Revenge and Existentialism
If my memory serves me right, it was in 2015 when I first came across Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. Had it not been for an online bookseller, my curiosity would have not been piqued. A quick Google search on Mahfouz provided me the portrait of a long and prolific career. I did not hesitate in buying Miramar and Palace of Desire despite not having an iota on what either book was about. I was at a point in my reading journey where I wanted to devour as many books from different parts of the world as I can. I wanted to read Palace of Desire but after learning it was the second book of a trilogy, I had to put it on hold. It was in early 2017 when I read my first novel by the Nobel laureate in Literature. Despite its length, I liked Miramar and its vivid portrait of contemporary Egypt’s political landscape. Mahfouz was one of the reasons why I started immersing myself more in Arabic literature.
Miramar also made me look forward to reading more of Mahfouz’s work. It took over four years but I finally made good the promise to read more of Mahfouz’s works. I again put on hold The Cairo Trilogy because I am still one book short of completing the trilogy. My second Mahfouz novel was The Thief and the Dogs, a book I recently acquired. Set in Cairo, the novel charted the story of Said Mahran. Under the tutelage of Rauf Ilwan, a journalist, Said Mahran was schooled in the principles of Marxism. Guided by Ilwan’s careful mentorship, Said turned into a revolutionary anarchist. Said slowly turned into the titular thief, stealing from the rich and redistributing his loot to the poor. He was 1950s Egypt’s version of a Robin Hood.
What Said had not expected was the universality of the adage, “The only thing constant is change.” While Said went about his business like normal, everything around him was changing – Cairo, Egypt’s political landscape, but most importantly, the people around him. An act of betrayal by one of his trusted friends, Illish Sidra, would lead to Said’s arrest. For four years, he was incarcerated and while he was in prison, more changes took place in Egypt. Another act of deep betrayal would further derail him. His wife, Nabawiyya, divorced him without any preamble. Simmering in a sea of rage, Said started plotting his revenge which he will follow through once he gets out of prison.
“But the sun is not yet set. The last golden thread is receding from the window. A long night is waiting for me, the first night of freedom. I am alone with my freedom, or rather I’m in the company of the Sheikh, who is lost in heaven, repeating words that cannot be understood by someone approaching hell. What other refuge have I?”~ Naguib Mahfouz, The Thief and the Dogs
The novel commenced upon Said’s release from prison: “No one smiled or seemed happy. But who of these people could have suffered more than he had, with four years lost, taken from him by betrayal And the hour was coming when he would confront them, when his rage would explode and burn, when those who had betrayed him would despair unto death, when treachery would pay for what it had done.” The Egypt that he witnessed was not the Egypt of four years ago. The first thing he did was to get in touch with his daughter. However, what greeted him was rejection. The acts of betrayal kept piling up and nothing was more shocking than learning your former wife marrying the very same man who betrayed you. It was the ultimate salt to the injury.
Betrayal was one of the prevailing themes in The Thief and the Dogs. Said found himself constantly being betrayed. What made these acts of betrayal more hurtful was that they came from people he deeply trusted: his friend, his wife, and even his daughter. And just when things couldn’t get any worse and more hurtful, another act of betrayal awaited Said. This ultimate act of betrayal would come from the person he least expected. But for Mahfouz, betrayal is not only between individuals. Political betrayal, such as the change of one’s political ideologies to coincide with the shifts in the political atmosphere, was another form of betrayal vividly portrayed in the novel.
In the people that Said trusted, we can also see Mahfouz capturing moral corruption and hypocrisy. For a person of loyalty such as Said, these acts of betrayal, and hypocrisy carried far more implications. He was a good man guided by his principles. He was a stickler for his principles that some members of the working class saw him as some sort of a hero. He was respected, but at the same time feared. He was a good man with pure intentions. To learn that these principles that once drove him no longer have a place in the shifting world was devastating for Said. It dehumanized him. He used these betrayals to stoke the flames of revenge that was raging inside of him. He was blinded by hatred and vengeance.
