive and extensive agriculture, and its soil can bear crop after crop without failing.

    Were it not...

  9. Chapter 3 Landowners and Government
    (pp. 13-30)

    Let us observe first the social situation of Egypt in regard to the agricultural situation which prevailed before the Revolution of 1952, with reference to the oligarchy, the parliament, the great landowners and the administration of their lands.

    In Egyptian state and society, the fellah has always constituted the mass, the raw material, the bedrock on which both are based. This double structure must be understood in order to approach more closely the fellah and his life.

    The facade of contemporary Egypt is of a modern and composite style and is represented by the three chief cities with their striking...

  10. Chapter 4 The Fellah at Work
    (pp. 31-54)

    The preceding chapters have tried to picture the physical and social environment of the Egyptian peasantry—the data and the approach. We now can attack it directly, considering the fellah himself.

    First of all comes his work, from which he derives his name. The Arabic wordfellah, which has passed into modern languages, is the intensive adjective of the verbfalaha, which means to labor, toil or till the earth.

    As the reader must have observed by now, the fellah as “economic man” means toil. He is looked upon primarily, if not exclusively, as labor, as agricultural machinery.

    The fellah’s...

  11. Chapter 5 The Physical Fellah
    (pp. 55-74)

    We have seen that the fellah’s work consists entirely of bodily labor, and brings all the body into play. Let us now consider the laborer himself, and examine the fellah from the physical point of view—his race, type, clothing, habits and so on. We shall find once again that water, soil and sun explain and often even determine the constitution of the fellah.

    Nevertheless, in spite of all that material dependence, the liberty of man manifests itself in individualism and failures to adapt totally. But this element is subject in turn to another factor—conformity to tradition, and this...

  12. Chapter 6 The Village and the Peasant Group
    (pp. 75-98)

    The fellah should really be referred to in the plural, for he lives as the member of a group, if not of a crowd. In the fields, as tenant or owner, he toils with his family; as a day laborer he works in a gang.

    Within the limited confines of the village, he lives and works more in the open than in his house. Nowhere is there privacy. The women fetch water in groups, children swarm everywhere; the daily life is collective and communal. The village or its quarter, not the house, makes up the entity, a community more important...

  13. Chapter 7 The Fellah’s Home and Family
    (pp. 99-112)

    On returning from the East in 1932, Christian de Caters wrote as follows: “I have seen the poorest villages of La Manche in Spain, the hovels of the Cape Verde Islanders, and the reed huts of the Lundas, a savage tribe in the depths of Angola, but nowhere have I received a stronger impression of misery than in Egypt.” On the other hand, Luzach, in Le Delta du Nil (Cairo, 1935), finds that the fellah’s home is not far behind the stone or mud huts with thatched roofs which are still common in many parts of Central and Western Europe,...

  14. Chapter 8 Traditions of the Soil
    (pp. 113-116)

    There are in every group traditions, rites and ceremonies which are handed down from generation to generation without being either questioned or understood. Among the fellahin, they naturally relate to the soil. The union of the fellah and the soil was clear enough when we were considering the work, life and home of the fellah. We should do well to prepare ourselves for a study of the fellah psychology (Chapter IX) by considering some of these traditional rites and customs which are to be met at every turn of his life.

    They are not merely superstitions, though it would be...

  15. Chapter 9 The Psychology of the Fellah
    (pp. 117-128)

    The peasant masses live on their own resources, without any contribution to speak of from outside. This is at once their strength and their weakness. A fellah is born whereas a worker is made. The constant influence of the fellah’s environment cannot fail to mold not only his body but his soul as well.

    We now know the nature of the Nile Valley, and of the social pyramid and its pressures. The demands of both enslave the fellah. His life is all dependence—dependence upon the soil and material events, on the living and on the dead. Like a child...

  16. Chapter 10 The Distress of the Fellah
    (pp. 129-132)

    In comparison with the fellah’s miserable lot a century ago or under the Mamelukes, his present situation is an undoubted improvement. He can no longer be killed like a dog, plundered at will, or commandeered as a slave.

    In comparison with the woes of the Negro, the Indian or the Chinese peasant, the fellah might even seem more fortunate. He is undernourished, but he does not starve. He has clothing, and at holidays a few piastres to spend.

    True, but there are two sorts of misery: physical distress due to insufficient resources, to a lack of the conditions necessary for...

  17. Epilogue: Progress
    (pp. 133-136)

    We have mentioned here, in earlier editions, a multiplicity of projects undertaken to ameliorate the life of the fellah. But in over twenty years of elementary efforts, extremely little had been actually accomplished. Either the projects were on a petty scale, or the next ministry changed the program or, being unsuitable importations from abroad, designed more to please officials who had traveled in Europe than to answer to the real needs of the peasants’ existence, they resulted in total failure.

    The Egyptian Revolution, bringing to power a new class of men, has effected changes in every sphere of life. It...

  18. A Critical Bibliography
    (pp. 137-142)
  19. Glossary of Arabic Terms
    (pp. 143-148)