An Outlook on Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Thief and the Dogs.”
The understanding of society structure and function is often subjected to study under the lenses of scholars of the social sciences. Such fields may include political science, sociology, anthropology, and human geography. But one field often overlooked is the creative arts. By stringing together multi-disciplines and forms of art such as literature and film-making, one can cover other ideas that provoke questions that social science and non-fiction cannot. A commendable example of a work of literature that explores both internal and external conflict of a society, is Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs.
Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer from Cairo that wrote 34 novels and over 300 short stories. He studied philosophy at Cairo University and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. The plot of The Thief and the Dogs revolves around the journey of Said Mahran since he’s come out of prison at the beginning of the novel. The thief in the title refers to Said, as he is a skilled and intelligent thief put into jail for being exposed to the police by his former friends. The dogs refer to those very characters that betrayed him, and the center of his vengeance. The setting of the story takes place between the 1950s and 1960s when Egypt had undergone the 1952 Revolution prior to Said’s release. There had been a circulation of novel revolutionary and philosophical ideas that emerged at the time, but since Said had been in prison for four years, by the time he came out, those ideas had changed as well as the circumstances of the characters.
As mentioned above, Said Mahran is the protagonist of the story. Upon introduction to the character, Said had just been released from prison. Instead of aiming to readjust his life and reintegrate himself into society, he is determined to get revenge on those that have betrayed him. But he isn’t looking to just punish them, but to end their lives. Albeit having just been in jail, he believes that through deviant means only would he be able to accomplish his goals. The ones that betray him that are known as the dogs include his ex-wife Nabawiyya that married his ex-friend and lackey, Ilish Sidra. Ilish was once under the wings of Said but was the one that ended up revealing him to the police. Another dog is Rauf Ilwan, who used to be Said’s mentor and was the one that instilled the revolutionary ideas into Said, but has since Said’s imprisonment, become a rich and successful businessman that opposed the very ideas he advocated. Readers are introduced to other characters that play different roles. There is Tarzan, a café owner that aids Said and provides him with information, Nur, the prostitute that shelters Said, and the Sheikh, the religious clergy that attempts to enlighten Said with spiritual advice. All of these characters represent different class, generation, and roles in both the Egyptian and global context.
Post the 1952 Revolution, a drive for nationalism heightened. (1) Said, a keen nationalist that recognizes the inequalities in socioeconomic classes, firmly believes that his theft is justifiable, since he mainly steals from the wealthy, upper class and believes that they are undeserving of their status. A parallel can be made with the popular English folklore of Robin Hood. (2) Said’s one chance at redeeming himself, was if he had won custody of his daughter, Sana. But as she had rejected him, he allowed himself to be consumed by resentment and decided to stop at nothing to get his revenge. Through his plots, readers uncover Mahfouz’s views on class, gender, generation and affects of such conditions as a revolution.
One can draw from the novel that there is an inevitable hierarchal structure. There are the elitists that constitute the upper class, such as Rauf Ilwan, and like Rauf Ilwan, seemingly abuse their power and are corrupt. Rauf is a case of this because he once had revolutionary ideas himself but switched points of view in favor of power. Then there are those that are part of the middle or working class, like Ilwish Sidra, Nabawiya, Tarzan, and presumingly Said before prison. Ilwish, Nabawiyya, and others of Said’s community see him as a criminal, therefore can be noted as a passive group that see the way of the world as reasonably just, and class structure and divisions of authority as things not to be meddled with. Meanwhile, Said feels that he has been framed and there are wrongs needed to be fixed even if it’s at the risk of his own life.
Therefore, there are varying views of class, gender, generation, etc. The characters’ view on these elements relies on their very standings on these different categories. These concepts would always be contested because of competitive interpretation on what’s valid and what is not because people from different classes and roles will have different arguments.
At the end of the novel Said is caught by the police and is shot to death. The relevance is that for one being hooked on revenge, there can only be negative outcomes. Although he was in fact rejected by his community, he had a chance to regain stability in his life had he listened to the Sheik’s or Nur’s advice to escape and flee Cairo. But he chose to continue to isolate himself. Ignoring his allies and trying to control actions beyond him only lead to his doom. The irony is that he was haunting “the dogs” but ended up being hunted down. Mahfouz’s lesson might be that a path of violence can only be self-destructive. This relates to the theme of invented traditions because Said’s personality and situation wasn’t arbitrary. The evidence for this is that the novel revealed him to have changed over time. When he was younger was optimistic and care-free, then he became interested in the revolutionary ideas of Rauf and started and aimed at being an intellectual, and then became depressed when his daughter rejected him, until finally he was left with only pure hatred. Therefore, it was the social conditions that pushed him into becoming the pessimistic and cynical character that he is. In this sense he was a tragic hero.
The reflections of Egyptian culture derived from the novel can be applicable to other cultures too. The social alienation that drove Said to be marked by hatred, to steal, and to continue looking for the dogs despite being searched for the police, being talked about in the press, and accidently killing two innocent people, is not an experience exclusive to him, or to one conditioned in a post-revolutionary Egypt. There have been cases of domestic violence committed by individuals that felt pressured and driven to the brinks of their sanity in places around the world. Crimes as atrocious as terrorism can be traced to individuals that have radical claims of doing what they did to be justifiable just as Said had done. To counter a sense of powerlessness, these individuals attempt to overcome agents that are beyond their control in order to exert their freedom and will to mend impracticalities in their favor, in the same way that Said attempted to take justice into his own hands. This was an occurrence in which the theme of existentialism was expressed in the novel. It is in this manner that Mahfouz was able to humanize his characters and their state of affairs in Egypt.
September 20, 1989.” The Thief and the Dogs: Naguib Mahfouz, Trevor Le Gassick, M. M. Badawi, John Rodenbeck: 9780385264624.