The Post-Revolutionary Literary Revolutionary

01 March, 2018 - 22 min read

The thirst of party leaders after power was also utilized by King Farouk to realize personal ambitions at the expense of the vital interests of the people. He claimed exemptions from taxation and got control of thousands of acres of state property and entailed land. Merit was no criterion for rewards, nor was there any equality of opportunity; privileges were reserved for relatives and favorites of ministers in power. The results were nepotism and corruption. Egypt had a working constitution, but it veiled arbitrary rule.

- Gamal Abdel Nasser1

Due to the focus on betrayal, crime, and disaffection with government that is etched into the pages of The Thief and the Dogs, it is no surprise that several of Naguib Mahfouz’s critics find themselves delving deep within the minutia of the novel in order to unpack their perceived meaning of the Egyptian author’s post-revolutionary novel. One of the largest points of contention surrounds the nature of the protagonist: Said Mahran. Anti-hero, victim, father, or dead-beat, critics from several camps have weighed in on what Naguib Mahfouz expresses through the pivotal narrator of the thrilling story. While outlying focuses on religion, gender, and formalism share an interesting place on the stage of Mahfouz’s Arabic masterpiece, most critics adopted post-structuralist or new historical approaches to understanding the influences which contributed to Mahfouz’s pointedly dejected tone that is revealed throughout the progression of the book. Although disparate means are used to understand the purpose and meaning of the novel, each faction agrees about the end result --a revelation of existentialist concern for the state of man brought about by the worsened society in post-revolutionary Cairo-- and each acknowledges the validity, and even incorporates aspects, of other schools of thought.

In rejecting the ideals of their structuralist predecessors, whose works are marked by a reliance on archetypal forms so as to give clear insight into the intended meaning of the piece, the post-structuralist critics of Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs integrate the theories of a variety of philosophers and approaches when tackling the complex and uncertain story, revealing the fundamental principle of post-structuralism: the meaning of the story is derived from the reader’s experience more so than an author’s predisposed intention. While contemplation of the irrational, challenging of societal beliefs, and succumbing to the inevitability of human mortality are frequent themes referenced by Mahfouz and his contemporaries as identified by the post-structuralists, the diversity of their understandings of the meaning of the Egyptian thriller is evidenced through the specific points they raise in their analysis, demonstrating the depth of experience offered by a post-structuralist approach to literature. Critics including Dafer Al-Sarayreh, Oby Akhuemokhan and Sophia Okolocha, and Menahem Milson supplement their own ideas with those of Kant, Sartre, Camus, and Kafka in their dissections of Mahfouz’s tragic novel in order to bolster their arguments regarding the heart and purpose of the story which they claim are intentionally fleeting and intangible. While Ami Elad focuses on Mahfouz’s characters’ propensity towards irrationality, the pursuit of love, and the exploitation of social hierarchies, Milson extracts the archetypes of alienation, existentialism, and dissatisfaction which define the author’s style. Capturing the heart of post-structuralism, he characterizes Mahfouz’s understanding that “the quest for the ultimate truths may become sheer escapism” (185). Each of the post-structuralist critics shares a focus on the unconventional methods Mahfouz employs in order to inform (or inversely shroud with confusion) the reader.

In binding works of literature to the culture, circumstances, and, in this case, conflicts which were transpiring when they were produced, critics of The Thief and the Dogs under the banner of new historicism (as well as several other schools of criticism) universally recognize the influence of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 upon Mahfouz’s writings for the remainder of his literary career. Muhsin Jassim Al-Musawi specifically recognizes The Thief and the Dogs as a turning point in the development of Arabic literature towards criticism of the complacency with the political totalitarianism which followed the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, arguing that, although previous authors expressed a similar frustration with governmental institutions, “it was Mahfuz who set the tone for the new mode of writing” (65). David DiMeo provides biographical background about Mahfouz’s previous proliferation of criticisms of the corrupt Egyptian police state which collectively fell under the school known as al-adab-multazim, and how after the Revolution of 1952, Mahfouz translated the same feelings of distrust and disbelief in the efficacy of state institutions to such organizations composed of the proponents of the political activism he was so revered by, which are evidenced in The Thief and the Dogs. Nathaniel Greenberg asserts that Mahfouz’s introspective and experimental tone is reflective of his belief that Egypt must repair itself before pursuing unfulfilling interests which Mahfouz metaphorically represents with religion. Following a similar train of thought, Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud draws parallels between the protagonist “outsider,” Said Mahran, and the average post-1952 Egyptian, who also fails to experience societal familiarity. While almost every critic acknowledges the historical context surrounding Mahfouz’s novel, these critics delve into the historical context with more detail than others.

