Children of the Alley

Naguib Mahfouz 1961

The Thief and the Dogs is one of six novels written between the serial publication of the controversial Children of the Alley in 1959, and the Six Day War in 1967. The other novels published in that period were Autumn Quail (1962), The Search (1964), The Beggar (1965), Adrift on the Nile (1966) and Miramar (1967).

The Thief and the Dogs, Autumn Quail and The Beggar are all quite short. They are sometimes described as novellas. Whatever the length, six published novels in seven years represent a rather high level of output. Throughout his life, Mahfouz’s output was usually high.

The Thief and the Dogs describes the last few days in the life of Said Mahran.  Said Mahran is the thief of the title.

The pace of the novel, and the unity of the plot, is like the pace of the melodramas from 1945 to 1950. Nothing happens that does not advance the story. Unlike the melodramas, however, The Thief and the Dogs does not rely on coincidence. Nothing happens that is improbable. Some things – such as Said Mahran twice managing to shoot the wrong person – happen more or less by accident.

Mahran is a professional burglar. To have a criminal as the protagonist of a novel is a departure for Mahfouz.

Although Mahfouz has not used a criminal as a protagonist before, he is nevertheless interested in crime. He has been writing about crime for a while.

There are criminals in several other novels. Hassan, the oldest of the three brothers in The Beginning and the End (1950), is a traditional thug. Mahfouz shows that Hassan’s choice of occupation is a response to poverty. He also shows in the cases of the two younger brothers that there are different choices. Poor people do not have to take to crime. It is to some extent a choice.

Hussein, the middle brother, becomes a clerk in southern Egypt. Hassanein, the youngest, mobilizes influence and – very unusually, for someone with his background – becomes an army officer.

The gangsters who rule the alley in Children of the Alley are, like Hassan, traditional thugs. Thugs were part of the life of the old quarters of Cairo.

There are other examples of criminals. Dr Booshy and Zaita in Midaq Alley (1947) are – extraordinarily, in modern Egypt – tomb robbers. They steal gold fillings from corpses in the cemetery. Dr Booshy, an unlicensed dentist, uses the stolen gold in his dental practice to make cheap dentures.

When Arafa the magician and Hanash his brother dig under the wall of Gabalawi’s mansion in Children of the Alley they are, symbolically, also tomb robbers. That makes Gabalawi’s mansion amongst other things a pharaoh’s tomb. Mahfouz had a long-standing interest in pharaonic nationalism.

Mahran is not a thug. He is a career criminal. Nor is he anything as exotic as a tomb robber. Mahran has a realistic occupation. He is a burglar.

We are given a clear indication of how Mahran used to work before he was imprisoned. He was well-equipped and collected intelligence. After Mahran’s release from prison he lacks the resources he needs and has no assistants. ‘I have no tools, no flashlight, no good knowledge of the house. Nabawiyya hasn’t been here before me pretending to work as washerwoman or a maid….’ [4]

There are no details of particular episodes from Mahran’s earlier career as a criminal. We are given only a general impression. We can safely assume, therefore, that crime as such is not the main interest of the novel.

If this was in all ways a realistic novel it would be necessary to give some details of Mahran’s history of crime. Without the background, Mahran as a character would not be entirely credible.

In its treatment of character and action, The Thief and the Dogs is an essentially realistic novel. It is not however wholly realistic. Mahfouz is more interested in the meaning of Mahfouz’s actions than their plausibility.

Mahran is released from prison as the novel begins. ‘Once more he breathed the air of freedom. But there was stifling dust in the air, almost unbearable heat, and no one was waiting for him; nothing but his blue suit and his gym shoes.’ [1]

Although The Thief and the Dogs is about a criminal, it is not a Kriminalroman. While policemen occur several times in the novel, they are incidental.

