The Thief and the Dogs
Religion, Media, and Nationality in Mahfouz’s “The Thief and the Dogs”
The Thief and The Dogs, an intriguing narrative by Naguib Mahfouz, is the story of a man named Said Mahran who had just got out of prison. He was convicted as a thief and feels betrayed by all whom he was close to. One of his ex-colleagues, Ilish Sidra, ratted on him and then married his wife Nabawiya and took custody of his daughter Sana; Sidra in fact brainwashes her to reject Said. Said also feels betrayed by his previous mentor, Rauf Ilwan, who encouraged his thievery to begin with. Said is now on a mission: seeking revenge. I believe Mahfouz creates internal conflict in the protagonist by use of contrasting influences, the texts trying to guide Said. The motifs of the media and religion in their various forms act as these contrasting influences in Said’s life which makes him feel trapped and gives him hope respectively; through such storytelling, it appears that Mahfouz is highlighting the role of religion and media for the people living in the post-revolutionary Egypt of 1952.
First, it is essential to consider Mahfouz’s use of religion. It is represented throughout the book, it being referenced to as the Sacred Law, The Qur’an and also through the words of the sheik. The latter was a religious figure that Said’s father used to trust and follow as a disciple who Said goes to for shelter after he gets out of jail. We see Said reminisce of the times he spent in the sheikh’s house accompanying father, his father saying “look and listen, learn and open your heart” (25). Mahfouz paints a very safe, inviting and peaceful picture of the sheik’s house, the door was always open, “ a joy like the joy of paradise”. Looking back on his time in the sheikh’s house in the father he sees it as a place of wisdom and even a sanctuary.
The sheik is a very important representation of religion in the book. He provides answers, but within his cryptic nature they are never straight forward, his answer are also very ideal but they don’t seem to be practical. I believe mahfouz created such a character in order to embody the features of religion. The words of the Sheik are often hard to understand, with every reply or answer in the form of a riddle, in Said’s stream of thought he says “My father could understand you, but me you turned away from, treating me as if you were turning me out of your house”(28) Showing us that this side of the sheik was not welcoming.
A revealing example of the sheik’s ideal cryptic nature is when he says “aren’t you ashamed to ask for his good pleasure while you are not pleased with him?”(29). First of, Said believes he was doing what was right (acting as a form of robin hood and supporting militant activity and the revolutionary struggle) and hence cannot see why he was being punished and hence Said is also angry at religion for all his misfortunes. The idea seemed ideal but was not practical. How could one be pleased in the lord after going through great misfortune and how can one’s misfortune be lifted if one is not pleased in the lord. This paradox attempts to give Said hope by showing him the way out of his misfortunes but in a way makes him feel stuck as he doesn’t know what to do and how to do it and the advice doesn’t make the situation any clearer.
Said later goes into a rage, narrating all his ill fortune growing increasingly angry in reply Sheik simply told him to wash himself and read the Qur’an, we then see the Sheik trying to feed him words of hope quoting the Qur’an “If you love God, then follow me and God will love you’ and ‘I have chosen thee for myself.’”(32) and then goes on to say seek god with hope and reject the path of vengeance as murder and revenge are considered bad by the Qur’an. Again the advice sounds good but is hard to actually meet. Here we can say Mahfouz trying to make a statement about the ambiguity and the confusing nature of religion and its interpretation but also the importance and purity of its nature.
Next, it is important to take into account Mahfouz’s use of media. Most of the media in the book is presented through newspapers. It seem that Said has more of a passion for the media than for religion. Constantly buy newspapers or asking around about them, even at his lover, Nur’s house. The first thing that Said does after getting out of jail is going to his Ex-mentor Rauf Ilwan for a job as a journalist in his paper to which Rauf reacts in a way that discourages and angers Said, saying “This is no time for joking. You’ve never been a writer, and you got out of jail only yesterday. This fooling around is wasting my time” (45). This makes Said question his future and possibly return to thievery, which Mahfouz has already shown is in Said’s head by the words “In my whole life I’ve mastered only one trade” (44). This could be Mahfouz pointing out the negativity of Egypt’s media, to shut down dreamers.