Aside from the primary arcs of historical or post-structuralist criticism are outlying approaches to Mahfouz’s novel which, although incapable of holistically analyzing the purpose his novel on their own, serve to elucidate on specific aspects and techniques within The Thief and the Dogs. Although the proceeding critics offer a diverse set of approaches into understanding Mahfouz’s writings, the trend of rejecting the traditional norms transcends the array of narrative choices and stylistic discrepancies on which they focus. Michelle Hartman and Kamel El Saadany both hone in upon the unconventional role women and sexual relationships are treated by Mahfouz compared to the bulk of his Arabic peers. Adel Elyas and Tawfiq Yousef apply formalist focuses on the importance of the unorthodox techniques Mahfouz employs in order to illustrate the mentality of his troubled protagonist, and revere him for introducing the primarily Western technique of stream-of-consciousness pioneered by William Faulkner into the Arabian sphere of literature. Although referenced by several other critics, Rasheed El-Enany and Nedal Al-Mousa provide arguments about Mahfouz’s stance on the inefficacy of the established institutions, both governmental and religious, around which his criticism of religion is central. El-Enany argues that through Mahfouz’s frequent juxtaposition of creedal orientations, whether religious or communist in origin, none succeed in aiding his protagonists’ efforts and that the “message, as ever, is: if life has a meaning, it is to be found in and not outside it” (27). Considering the complexity and ambiguity of Mahfouz’s novel, it is no surprise that several critics’ analyses of his post-revolution novel are less easily classified under a single school of literary criticism, and yet each aids in developing the reader’s understanding of the novel.

While post-structuralist critics argue that the flavor of Mahfouz’s novel stems from the experimental form, and new historical critics argue that the novel’s significance is due to preceding political conflict, and yet another motley camp of criticism remains irreconcilable with the rest, The Thief and the Dogs ages with a decidedly unusual classification. Although the post-structuralist critics identify the necessity of uncertainty which Mahfouz employs to invoke a range of existentialist contemplations from the reader, the means by which he achieves this effect, albeit unconventional and unfamiliar at the time, becomes a structure in and of itself which serves to steer the reader towards a uniformly thematic ponderment of the purpose of life. Critics such as Tawfiq Yousef and Adel Elyas recognize the significance of Mahfouz’s literature, specifically this novel, for introducing the Western technique of stream-of-consciousness into the Arabic stage of literature. Therefore, through the use of the techniques identified by the formalist critics achieved through the integral role of the protagonist’s narrative perspective in The Thief and the Dogs, Naguib Mahfouz expertly utilizes modernist literature on the Arabian stage whilst simultaneously delivering powerful commentary on the state of affairs within Egypt.

Firstly, Mahfouz writes from the perspective of Said Mahran, a jaded thief who was betrayed by his best friend Ilish Sidra, imprisoned for four years, and is released to a lackluster welcome, as his presumed friends and family are all absent. The exposition of the protagonist, presenting Said as a vengeful ideologue molded by betrayal and hatred, is crucial as it places the reader, who is reliant upon Said for narration, at odds with nearly everyone he encounters whilst also forming the narrative view around a perspective of distrust and betrayal which poisons every observation and characterization made by Said. In doing so, Mahfouz encumbers the reader with his own commentary about life in Cairo: everyone is lied to about how everything is ok, and therefore seduces themselves with lies of victimhood or complacency, evidenced by Said and Ilish respectively.

