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Egypt 1911


For a change of pace, two excerpts from the article “Egypt” in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. NB: fellah means peasant, fellahin is plural. Although this is marinated in condescension — I love the exclamation point, four sentences from the end — it is by no means dismissive. What would the expert, Egyptian and non-, say today?

In social intercourse the Egyptians observe many forms of salutation and much etiquette; they are very affable, and readily enter into conversation with strangers. Their courtesy and dignity of manner are very striking, and are combined with ease and a fluency of discourse. They have a remarkable quickness of apprehension, a ready wit, a retentive memory, combined, however, with religious pride and hypocrisy, and a disregard for the truth. Their common discourse is full of asseverations and expressions respecting sacred things. They entertain reverence for their Prophet; and the Koran is treated with the utmost respect — never, for example, being placed in a low situation — and this is the case with everything they esteem holy. They are fatalists, and bear calamities with surprising resignation. Their filial piety and respect for the aged have been mentioned, and benevolence and charity are conspicuous in their character. Humanity to animals is another virtue, and cruelty is openly discountenanced in the streets. Their affability, cheerfulness and hospitality are remarkable, as well as frugality and temperance in food and drink, and honesty in the payment of debt. Their cupidity is mitigated by generosity; their natural indolence by the necessity, especially among the peasantry, to work hard to gain a livelihood. Egyptians, however, are as a rule suspicious of all not of their own creed and country. Murders and other grave crimes are rare, but petty larcenies are very common . . .

By nature the fellah is unwarlike. Born in the valley of a great river, he resembles in many respects the Bengali, who exists under similar conditions; but the Egyptian soldier has proved capable of greater improvement. He is stronger in frame, and can undergo greater exertion. Singularly unemotional, he stood steady at Tell el-Kebir after Arabi Pasha and all his officers, from general to subaltern, had fled, and gave way only when decimated by the British field artillery firing case shot. At El Teb, however, in 1884 he allowed himself to be slaughtered by tribesmen formerly despised, and only about one-fourth of the force under General Valentine Baker escaped. Baker Pasha’s force was termed constabulary, yet his men were all old soldiers, though new to their gallant leader and to the small band of their brave but strange British officers. Since that fatal day, however, many of the fellahin have shown they are capable of devoted conduct, and much has been done to raise in the soldiers a sense of self-respect, and, in spite of centuries of oppression, of veracity. The barrack-square drill was smart under the old system, but there was no fire discipline, and all individuality was crushed. Now both are encouraged, and the men, receiving their full rations, are unsurpassable in endurance at work and in marching. All the troops present in the surprise fight when the Dervish force was destroyed at Firket in June 1896 had covered long distances, and one battalion (the 10th Sudanese) accomplished 90 m. within 72 hours, including the march back to railhead immediately after the action. The troops under Colonel Parsons, Royal Artillery, who beat the Dervishes at Gedaref, were so short of British officers that all orders were necessarily given in Arabic and carried to commanders of units by Arabs. While an Egyptian battalion was attacking in line, it was halted to repel a rush from the rear, and front and rear ranks were simultaneously engaged, firing in opposite directions, yet the fellahin were absolutely steady; they shot well and showed no signs of trepidation. On the other hand, neither was there any exultation after their victory. It has been aptly said the fellah would make an admirable soldier if he only wished to kill some one! The fellahin furnish three squadrons, five batteries, three garrison artillery companies and nine battalions.

The well-educated Egyptian officer, with his natural aptitude for figures, does subordinate regimental routine carefully, and works well when supervised by men of stronger character. The ordinary Egyptian is not self-reliant or energetic by nature, and, like most Eastern people, finds it difficult to be impartial where duty and family or other personal relations are in the balance.