A detective is waiting for him when he arrives at his old home to discuss custody of his daughter. ‘The detective came up and patted him all over, searching with practiced speed and skill.’ [1]

Towards the end of the novel, while the manhunt is at its height, Mahran is surprised by two policemen. ‘“Stop where you are!” said one of them in a deep urbanised country accent. “And let’s see your identity card!” barked the other….’  [16]

Mahran attacks them. ‘…swinging a fist into both their bellies….’ [16]

We can also fairly assume that it is the police who fire at Mahran and turn the floodlights on him when he is finally cornered. It would not in fact matter for the story if it was the army who fired. ‘And suddenly there was blinding light over the whole area…. “Give yourself up…. It’s no use resisting.”’ [18]

That is all. The press is in fact more important than the police. ‘…there was clearly enormous interest in both the crime and its perpetrator… especially in Al-Zahra, Rauf Ilwan’s paper.’ [10]

There is no sense of the battle of wits and daring between the police and the criminal that characterize the mystery. There is no sense of the struggle to avoid a calamitous outcome that characterizes a thriller.

The whole of the novel is told from the point of view of Said Mahran. Despite the violent action, it is a psychological novel. In that it resembles Cairo Modern (1945) or The Mirage (1948).

Mahran believes that he has been betrayed. ‘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.’  [1]

Mahran believes that he has been betrayed by his wife Nabawiyya and his friend Ilish. Ilish betrayed him to the police. ‘Ilish Sidra finally said, “I’ll tell the police. We’ll get rid of him….” And I found myself surrounded by police in Al-Sayrafi Lane… their kicks and punches raining down on me.’ [4] (Quotations in Roman type represent interior monologue. They are in italic in the original.)

Said’s wife betrayed him by marrying Ilish, the friend who betrayed him. ‘”She committed adultery with one of my men, a layabout, a mere pupil of mine, utterly servile. She applied for divorce on grounds of my imprisonment and went and married him.”’ [2]

Nabawiyya and Ilish have custody of Sana, Said Mahran’s daughter. Sana is the only human being for whom Said appears to have feelings. ‘”As the thought of her crossed his mind, the heat and the dust, the hatred and pain all disappeared, leaving only love to glow across a soul as clear as a rain-washed sky.”’ [1]

Said also believes that he has been betrayed by his friend Rauf Ilwan. Said’s sense of betrayal by Nabawiyya and Ilish is direct and personal. His sense of betrayal by Rauf Ilwan – in a Kriminalroman, this would be paradoxical is about ideals.

Rauf is Said’s oldest friend. Said’s father was the concierge of a student hostel. ‘…your father, Amm Mahran, the kindly concierge of the student’s hostel….’ [11]

Rauf was a student at the hostel. ‘…what had become of the Rauf Ilwan he’d known? Said thought of the good old days at the students’ hostel….’ [3]

 Said Mahran first steals during his mother’s terminal illness. His father has already died. ‘It was during that long month of illness, however, that you stole for the first time….’ [11]

Mahfouz does not suggest, in any editorial comment, that stressful circumstances justify the crime. It is Rauf who approves of what Said Mahran has done. ‘“You’ve actually dared to steal. Bravo! Using theft to relieve the exploiters of some of their guilt is absolutely legitimate, Said. Never doubt it.”’ [5]

Rauf is a revolutionary. ‘Not just a revolutionary student, but revolution personified as a student.’ [12]

Rauf is Said’s mentor. ‘…his whole life had been no more than the mere acting out of ideas that had come from that man….’ [3]

Rauf, as a student revolutionary, appears to have a number of followers. They train with firearms in the desert. ‘On the other side of this very hill, young men, shabby, but pure in heart, used to train for battle.’ [5]

This is where Said Mahran acquired his skill at arms. ‘Didn’t it use to be said that he was Death Incarnate, that his shot never missed?’ [5]

The group is not named. We can assume this is deliberate. In a realistic novel it would have to be named. In certain aspects it appears to be a nationalist group. ‘…the time when I got arms for the national cause and not for the sake of murder.’ [5]

In the beliefs that Rauf Ilwan installs in Said Mahran, there is also a strong element of social justice. ‘”Isn’t it justice… that what is taken by theft should be retrieved by theft?”’ [11] There is perhaps a hint here of the French anarchist writer Proudhon’s well-known formula, ‘Property is theft’.