The introduction into Said’s perspective is bluntly made clear from the outset of the novel. In just the first chapter, the reader learns of how Said’s wife, best friend, and daughter have all betrayed him. On the first page of the story, Said’s distaste for society is made known to the reader as he internally reprimands the people passing by for looking unhappy, even though none of them could have “suffered more than he had, with four years lost, taken from him by betrayal” (Mahfouz 13). The reader is subsequently informed of Said’s thirst for revenge upon those who were responsible for his imprisonment, as he broods about “When those who had betrayed him would despair unto death” (13). Naming Said’s wife and accomplice at the time of his betrayal, Mahfouz sows the reader’s characterization of the protagonist as a man who has nothing left to lose (13). This association is driven home when his daughter Sana timidly rejects his welcome in favor of her ‘treacherous’ mother, and established father-figure: Ilish. Said reflects that “He felt crushed by a sense of total loss” (Mahfouz 19). Over the course of only a few pages, Mahfouz clearly introduces the reader to the perspective of the ostracized narrator infused with hatred, betrayal, and anger.

This characterization of the unreliable protagonist whose self-destructive fallacies are augmented by the legitimate betrayal he experiences is compounded throughout the novel as Said attempts to regain a footing within society by reaching out to old friends. In the third chapter, Said visits one of the local newspapers, Al-Zahra, in the hopes that his mentor from before his incarceration, Rauf Ilwan, could help him to get back on his feet. Reminiscing on the “good old days” when he and Rauf both shared the disposition of peasantry and a distaste for the state, Said is soon reminded of the societal change that transpired while he was in prison as he receives strange looks from the well-dressed citizens within the office (Mahfouz 34-35). “Feeling alien and out of place,” Said retreats from the public setting in favor of a private meeting later that night (35). However, Said’s hopes of returning to his familiar yeoman mentor are crushed when he finds that Rauf has become a member of the same elite class they used to scorn, marked by a “disturbing suavity, a quality which could only have come from the touch of blue blood” (39). Countering the sense of legitimate betrayal imposed upon Said, the protagonist proceeds to revert to his criminal ways, attempting to steal from Rauf who, although changed and “Mephistophelean” (43) in manner, was nonetheless generous with Said, bolstering the hypocrisy of the narrating thief who is not above the betrayal he so vehemently denounces.

Completing the thorough circuit of betrayal that Said is subjected to, the story concludes with the final standoff between Said and the authorities which have caught up with him. Mahfouz indirectly indicates that the final betrayal of Said’s whereabouts was executed at the hands of his prostitute love interest, Nur, who unceremoniously vacated the apartment she was sharing with him. This detail is strongly implied by Said’s uncharacteristic and exaggerated trust in her which is revealed just before he finds that she has left the apartment as he internally serenades her: “I love you, Nur. With all my heart I do love you” (Mahfouz 150). The fallacious monologue which drives Said throughout the entire novel is punctuated by his spiteful quips towards the police who surround him in the cemetery. Even though he commits several legitimate crimes after his release from prison at the start of the novel, Said still views the authorities as an ever-antagonistic force which is motivated solely by his demise, rather than admitting that the source of his current predicament is his delusional belief that his profession is a “just and legitimate trade”(48). Instead, he sarcastically cries “Justice indeed!” denying his moral impropriety and fulfilling the role of a victim to the very last (157).

