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Beyond everything else Egypt is an agricultural country, and the "fellahīn," or "soil-cutters," as the word means, its dominant type, and in order to form any idea of their character or mode of life, we must leave the towns behind and wander through the farm-lands of the Delta.
Trains are few, and hotels do not exist, and anyone wishing to see the people as they are must travel on horseback, and be content with such accommodation as the villages afford. The roads are the canal-banks, or little paths which wind among the fields; but, as we have already seen, the country has many beauties, and the people are so genuine in their simple hospitality that the traveller has many compensations for the incidental hardships he may undergo.
What will perhaps first strike the traveller is the industry of the people. The luxuriant crops give evidence of their labour, and the fields are everywhere alive. From dawn to dark everyone is busily employed, from the youngest child who watches the tethered cattle or brings water from the well, to the old man so soon to find his last resting-place in the picturesque "gabana"9 without the village. Seed-time and harvest go side by side in Egypt, and one may often witness every operation of the farm, from ploughing to threshing, going on simultaneously. The people seem contented as they work, for whereas formerly the fellahīn were cruelly oppressed by their rulers, to-day, under British guidance, they have become independent and prosperous, and secure in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour.
Another impression which the visitor will receive is the curiously Biblical character of their life, which constantly suggests the Old Testament stories; the shepherds watching their flocks, ring-streaked and speckled; the cattle ploughing in the fields; the women grinding at the handmill, or grouped about the village well, all recall incidents in the lives of Isaac and Rebekah, and episodes of patriarchal times. Their salutations and modes of speech are also Biblical, and lend a touch of poetry to their lives. "Turn in, my lord, turn in to me," was Jael's greeting to flying Sisera, and straight-way she prepared for him "butter in a lordly dish." So to-day hospitality is one of their cardinal virtues, and I have myself been chased by a horseman who rebuked me for having passed his home without refreshment.
Steam-pumps, cotton-mills, and railways may have slightly altered the aspect of the country, but to all intents and purposes, in habit of thought and speech, in costume and customs, the people remain to-day much as they were in those remote times pictured in the Book of Genesis.
Fresh fruit or coffee is frequently proffered to the traveller on his way, while his welcome at a village or the house of some landed proprietor is always sure. On approaching a village, which is often surrounded by dense groves of date-palms, the traveller will be met by the head men, who, with many salaams, conduct him to the village "mandareh," or rest-house, and it is only as such a guest, resident in a village, that one can form any idea of the home-life of the people.
From the outside the village often has the appearance of some rude fortification, the houses practically joining each other and their mud-walls having few openings. Within, narrow and tortuous lanes form the only thoroughfares, which terminate in massive wooden doors, which are closed at night and guarded by the village watchman. The huts — for they are nothing else — which compose the village are seldom of more than one storey, while in many cases their small doorway forms their only means of ventilation. Their roofs are covered with a pile of cotton-stalks and other litter, through which the pungent smoke of their dung fires slowly percolates, while fowls and goats, and the inevitable pariah dog roam about them at will.
A NILE VILLAGE.
Windows, when they do occur, are merely slits in the mud wall, without glass or shutter, but often ornamented by a lattice of split palm-leaves. Light and ventilation practically do not exist, while a few mats, water-pots, and cooking utensils comprise the only furniture; yet the people are well-conditioned and content, for their life is in the fields, and their poor dwellings are little used except at meal-times or at night.
The guest-house is little better than the huts, except that one side is entirely open to the air; here at least the visitor may breathe, even though his slumbers may be disturbed by the sheep and cattle which wander in the lanes. At night a fire of corn-cobs is lit, and while its smoke serves to drive away the swarms of mosquitoes and flies with which the village is usually infested, its warmth is grateful, for the nights are cold, and by its light, aided by a few dim lanterns, the simple evening meal is shared with the head men, who count it an honour to entertain a guest.
I have described one of the poorest of the "fellah" villages, but the traveller is often more luxuriously housed. Many of the native landowners occupy roomy and well-appointed dwellings, often surrounded by pretty and well-stocked gardens, where one may rest beneath the vines and fig-trees, and enjoy the pomegranates, apricots, and other fruits which it supplies. These houses are generally clean and comfortably furnished after the Turkish manner. The host, prosperous-looking and well clothed, meets his guest at the doorstep or assists him to dismount, when, with many compliments and expressions of delight at his visit, he is conducted to the guest-chamber. Coffee and sweet meats are then presented, a foretaste of the generous meal to follow, for in the homes of the well-to-do a feast is usually provided for an honoured guest.
The food is served on the low "sahniyeh," or tray, which forms the table, on which several flat loaves surrounded by little dishes of salad and other condiments, mark the places of the diners; but before eating, each person present ceremoniously washes his hands and mouth, a servant bringing in the copper "tisht wa abrīk," or jug and basin, kept for that purpose.