Said was so blinded by his vendetta that he was not able to see and appreciate the people who still cared for and loved him. Despite the darkness that enveloped him, rays of light still found their way into Said’s claustrophobic world. This light came in the form of his former fame, Nur, who was one of the few people who cared about Said. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nur is a common Arabic unisex name that means light. Nur took Said into her house, providing him a safe haven from Cairo’s dark alleys. She helped nurse him back, all the while unaware of the mental prison Said found himself shackled in. She softened the rock that he was slowly turning into. Unbeknownst to Said, Nur, who worked as a prostitute, was longing for an escape.
“What a lot of graves there are, laid out as afar as the eye can see. their headstones are like hands raised in surrender, thoug they are beyond threatened by anything. A city of silence and truth, where success and failure, murderer and victim, come together, where thieves and policemen side by side in peace for the first and last time.”~ Naguib Mahfouz, The Thief and the Dogs
Originally published in Arabic as Al-Liṣṣ wa-al-kilāb in 1961, The Thief and the Dogs‘ primary concern was not on the actual performance of a vengeful act but on how the very idea haunts one’s mind. Said takes action, even obtaining a gun, to carry out what he has plotted. He wanted to continue the fight that he has started. It was this monochromatic view that kept him from embracing the changes that took place during the time he was away. This refusal to accept these changes, in turn, made Said feel like he was betrayed. However, such changes are inevitable and are even common among us. For people like Said, this betrayal narrows down their vision, and, from the way they see it, the only way to redress it was a radical action, even at the point of sacrificing one’s life. The Thief and the Dogs was breathtaking in its examination of this mindset.
By integrating a third-person point-of-view with a first-person point-of-view, Mahfouz provided a character sketch. Said’s stream-of-consciousness transported the readers into his mind, giving us an intimate peek of his interiors, and his motivations. As we dig deeper into his psyche, the novel transforms into a story about existentialism. Mahfouz made us inhabit his mind and what we see is a man who was still stuck in an era that has already had its heyday. However, it was this radical view that made Said come across as a one-dimensional character. Anger and hatred consumed him. His self-righteousness made it a challenge to find empathy for him. Considering that the story happened over a couple of days, there was very little character development.
The secondary cast of characters, nevertheless, provided a better texture to the novel’s characterization. Apart from Nur, it was the Sheikh, a Sufi mystic, who left a deep impression. The Sheikh tried to steer Said in the right direction but Said’s vision was blurred by his hatred. There was no path of redemption for Said. Mahfouz’s prose complemented the novel. His beautiful language flowed, despite the book being too short. It was the book’s length that was one of the things I lamented. There was a preoccupation on the psychology of vengeance that I was hoping for Mahfouz to explore other subjects. Beyond vengeance, there was very little to pick up from the novel. The lack of historical context also undermined my overall appreciation of the novel.
Despite the things that the novel lacked, Mahfouz did a commendable job of juxtaposing the story to Cairo and its sinuous dark corners. The images of the cemetery left haunting images; it was contrasted by the enormous office building in Maarif Square. Another one of the novel’s finer facets was its underlying message. Mahfouz made an insightful case that vengeance is ultimately not on our hands, that it is God or a Higher Being who will ensure that moral justice will prevail. Those who take vengeance upon themselves inevitably set themselves up for failure. The avenger becomes the proverbial and titular dog. The avenger becomes the hunted. In the end, it takes more than just the purity of one’s ideals to topple a corrupt system. It was bleak.
