Middle East and North Africa: The Arabs


Figure 1.--The Arabs are the dominant people of the Middle East and North Africa. They total avout 0.4 billion people and dominate the population of most countries in the region with only a few exceptions (Iran, Israel, and Turkey). The Arabs are, however, not an ethnic group, but rather a multi- or pan-ethnic cultural group. This photograph was taken in Egypt, the nost populace Arab country, probably in the 1880s. This scene could have just as easily been taken an mulenia earlier.

The Arabs are the dominant people of the Middle East and North Africa. They total avout 0.4 billion people and dominate the population of most countries in the region with only a few exceptions (Iran, Israel, and Turkey). The Arabs are, however, not an ethnic group, but rather a multi- or pan-ethnic cultural group. The primary shared cultural element is the Arab language, a Semitic language originating in Arabian peninsula. It was spread with the Arab outburst (7th century) through a process of Arabization and Islamization. The Arabs in the different countries have different histories and ethnic origina. The ethnic Arabs were a relatively small population origninating from Arabia. The Arabs are of different religious backgrounds althouhg Islam is dominant and in reason years rising Islamic intolerance has reduced the non-Islamic Arab communities. Arab idennties from a Pan-Arab counity to a range of tribal, religious, and national identites, Several Western authors complain that the Arabs are poorly understood in the West and discuss revances held toward the West. Part of the grevances are the economic failures of the Arab states not blessed with oil. Islamic extremists maintain that the ecomomic and political failures result from the the West and the domestic failure to fully embrace Islam and Sharia. Other observers believe the failure of the Arabs is primarily due to the widespread devoltion to medeival cultural institutions and the inability to embrace democracy, secular education, human rights, abd free market capitalism. Traditionjal clothing is worn in many Arab countries, especially the countries of the Arabian Peninsula or close to it. The principal traditional garment is the 'thawb". It is essentially a white shirt, but a very long white shirt extending to the shoes. The head scarf is the 'kaffyeh'. The black cord is the 'igal'. Both white and Red checkered head scarfs are worn in Qatar, Kuwait but mainly checkered in Saudi Arabia.

Chronology

There are relatively few historical images of the Arab people through most of history. This is largely due to the nomadic culture before Islam and the Koranic prohibitions on human imagery. The Persians and Ottomans were a little different here, but the Arabs were very consistent about human imagery in art. The first images we have found of arabs come from European artists which after Napoleon's adventures in Egypt (1799) inspired the orientalist movement in Western art. These tend to be dramatic, often erotic images, but not the everyday life of ordinary people. The harem was a popular tooic as were white European slaves. The next images we see of the Arabs and in much larger numbers are photographic images. European photographers began setting up studios in Arab cities. There may have been some early photographs taken such as Daguerreotyps and Anbrotypes (1840s-40s), but we have not yet found examples. The first images we have found come with the development of the albumen process and the appearnce of CDVs and cabinet cards (1860s). We see this in Egypt and French North Africa. We see fewer examples from Ottoman-controlled Mesopotamia. An assessment of these photographs yield some interesting observations. As not all the photographs were studio portraits, we not only get portraits, bt we see images outside the studio which help make assessments about Arab life and economic conditions. What we see is an extrodinarily backward area, vurtuall befeft of modern technology. and this despite the fact that the 19th centyry, specually the second half of the century was one of ebormous economic and technological advancement. Arab imsges, however, show a society that is virtually unchnge for a millenium. Thse imges and some of the portsits show abject poverty at atime thast in neignoring Europe, ordinary people were making major advances in income and life style. This includes clothing and fashion. As with technology we see few changes from a millenium earlier. Another observation is that in many countries, Islamic dresses, at least for the women, seen less prevalent than is the case today.

Population

The Arabs are the dominant people of the Middle East and North Africa. They total about 0.4 billion people and dominate the population of most countries in the region with only a few exceptions (Iran, Israel, and Turkey). This is a substantial part of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the worlfd, but only about a quater of the total.

Cutural Area

The Arabs are, however, not an ethnic group, but rather a multi- or pan-ethnic cultural group. The primary shared cultural element is the Arab language, a Semitic language originating in Arabian peninsula. It was spread with the Arab outburst (7th century) through a process of Arabization and Islamization.

Ethnicity

The Arabs in the different countries have different histories and ethnic origina. The ethnic Arabs were a relatively small Semetic population origninating in the Arabian Peninsula. So rather than an ethnic group, the Arab people streaching from the atlantic to Mesopotamia, are a cultural group.