Rauf had used to be a political activist, writing about the class struggle and corruption of Egypt in his papers (revolution of 1952), in which Said acted as a form of robin hood by stealing from the rich. This was a bond between the two of them, a form of common ground. Said feels betrayed by Rauf, now that this common ground had been removed for menial norms. Rauf stopped writing about civil strife and politics, and started following the norm of writing about gossip and fashion. Which could mahfouz making commentary on the state of Egypt’s media. How it has lost focus on important things in order to gain profit via superficial reporting. Such news is constantly shown to feed siads negativity but still remain addicting. After he sets out get his revenge, Said accidentally causes two separate murders to the wrong recipients. The news delivers the bad news bad news telling Said the the outcomes of his actions were the killing of innocents. The first headline is shockingly: “Dastardly Murder in the Citadel Quarter!” (80). The news also acts as the medium through which Rauf Publicly rejects him in the papers making him want to murder Rauf as well. Him being angry at himself for killing innocents. We can clearly see the news drowning the protagonist in negativity but Said’s interest in the news never wavers.
All these mentions of news and media can be seen as Mahfouz mocking the media through social commentary. One of the most important questions that arise from the book are , on the choices Mahfouz makes for the characterisation of Said. Said is a character that houses a lot of internal conflict, such as him going to the Sheik for refuge and Allah for answers at the same time cursing them both for all his misfortunes. similarly his anger against the news that develops throughout the story, but at the same time his passion for it is constant, reading it even though it angers him; Said, in some respects, is supposed to represent the people of Egypt.
We can say that Mahfouz has designed Said in order to make him embody the defining characteristics of the Egyptian people, and uses Said to point out the relationship of Egypt with media and religion, trying to educate current Egyptians that their blindly following ways are poisonous behaviors; they must learn to question and think about what they hear. The media should move away from the superficial trends and focus on the more important issues, whatever they may be. And religion should be thought about more clearly by the younger generations to avoid the creation of a people who, collectively, think and act like Said.
Death: the final answer? A Cemetery Symbolism Analysis in The Thief and the Dogs
Death has been a prevalent theme in literature of all cultures throughout the centuries. In The Thief and the Dogs, the author Naguib Mahfouz explores the realm of death and its interconnections with life. Witnessing the turmoil of the Egyptian revolutions since childhood, it is small wonder that Mahfouz creates a fictional world which mirrors the chaos of his nation with a protagonist whose role is to face the confusion of the contemporary world and revisit the cores of traditional values, one of which is the relationship between life and death. The author’s use of the cemetery symbol not only elucidates the protagonist’s confusion of a betraying world, but also clarifies Mahfouz’s own views on death. The symbolism of the cemetery somberly embodies Said Mahran’s inherent decaying psyche and his perception of the world, which convene to make a philosophical statement about death as being the final ‘truth’ Said had so insanely pursued.
The vast expanse of the cemetery, serving as the backdrop in which the novel unravels, is symbolic of Said Mahran’s psychological decadence. While Said’s death at the end of the novel may seem precipitous, that is an illusion. Mahfouz’s use of the cemetery symbol suggests that at some level of consciousness, Said has always known about his imminent death. The sense of doom and despondency is revealed to readers as Nur asks after a long day of work, “How did you spend your time” and Said dejectedly replies, “between the shadows and the graves” (157). The shadows gradually make their advance, looming over Said’s persona and slowly murder his sanity. Towards the end of the novel, what is left of Said when the dogs surround him is no longer a complete human being, but just a physical body devoid of spirit or emotion. The symbolism of the cemetery serves as the murderer of his soul, as it is the consummate silence, which gradually drains Said of all humane emotion and reason. He, at one point, speaks to himself: “The silence of the graves is more intense, but you can’t switch on the light…your eyes will get used to the dark, the way they did to prison and all those ugly faces” (95). To some extent at the subconscious level, Said stares at the murderer of his sanity—the silence of the graves—and ambiguously acknowledges the transformations going on in his mental state but is powerless to defend himself due to his blind rage of revenge. Said’s extreme hatred for his traitors effectuates an inescapable gloom over his life, a darkness that “made a black wall across his path”. Without dispute, Said “plunged off among the tombs into the maze path” (155). Said’s final death is not unforeseen, but an ineluctable eventuality. The ‘phantom of death’ finally emerges from the shadows, stalking through the dark. Revenge is a plague that plunders Said’s very soul—the hatred, the growing greed to kill, foreshadows and leads to his own demise. Said is psychologically murdered numerous times by the silent loneliness of the cemetery before the shadows of hatred and paranoia finally make their advance on his physical existence.