Whilst Said Mahran is not honest with himself about the cause of his downfall, Mahfouz’s commentary on the capability of other institutions to lift the fallen Egyptian are not compromised by his narrator’s lack of integrity. As David DiMeo suggests in his examination of Mahfouz’s criticism of the Egyptian police state throughout his novels, “the disillusioned characters of Mahfouz's post-1960 novels often isolated themselves from society” (6), brooding on the degradation of society by juxtaposing their pre- and post-incarceration experiences. Mahfouz’s focus on the inefficacy and betrayal at the hands of religion, the state, and even his own friends as solutions to Egypt’s troubles which are metaphorically represented through the protagonist subtly expresses by contradiction where Mahfouz thinks the solution lies. Mahfouz’s stance towards Islam’s capacity to fulfill and fix Said is indirectly revealed through the protagonist’s interactions with the Sheikh. While he seeks the Sheikh’s generosity and ability to offer him a place to stay, Said shirks the inherent nature of the place of worship, in search of an extra mattress rather than spiritual clarity. The Sheikh identifies Said’s superficial requests, wisely remarking first that he seeks “the walls, not the heart,” and later “a roof, but not an answer” (Mahfouz 27, 29). Mahfouz presents the potential solution of Islam in a fair light, yet the docile Sheikh who reappears throughout the novel in Said’s times of need serves as just another example of a complacent and inactive means of dealing with the underlying issues of corruption within the state and the disaffected society therein.

Mahfouz’s projected opinion on the failure of government is somewhat more tainted by the dishonesty of the narrator, but is still delivered with a heavy hand. In the first chapter of the novel, his former partner in crime, Ilish, who is directly responsible for his initial betrayal is in company with a familiar detective. Not only does the detective’s association with the abject traitor Ilish Sidra frame him in a negative light that has yet to be tainted by the narrative hypocrisy to follow, but his actions and characterization serve to express Mahfouz’s negative views of the state. Quick to accuse Said of more crimes, the detective pats him down and unnecessarily calls Said a “cunning bastard” (Mahfouz 17). His corrupt characterization is further compounded as presumptuous and obtuse when he fails to empathize with Said’s request to see his daughter, and later attempts to dampen the tense, yet civil, discourse between Said and Ilish (19). Aided by the contextual knowledge of the revolution which historically would have transpired during Said’s imprisonment, as well as insight provided by critics such as David DiMeo who identifies “observations [within Mahfouz’s novels] about the societal damage inflicted by state brutality” (4), Mahfouz’s commentary on the failure of the state is punctuated by the fact that Said was betrayed by Ilish, and exits prison to enter a worse society where the fellow thieves have become state dogs. Mahfouz’s dejected tone bleeds through the interpersonal relationships which Said destroys throughout the novel. Betrayed by his family and closest friend at the outset, Mahfouz hints at the volatility of the social climate following the Revolution of 1952. No one seems to be incorruptible in the new society into which Said is re-born. Pejoratively expressing his disappointment with the poisonous effect of success and wealth upon Rauf Ilwan, he remarks about “how marvelous it is for the rich to recommend poverty to us,” indicating the divide that now separated him and his former friend (Mahfouz 45). Lastly, Nur’s abandonment of Said leaves the broken criminal utterly alone. The pattern of deceit throughout the novel serves to reveal the author’s pessimistic sense of helplessness and distrust in society under Nasser’s new regime.

The most important motif that pervades the series of betrayals is the tragedy of the protagonist which culminates with his death as the only man who seemed to recognize the issues at hand, revealing Mahfouz’s own disaffected and stranded stance. In accordance with the aforementioned themes of alienation as identified by critics including Menahem Milson (181) and Dafer Al-Sarayreh (24), Mahfouz builds the conflict which his protagonist faces around a requisite sense of isolation. Unable to find solace within the shelter of his home, a place of worship, or the company of old friends, Mahfouz’s sense of inability to enact meaningful change is evidenced through Said’s refugal evasion of an intangible and nebulous ‘state’ figure. With the exception of the comparatively mild detective Hasaballah, none of Mahfouz’s antagonists are explicit members of ‘the state.’ All of the traitorous dogs he encounters are his friends; the state is merely responsible for the execution of heir seemingly corrupt bidding.