The Fellahin

No discussion of the Egyptian economy is complete without a discussion of the Fellahin (peasantry). The Fellah (فلاح‎ ) / Fellahin (فلاحين‎ ) is the Middle Eastern/ North Africa farmer or agricultural laborer. The term is based on the Arabic word for ploughman or tiller. The Fellahin have existed since the dawn of civilzation. The term is much more recent. It began to be used during the Ottoman period and later to refer to villagers and farmers. Fellahin were different from the effendi or large landowners. The Fellahin have been variously describe. The primary sence is tenant farmers Some authors expand the term to encompases smallholders or low-income people living in rural village. This often meant villages that owned the land communally. [Sufian, p. 57.] The term Fellahin is most commonly used in connection with Egypt because the country for most of its history was bread basket of the Mediterranean world. The Egyptian agricultural bounty harvests provided the wealth that built the Pyramids and wonders of ancint Europe. The harvsts is what has attravted invaders like the Assyrians, Persians, and Romans over time. That bounty of course was based on the Nile and its annual floods. And it was work of the Fellahin since time immemorial that produced it. There is a misconception which Hollywood has helped perpetuate that the ancient Egyptian econmy and archiecural marvels was based on slavery. It was not. It was based on the Fellahin. Thy were not slaves but like medieval serfs a near slave condition. The Fellahin had very limited rights and were able retain only a fraction of the value of the grain and other agricultural products they harvested. It was a system that emerged throughout the Middle East that enabled rulers to extract the maximum value of the harvest without the costs and potential civil disorders associated with slavery. Due to a continuity in beliefs and lifestyle largely based on the continued use of ancient agricultural methods. The fellahin have been described by many Egyptian authors as the 'true' Egyptians. [Pateman, p. 54.] The standard dress for the Fellah was a simple cotton robe called galabieh (jellabiya). The word Galabieh appeared (18th century), derived from the Egyptian Arabic word gallabīyah (جلابية). While the term was relatively new, the garment dates back centuries.

Religion

The Arabs are of different religious backgrounds. Islam is the dominant religion, although there are different sects. In recent years rising Islamic intolerance has reduced the non-Islamic Arab communities.

Identity

Arab national identities range from a Pan-Arab community to a different tribal, religious, and national images.

Colonialism

The Middle East and North Africa today is largely Islamicized and culturally, but not ethically Arab. This began with the Islamic Caliphate set in motionm but founded after the death of Mohammed (8th century AD. The Middle East also includd Turkey and Persia (modrrn Iran) and sevaral smaller countries. The Turk and Persians have for the most part escaped colonization and Turkey was itself a major colonial power. The Caliphate was a huge empire, but streaching from Central Asia to the Atlantic (Morocco and Spain). It was, however, never really able to achieve a stbke system or colonies. The military commanders whi conqyuerred territory tended to operte autinomousky and ultimately achive independence. The aliphate was able to offer little resistnce to the Crusaders (11th century) the Calphate was finlly destroyed by the Mongols (13th century). For the next three centuries, the Arabs were unable to ither unite or form a powerful tate. The Ottoman Empire seized the Middle East (16th century) and at times exerted varying desgrees of control over North Africa. The Ottomons cpntrolled the Arab lands for several centuries. Even befor colonization by the Ottimans, the arab lands were as if time stood still. While Europe experuencd the Rnaissance, Reformation, and Enligtenment as well as the birth of modern science and the Industrial Revolution. life in the Arab world was unchnged. Early photographs taken in Egypt and othr Arab areas show a life little changed since the ancient times. And even the clothing was almost identical to that worn in the medival era. In North Africa, the Arabs were so backward that they srvived inly with piracy. Egypt achieved its independence fom the Ottoman during the Napoleonic Wars. This was a European opening to aland virtually unchanged for centuries. After this Europen powers began to take out coloniesin Arab lands. The first was the French which entered North Africa to restablish an empire and end Barbary piracy. The British followed suit in East Africa and Egyot as part of an effirt to end the slave trade and secure the Suez Canal. As part of World War I the British seized and aong with France colonuzed the core Arbl lands that had been part of the Ottoman Empire. For the most part, the European colonian enterprise in rge Middle East and North africa was brif nd lrfely superficial. Interestingly, in discussiins with Arabs today, there is decided tendency to blame their backwardness and poverty of the West and the Jews. And this dspite tha all the wonders of modern life, mechnization, electricity, appliances, cars, telecommunications, pharmesuricals, medical procedures, nd much more hhave come from the West. The ra world although now fully undoendent for decade has been a technological black whole, ading nothing to modrn life and living on the tcjnology and modern advances of the West.

Economic Failure

Several Western authors complain that the Arabs are poorly understood in the West and discuss grevances held toward the West. Part of the grevances are the economic failures of the Arab states not blessed with oil. Islamic extremists maintain that the ecomomic and political failures result from the theWest and the domestic failure to fully embrace Islam and Sharia. Other observers believe the failure of the Arabs is primarily due to the widespread devoltion to medeival cultural institutions and the inability to embrace democracy, decular education, human rights, abd free market capitalism.

Clothing

Traditionjal clothing is worn in many Arab countries, especially the countries of the Arabian Peninsula or close to it. The principal traditional garment is the 'thawb". It is essentially a white shirt, but a very long white shirt extending to the shoes. The head scarf is the 'kaffyeh'. The black cord is the 'igal'. Both white and Red checkered head scarfs are worn in Qatar, Kuwait but mainly checkered in Saudi Arabia.









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Created: 3:09 AM 4/29/2010
Last updated: 12:28 AM 12/2/2017