While the cemetery symbolizes a bleak, lonely spiritual doom in Said Mahran, it also serves as a more direct symbol as the traitors are compared to the corpses in the graves. The novella revolves around characters living in the lower strata of society, such as criminals, prostitutes, and thieves. Thus, they are in a sense, already “underground”—buried in their own graves, while a new nation, created by the Egypt 1952 Revolution, carries on above them. More importantly, the cemetery becomes a personal symbol for Said and becomes symbolic of his own perception of the world, assuming a special quality as intense emotional animosity is directly connected to the corpses in the graveyard. Said constantly refers to the people who had betrayed him as associated with the cemetery, as if the whole world is already dead in his eyes: “So this is the real Rauf Iwan, the naked reality—a partial corpse not even decently underground” (47). The stretch of graveyard surrounding Said’s temporary residence serves as a reminder that he is more alone in the world, as all who are dead and buried underground no longer have any tangible relations with him. His dead father seems to exist only in the state of dreams, far away from violent reality, and his mother is never mentioned. Thus, no emotional connections bond Said with the ones buried in the cemetery; its total silence isolates him, discouraging him from ruminating further about the Dead or the afterlife. The melancholy of the graves fails to provide Said with human companionship, and the people around him who are still alive are just as indifferent. Thus, Said views the Living as being just as useless as the dead, associating them with the buried corpses in the cemetery. The cemetery is symbolic of Said’s lack of faith in both the afterworld and his present world.
Although the cemetery exemplifies Said’s dismal perception of the world and spiritual loneliness, the symbolism also serves as an antithesis by ironically becoming Said’s source of strength. Indeed, Said feels minimal emotional attachment to the ones buried underground, but he does believes deeply in the cemetery’s ethereal quality and its melancholic authority. Said’s faith in the unknown power of the cemetery is greater than his faith in the Sheikh himself. Instead of obtaining spiritual support from the Sheik, it is at the graves where Said seeks for spiritual power, as he believes the cemetery radiates “some force stronger than death itself” (101). Ironically, it is also at the graves where Said will eventually be buried. He thus returns to the very place that gave him strength. Death assumes a mystical nature as Said considers “all those things lying out there in the graveyard below the window will help [him]” (114). The dead corpses buried underground, silently breathing in all its wholeness, gains a solemn authority in Said’s soul and the twisted silence feeds his insanity, giving him the power to continue pursuing his revenge. Death, in all its entirety and solemnity, seems to mock the trivial conflicts that trouble the ones who are still alive. Here, it is suggested that death is surreal; it is a perennial mystery since the Dead cannot tell its story to the Living. Just like the philosophy discussed behind Socrates Allegory of the Cave, as told by Plato, those who seek the final truth, the final revelation, will have forever crossed to the ‘other side’ of reality. Said Mahran believes death is the final revelation and the final reality, and it is his belief in this final peace that allows him to face death with ready acceptance. Mahfouz describes the cemetery with a tone of respectful submission: “What a lot of graves there are, laid out as far as the eye can see. Their headstones are like hands raised in surrender…A city of silence and truth, where murder and victim come together, where thieves and policemen lie side by side in peace for the first and last time” (89). The cemetery carries the overlapping theme, the overall ambience of the novella that the ‘final peace’ is always harmony. Described as a city with complete opposites residing in harmony, the cemetery symbolic of final peace; death ends all hatred existing in the world of the Living.
Said was lost in confusion trying to grasp the abstract idea of death and the afterlife, and eventually resolves to attribute the conundrum of the afterlife to the mysterious pull of the cemetery, the bigger force above us all. He then proceeds to say, “as for the rest, I’ll leave it to Sheik Ali to solve the riddle” (114). In exploring the meaning of death and the afterworld, Said gives up on figuring out the impossible, and instead shifts his focus to his present life. At the moment when Said gives up his pursuit of the unsolvable puzzle of truth, he suddenly gains an insight into the “truth” he was in search for, and feels spiritually fulfilled. Said finds this spiritual gratification as he confesses to Nur, “being with you, after being out there with the bullets, is like being in Paradise” (128). True fulfillment lies not in the Sheikh’s mosque or the Afterlife of the cemetery, but in his own control. The revelation, albeit arriving a little too late, gives him true happiness for the last moments of his life as appreciation dawns on him—nirvana is not sought in revenge or the Dead, but in his present lifeMany, like the protagonist Said Mahran, will travel full circle and eventually come to the conclusion that death is a force greater than humankind’s scope of understanding.
Every known civilization has myths, theories, and literature on the subject of death, and each has their unique viewpoint since the search on the meaning of life and death is a never-ending journey. The symbolism of the cemetery depicts not only Said’s cynicism for the world and his decaying persona, but also served to transcend Mahfouz’s commentary on his understanding of death. With the esoteric nature of the cemetery, it is evinced that what comes after Death is unfathomable. It is the present world, apparently, which can provide the most immediate utopia. After all, in the words of Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, “what everyone wants from life is continuous and genuine happiness”. The double-sided symbolism of the cemetery, however, allows readers to develop their own interpretations on the relationship between life and death.