Mahfouz uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative style in order to emphasize the confused predicament of man versus society, versus the state, and versus himself. His initially intimidating labyrinth of chronology and past memories molded with current monologue gives way to an unstructured structure which is symbolic of the mental depravity of Said and, in a metaphorical sense, Mahfouz’s own embittered self. The reader is assaulted by out of place italics from the first page to the last. At first, there is little-to-no distinction made between the significance of these bursts of slanted text. However, after just the first chapter, the reader becomes familiarized with the overt designation of internal monologues which are signified by the italics. With phrases such as “(I swear I hate you all.)” (15), to “Damn the man who lets himself be carried away by the melodious voice of woman. But Said nodded in agreement” (19), Mahfouz establishes the unstructured structure of the protagonist’s mentality and, by extension, the novel as a whole. After one particularly lengthy peek into Said’s raw and unfiltered consciousness, during which he contemplates the progression of his relationship with his wife Nabawiyya in the second person (90-96), Mahfouz mutates this style of interspersing Said’s thoughts between external interactions, by occasionally dropping the italics which previously helped the reader to distinguish reality from Said’s ramblings, marking his worsening mental state. Adel Elyas identifies the transition from comparatively clear distinctions between the omniscient narrator who provides objective information about the protagonist and the stream-of-consciousness soliloquys to the stronger use of the technique later in the novel, which leaves the reader to serve as the juror of Said’s actions in absence of the omniscient commentary (24). Remarking in the same manner which would usually appear beset by italics, Said remarks that there is nothing left to do but “crouch behind the shutters watching these endless progressions of death” (Mahfouz 101). Because of the use of stream-of-consciousness which constrains the reader to the isolated and anxious perspective of the protagonist, the reader gains a more intimate understanding of him as the story progresses.

Although Mahfouz attacks the reader with such an unconventional and dynamic writing style, he also clearly guides the reader through an otherwise Faulknerian story (devoid of obvious contextual clues), heavily foreshadowing each step that Said takes towards his last. Although Tawfiq Yousef argues that “the best and only example of [the experimental devices associated with Faulkner] is his novel Miramar” (44), similar techniques are not only present within The Thief and the Dogs, but they are the means by which the story retains its lucidity even through Said’s delusional monologues which are the source of the bulk of the narration throughout the story. Mahfouz hints at what is to come through the internal observations made by Said, not only informing the reader, but compounding the tragedy of the protagonist who is responsible for the very observations which foreshadow his folly. While Said imposes himself upon his past mentor, he takes particular note of the expensive decor, “stealing occasional glances at objects d’art,” eyeing “a statue of a Chinese god,” and running his eyes “quickly over the smart drawing room” (Mahfouz 38-45). Although Said ironically launches into the next chapter mentioning that he found nothing but betrayal within Rauf’s home, he proceeds to break in under the cover of the night only to be caught and released by a vindicated Rauf Ilwan. Later on, during the aforementioned spout of italicized ramblings, Said offers a grim observation that “The silence of the graves is more intense… The flat must look the way it always has when Nur is out” (Mahfouz 95). Unknowingly predicting the destination and cause of his death, Said foreshadows the final chapter of the novel. Although Mahfouz often subjects the reader to Said’s convoluted perception of a situation, he includes numerous hints which supplement the narrow and tainted perspective./p>

Even though any obvious meaning of this Egyptian thriller is shrouded by themes of uncertainty, distrust, and existentialism which are compounded by the narrator’s intermittent bursts of stream-of-consciousness, Mahfouz delivers his commentary on the disrepair of the Egyptian socio-political climate whilst simultaneously establishing the means by which he is able to instill his readers with his own feelings of despair and disaffection as a legitimate literary structure. Even though Gamal Nasser stated that the revolution sought to “bridge the gulf between social classes and to foster the spirit of altruism which marks a cultivated individual” (208), it is clear through Mahfouz’s narrative choices in The Thief and the Dogs that he disagrees with the efficacy of Nasser’s revolution to reform Egyptian society. Through the lens of the confused, criminal protagonist who conveys his own sense of disaffection, disgust, betrayal, and incapability, Mahfouz subtly argues that it will take more than a new regime to resolve the corruption present within his country.


1 From page 202 of an article written by the president of Egypt in 1955, for a journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations, describing his perception of the necessity of revolution due to corruption of the state under King Farouk.

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