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Egypt the people

EGYPT : The people

Approximately 32,500,000 people live in Egypt. Peasant farmers called fellahin make up over 60 percent of the population. But less than 4 percent of Egypt's land is suitable for farming. Before the leaders of the 1952 revolution introduced land reform, less than 2 percent of the landowners owned half of the land available for farming. Most of the fellahin were tenants or owned very tiny farms. A man who owned 3 to 5 acres was considered well-off. Now no one is permitted to own more than 50 acres, and the average Egyptian farm is generally much smaller than that.

An Egyptian farmer's main tools are the hoe, a simple plow, and the sakia, or waterwheel. The fellah, his wife, and their children all work together in the fields. The dreary routine of their lives is relieved only on a few occasions-the group prayer in the mosques on Fridays, religious feasts, and family events such as weddings or the circumcisions of young boys.

A farmer's most valuable possession is the water buffalo, cow, or ox that helps him with the heavy farm work. The water buffalo or ox draws the plow, turns the waterwheel, and pulls the nowraj. The nowraj is a wooden platform mounted on four or five iron disks. The sharpened edges of the disks crush the stalks of wheat so that the grain can be separated from the chaff. The water buffalo or cow also supplies the fellah's family with milk and with calves that can be sold. Very often the fellah shares his house with his animals. This is unsanitary, but it is the farmer's preferred way of protecting them. The theft of an animal could mean economic catastrophe for the poor fellah.

The fellah wears a loose, long cotton robe called a gallabiyea, loose cotton pants, and a wool cap, which he makes himself. For special events he makes a turban by folding a white sash around the cap. Flat, yellow slippers complete the fellah's outfit.

The fellah, the wife of the fellah, wears dresses with long sleeves and trailing flounces and a black veil, which she sometimes uses to cover her face. On market days and other special occasions the women wear earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. These ornaments are usually made of beads, silver, glass, copper, or gold. They make a pleasant musical sound as the fellah walks along the dusty lanes of the village.

Most of Egypt's fellahin live in the villages along the Nile. The villages invariably look gray because the houses are whitewashed only for important events suck as weddings. The houses are usually small and huddled together without planning.

The typical house is made of sunbaked bricks, which keep the indoors cool during the summer. There are only one or two bedrooms, an animal shed and a small courtyard. The bedroom might contain a bed made of wood or iron, but the fellah's family usually sleep on mats made of reeds.

The house of a wealthier fellah has a living room and an upper story with extra bedrooms and storage space. The living room is furnished with long wooden seats, a few chairs, and reed mats.

In many villages the women still draw water from one of the Nile canals and carry it home in water jars balanced gracefully on their heads. But many other villages now have a clean water supply. In these villages there is a pump in the village square. Water from the pumps is carried home in the traditional jars or tin containers. Water pipes have been extended into a few homes. The houses are usually lit by kerosene lamps. However, since the opening of the Aswan Dam, electrical service is being extended throughout Egypt.

The most important places in any Egyptian village are the mosque or the Coptic Church, the house of the headman, the rural social center, the police station, and the market. The mosgue and church are often used as schools as well as houses of worship.

Weekly or biweekly, the fellahin flock to the village market, or souk. In the souk the farmers buy and sell cows, water buffalo's, donkeys, camels, sheep, and goats, as well as agricultural and dairy products. In the larger markets, food, clothing, jewelry, and farm tools are bought and sold. Water and soft drinks are sold by vendors who sing or shout their wares. The market is a noisy place as the fellahin continually haggle and bargain at the top of their lungs. No transaction is concluded without bargaining, or fissal. Prices are decided by a series of compromises. Religious vows are invoked and the words "by Allah," "by Mohammed," or "by Al-masseh" are heard everywhere as the bargaining reaches its climax and the price is about to be fixed. The market is not just an opportunity to buy and sell, it is an important social event. Friends and relatives meet and exchange news and gossip. People dress in their finest, and the monotonous lives of the fellahin become lively for a while.

The umbah, or village headman, is usually a native of the village, over 25 years old, the owner of 10 or more acres, and in good standing with the community. He is nominated by the villagers and appointed by the Minister of the Interior. The umbah is the liaison in the collection of taxes.

The first rural social centers were established in the 1940's, and they were so succesful that there are now centers all over Egypt. The primary task of these centers is to improve the living conditions of the fellahin. Traditionally the only government workers commonly seen in rural Egypt were the tax collector and the engineer who directed the control of the irrigation system. The staff of a social center usually includes a doctor, nurses, a veterinarian, an agricultural advisor, and the teacher of the local elementary school. The advice and help that these specialists provide have had a definite impact on the life of the fellahin. The government is attacking problems that were previously the burden of family and neighbors. The task of changing tradition bound rural Egypt is tremendous, but progress is being made.

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