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Glossary: Fellah and Fellaheen

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Definition: Fellah is the Arabic word for farmer, peasant, or agricultural worker, or any rural inhabitant who makes his or her living from the land--as opposed to the nomadic wanderer. The plural for the word, which can also be spelled fallah, is fellaheen or fallahin.

The countries of the Middle East with the largest portions of fellaheen are Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, each of which, until the 1990s, had proportions of fallaheen exceeding 40 percent of the population.

In the western imagination, the fellah has historically served the dual purpose of simply classifying Arab populations according to class while allowing Western stereotypes to match Orientalist interpretations of everyday life in the Middle East with Western assumptions. The resulting image has been a mixture of the romanticized, the patronizing, the racist and the occasionally accurate. The following description of "The Fellaheen," published in The New York Times on Oct. 6, 1889, is illustrative:

The true condition of the Egyptian fellah is not one of the things that those who run may read. The ordinary traveler sees that he works hard, that he wears scarcely any clothes, that his house has mud walls and little or no roof, and that he eats no meat. This condition is mentally compared with that of the farm-laborer in England, and consequently when the excursionist comes home he describes the fellaheen as wretched, forlorn creatures, with no happiness or hope of it in this world, and so oppressed by the government or tyrannized over by the Pashas that they anxiously await the moment when they will pass into the next. This description [...] seems absolutely false today. [...] The lower classes in Europe generally suffer more privation and pass more cheerless lives than do the fellaheen.
Alternate Spellings: Fallah, fellah, fallahin, fallaheen, fellahin,
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