National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Thief and the Dogs

The Thief and the Dogs

by Naguib Mahfouz

The basis of any appreciation for literature is education and a concern for language.


Introduction to the Book

Naguib Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs (1961) is a multi-faceted story that is equal parts crime thriller, morality tale, and political allegory. The novel begins with career criminal Said Mahran's release from prison. He immediately sets off for the home of his ex-wife's new husband, desperate to settle a score with the man he feels betrayed him and hoping to reunite with his young daughter, Sana. Instead, she rejects him.

Said next visits the posh home of his friend and mentor Rauf Ilwan, a former leader of the student resistance who has thoroughly abandoned the egalitarian principles he supported during the Revolution of 1952. Sensing Said is not willing to give up his life of crime, Rauf rebuffs him, saying, "Things are no longer what they used to be."

Consumed by bitterness and motivated by a desire for revenge on the society and individuals he feels have failed him, Said's quest for vengeance carries readers from the banks of the Nile River, through the boulevards and back alleys of Cairo, to Bab al-Nasr—a medieval gateway on the outskirts of the city.

Chances for redemption and a new way of life come to him in the form of Nur, a prostitute who believes her love can transform them both, and Sheikh Ali al-Junaydi, a Sufi cleric who offers Said the opportunity to reject worldly temptation in favor of a spiritual path. Unable to accept either eros or agape, Said soon finds himself the most hunted man in Egypt—aimless, desperate, and alone.

Long known as a writer of realist fiction, The Thief and the Dogs marks Mahfouz's first use of the stream of consciousness technique. The result is a ground-breaking work that allows the reader intimate access to the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of a man consumed by rage and hell-bent on self-destruction.

"Leaving his hideout made him all the more conscious of being hunted. He now knew how mice and foxes feel, slipping away on the run. Alone in the dark, he could see the city's lights glimmering in the distance, lying in wait for him."
—from The Thief and the Dogs

Major Characters in the Book

Said Mahran
This petty thief embraces egalitarian and socialist values. Recently released from prison, he is disappointed that the revolution has failed to bring about widespread social and economic reform. Blinded by despair, he pursues revenge without thought of the consequences.

Nabawiyya
Said's wife and accomplice, Nabawiyya divorced him while he served time in prison. He resents her marriage to his former colleague, Ilish Sidra, and blames her for turning his daughter against him.

Ilish Sidra
Said is determined to seek revenge on Ilish, a small-time criminal who worked for him before his arrest and who now has both Said's wife and his money.

Rauf Ilwan
A former leader of the student movement, Rauf taught Said that a man "needs a gun and a book: the gun takes care of the past, the book is for the future." Rauf has abandoned the idealistic principles he held during the revolution in favor of stability and financial success.

Sheikh Ali al-Junaydi
The sheikh, a Sufi cleric who served as a spiritual advisor to Said's father, represents the moral voice in the novel. Said turns to him for help but refuses to accept his guidance.

Nur
A lower-class woman with few opportunities, Nur is a prostitute who loves Said and wants to protect him.

Tarzan
Tarzan, the owner of a local café, and his customers welcome Said enthusiastically after his release from prison. Later, the café serves as Said's information center while he is on the run.

"Said's life was finished, spent to no purpose; he was a hunted man and would be to the end of his days; he was alone, and would have to beware of even his own reflection in a mirror—alive but without real life. Like a mummy."
—from The Thief and the Dogs

The Big Read
Get involved with the Big Read!
Learn More

printfooter-logos
© Arts Midwest