The Thief and the Dogs

by Naguib Mahfouz

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Following Western conventions, time in The Thief and the Dogs is marked by the rising and setting sun. The novel begins on the morning Said Mahran is released from prison, after a four-year sentence for robbery, and it ends with his death approximately seventeen days later. This framework points to Mahfouz’s source, the case of Ahmad Amin Sulayman, a criminal who tried to kill his adulterous wife and her paramour. The police killed Sulayman on April 1, 1960.

In the exposition, Said walks from prison to his old home in Cairo, and, en route, he offers his self-justification in an internal monologue. Once home, he plans to demand two things: his books and Sana, his six-year-old daughter. He also plans to take revenge on Ilish Sidra, an associate who turned Said in and who then, after Said’s incarceration, secured everything that Said had—home, money, and his wife, Nabawiyya. While his neighbors greet him respectfully, the police, who are providing Ilish with protection, are hostile. Unfortunately, Sana has ruined his books, and she is startled when her father talks to her. Her look of rejection saddens Said.

Said visits Ali al-Junaydi, his late father’s religious counselor. The Sufi sheikh offers him food, advice, and sanctuary. Said accepts the hospitality and spends his first night of freedom at the sheikh’s house. Within the next three weeks, he returns there twice, after criminal deeds. The sheikh’s lessons in ethics enable the reader to judge Said’s acts. On Said’s last visit, a gathering of men chant verses. Mahfouz records a poem on the passage of time and the vanity of human pursuits, which suggests analogies to Said’s situation.

Wishing to be a journalist, Said goes to Rauf Ilwan, his mentor in both socialist ideologies and crime. Now living in a neighborhood that they used to burglarize, the editor hands Said cash but refuses to give the thief a job. Such treachery is unpardonable; Said must fight this dog as well.

Two people who live on the fringes of the city and of society help him to effectuate his plans. Nur, a prostitute, offers him shelter, food, and companionship while he is hiding from the police. Tarzan, café owner and pariah, gets him a gun. According to Said, fate and scoundrels foil his schemes. Rauf catches him breaking into his house. Said’s bullet misses its target and fells Rauf’s porter. Said kills an innocent man instead of Ilish, who has relocated. The police trap Said in the cemetery, where their dogs “hound him down.” In a final review of his ideals, he recalls Sana’s rejecting gaze. He renounces rebellion and succumbs beside a tomb. Said’s final reflections might be considered an allusion to the disillusionment of Egyptian intellectuals whose revolution, in July, 1952, failed.

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