“Not a day passes without the graveyard welcoming new guests. Why, it’s as though there’s nothing more left to do but crouch behind the shutters watching these endless progression of death. It’s the mourners who deserve one’s sympathy, of course. They come in one sweeping throng and then they go away drying their tears and conversing, as if while they’re here some force stroger than death itself has convinced them to stay alive.”~ Naguib Mahfouz, The Thief and the Dogs
The Thief and the Dogs had its blunders but it was still an interesting work of fiction. Mahfouz did an astounding job of exploring vengeance, its psychology, and how it adversely affects one’s vision. Hatred and revenge are abrasive emotions that impair our logic. Mahfouz reiterated the message that ultimately, vengeance is not ours. In this bleak story, Said Mahran’s fate serves as a caveat. However, beyond the nuances of vengeance, the novel thinned out. It provided very little to contemplate on. The Thief and the Dogs is a slim novel and it joins the group of books I wished was more extensive. Nevertheless, it still provided me with glimpses of the beauty and the promises of the Nobel laureate in Literature’s prose. His language and his storytelling are brimming with power that I need to explore more.
Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translator: Trevor Le Gassick and M.M. Badawi; Revised by John Rodenbeck
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: 2008
Number of Pages: 158
Genre: Historical Fiction, African Literature
Naguib Mahfouz’s haunting novella of post-revolutionary Egypt combines a vivid psychological portrait of an anguished man with the suspense and rapid pace of a detective story.
After four years in prison, the skilled young thief Said Mahran emerges bet on revenge. He finds a world that has changed in more ways than one. Egypt has undergone a revolution and, on a more personal level, his beloved wife and his trusted henchman, who conspired to betray him to the police, are now married to each other and are keeping his six-year-old daughter from him. But in the most bitter betrayal, his mentor, Rauf Ilwan, once a firebrand revolutionary who convinced Said that stealing from the rich in an unjust society is an act of justice, is now himself a rich man, a respected newspaper editor who wants nothing to do with his disgraced former friend. As Said’s wild attempts to achieve his idea of justice badly misfire, he becomes a hunted man so driven by hatred that he can only recognize too late his last chance at redemption.
About the Author
Naguib Mahfouz Abdelaziz Ibrahim Ahmed Al-Basha was born on December 11, 1911, in Cairo, Egypt. He was the seventh and youngest child. In 1930, he was admitted to the Egyptian University (now Cairo University). He received a degree in philosophy in 1934. Post-graduation, he worked for the Egyptian civil service in various positions until his retirement in 1971.
Mahfouz’s earliest published works were short stories. His first novels, which include Abath Al-Aqdar (Mockery of the Fates, 1939), Rhadopis (1943), and Kifah Tibah (The Struggle of Thebes, 1944), were set in ancient Egypt. There was a shift in perspective when he started working on his first major work, Al-Thulāthiyyah (1956–57; “Trilogy”), more popularly referred to as The Cairo Trilogy. It is comprised of Bayn al-qaṣrayn (Palace Walk, 1956), Qaṣr al-shawq (Palace of Desire, 1957), and Al-Sukkariyyah (,Sugar Street, 1957). One of his most prominent novels, Tharthara Fawq Al-Nīl (Adrift on the Nile, 1966) was adapted into a film. His other works include Children of Gebelawi (1959), Al-Liṣṣ wa-al-kilāb (The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), and Miramar (1967). He has also published over 300 short stories, 26 movie scripts, hundreds of op-ed columns for Egyptian newspapers, and seven plays.
Over his prolific literary career, he has received several honors such as the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Nile and Grand Cross of the Order of Merit in Egypt, the Grand officier of the Order of Educational and Cultural Merit Gabriela Mistral in Chile, and the Grand officier of Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. In 1988, Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the first, and so far, only Egyptian and Arab writer to win the prestigious prize.
Mahfouz was also a prominent political activist and critic. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa for Salman Rushdie and his publishers to be killed following the controversial publication of The Satanic Verses, Mahfouz did not bat an eye when he called Khomeini a terrorist. Despite not agreeing with Rushdie’s novel, he nonetheless believes in freedom of expression. He also became the subject of death threats and was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1994 when an extremist stabbed him in the neck.
Mahfouz passed away on August 30, 2006.