The meal always begins with soup, which, greasy to begin with, is rendered more so by the addition of a bowl of melted butter. This is eaten with a spoon, the only utensil provided, each person dipping into the bowl, which is placed in the centre of the table. The rest of the meal, which consists of fish, pigeons, and various kinds of stews and salads, is eaten with the hands, the diners often presenting each other with choice morsels from their portion; a baked turkey stuffed with nuts, or on important occasions a whole sheep, forms the principal dish, which is cleverly divided by the host or principal guest without the aid of knife or fork. Water in porous jars, often flavoured with rose-leaves or verbena, is presented by servants as the meal proceeds. The final dish always consists of boiled rice and milk sweetened with honey, a delicious dish, which is eaten with the same spoon by which the soup was partaken of.
Such fare as I have described is only for the wealthy. In general the "fellahīn" live on rice and wheaten bread, sugar-cane, and vegetables, with the occasional addition of a little meat, or such fish as may be caught in the canals. Their beverage is water, coffee being a luxury only occasionally indulged in, and their use of tobacco is infrequent.
Theirs is a simple life whose daily round of labour is only broken by the occasional marriage feast, or village fair, or, in the more populous centres, by the periodic "Mūled," or religious festival.
In Cairo and other large cities, these "Mūleds" are very elaborate, and often last for days together. Then business is suspended, and, as at our Christmas-time, everyone gives himself up to enjoyment and the effort to make others happy. Gay booths are erected in the open spaces, in which is singing and the performance of strange Eastern dances. Mummers and conjurers perform in the streets, and merry-go-rounds and swing-boats amuse the youngsters, whose pleasure is further enhanced by the many stalls and barrows displaying toy balloons, dolls, and sweetmeats.
All wear their gayest clothing, and at night illuminations delight the hearts of these simple people.
The principal feasts are the "Mūled-en-Nebbi," or birth of Mohammed, and "El Hussanên," in memory of the martyred grandson of the Prophet, and although they are Mohammedans the "Eed-el-Imam," or birth of Christ, takes a high place among their religious celebrations.
But they have their fasts also, and Ramadan, which lasts for four weeks, is far more strictly observed than Lent among ourselves, for throughout that period, from sunrise to sunset, the Moslem abstains from food or drink, except in the case of the aged or infirm, or of anyone engaged upon work so arduous as to render food necessary, for the Mohammedan does not allow his religion to interfere with his other duties in life.
On the last day of Ramadan occurs a pretty observance similar to that of All Souls' day in France; then everyone visits the tombs of their relatives, laying garlands upon the graves and often passing the night in the cemeteries in little booths made for the purpose.
You will have noticed how large a place religion takes in the life of the people, and in their idle hours no subject of conversation is more common. To the average Mohammedan his religion is a very real matter in which he fervently believes, and Allah is to him a very personal God, whom he may at all times approach in praise or prayer in the certain belief of His fatherly care. Nothing impresses a traveller more than this tremendous belief of the Mohammedans in their Deity and their religion; and though many people, probably from lack of knowledge, hold the view that the Moslem faith is a debased one, it is in reality a fine religion, teaching many wise and beautiful doctrines, and ennobling the lives of all who live up to the best that is in it.
Unfortunately the teaching of Mohammedanism is so largely fatalistic that it tends to deprive the individual of personal initiative. "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord," is a general attitude of mind, and this, combined with their long centuries of servitude, has had so much effect upon the national character of the Egyptian that they almost entirely lack those qualities of alertness, confidence, and sense of personal responsibility without which no race can become great or even, indeed, be self-respecting.
The higher education now general in Egypt has already had its effect upon the present generation, among which a feeling of ambition and independence is growing, while the Egyptian army has shown what wonders may be wrought, even with the poorest material, by sustained and honest effort in the right direction; and if the just and sympathetic guidance which it has enjoyed for now a quarter of a century is not too soon withdrawn, Egypt may once again become a nation.
As it is, to-day the great mass of the people remain much as they have been for ages; a simple, kindly people, ignorant and often fanatical, but broadly good-humoured and keenly alive to a joke; fond of their children, and showing great consideration for age, they have many traits which endear them to those who have lived among them, while their faults are largely on the surface, and due in some measure to the centuries of ignorance and slavery which has been their lot.
The greatest blot upon the Egyptian character is the position accorded to their women, who, as in all Mohammedan countries, are considered to be soulless. From infancy employed in the most menial occupations, they are not even permitted to enter the mosques at prayer-time, and until recently the scanty education which the boys enjoyed was denied to their sisters. It is no wonder, therefore, that these often beautiful girls grow up much like graceful animals, ignorant of the higher duties of life, and exercising none of that refining and ennobling influence which have made the Western races what they are.