There are even references to class war. When Said Mahran meets Rauf Ilwan for the first time after coming out of prison, he jokes about it. ‘“No class war now?”’ [3]

Mahfouz does not explicitly state that Ilwan’s group is either nationalist or socialist. This is not realism. It is symbolism. Ilwan’s group is composed of young men who are alienated from society and prepared to resort to violence to further their political ideals. Political violence, including particularly assassination, was a curse of Egyptian life under the monarchy and the British.

There is no suggestion that Said’s crimes are ‘expropriations’. Said is not stealing to provide funds for the movement. The purpose of his crimes is to enrich himself.

Socialist groups do not usually approve of violence. They seek power through the electoral process. Communists approve of violence when it is necessary for the seizure or the consolidation of power. It is only some anarchists who see crime as a political act.

Mahfouz has some interest in anarchists. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im in Cairo Modern (1945) is called an anarchist by his friends.  ‘”You, more than anyone, deserve the title anarchist.”’ [Cairo Modern, 10.] Al-Da’im is described as amoral [Cairo Modern, 31] and a nihilist [Cairo Modern, 7.]  Amorality and nihilism can both be characteristics of people described as anarchists.

‘Anarchist’, however, is not quite correct. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im entirely lacks a class analysis. A theory of class would be essential for us to see him as a collective anarchist.

Al-Da’im does however share the rejection of some ‘individual anarchists’, as they are known, of the idea of any moral restraint or obligation. Al-Da’im is also, though Mahgub does not use the term or an equivalent, anti-social. ‘His rejection of society and its values was dazzlingly complete.’ [40.]

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is perhaps more properly a nihilist. He has no values. Said Mahran believes that his revolutionary principles justify his crimes. Other than that, he is perhaps a nihilist as well.

Said has the sense of entitlement of the truly anti-social person. The detective calls Said’s money his ‘loot’. Said talks about as it as his own property. He does so quite unselfconsciously. ‘”And  [Ilish] took everything I owned, the money and the jewellery….”’ [2]

Said uses the ideals he learned from Rauf Ilwan to justify his crimes. ‘My profession will always be mine, a just and legitimate trade….’ [4]

Said sees himself as a victim. Poverty forces him into crime. His revolutionary ideals justify it. Said’s mentor Ilwan abandons those ideals. Said feels deeply betrayed.

While Said was in prison the Free Officers carried out their coup and initiated the Egyptian Revolution. This dates the novel.

Said was serving four years. The Free Officers staged their coup in 1952. The action of the novel therefore occurs between 1952 and 1956.

Rauf Ilwan has adapted. He is an important journalist. Mahran tries unsuccessfully to see Ilwan at the paper where he works. He ‘…found himself in a large rectangular room with one glass wall overlooking the street, but no place to sit. He heard the secretary on the telephone, telling someone that Mr Rauf was at a meeting with the editor-in-chief and would not be back for at least two hours.’

Mahran realises that Ilwan is no longer his old comrade. ‘Rauf was now a very important man, it seemed, a great man, as great as this room.’ [3]

Mahran worries that he can no longer rely on Ilwan. ‘What refuge would he have left if his only surviving support also collapsed?’ [3]

Mahran fears that Ilwan may have betrayed the values they once shared. ’What if Rauf should prove to have betrayed those ideas? [3]

Mahran feels vindictive. ‘He would then have to pay dearly for it.’ [3]

When they meet, Ilwan does not refer explicitly to the Free Officers coup or the July Revolution. This possibly represents a degree of caution about the censorship. I think however any contemporary Egyptian reader would have understood what was meant. ‘“And now you’ve come out of prison to find a new world.”’ [3]

What has happened is surprising. ‘“Who could have predicted such things…?”’ [3]

Ilwan is very clear about what this means. The revolutionary struggle in which they were involved is over. ‘“Let there be a truce! Every struggle has its proper field of battle.”’ [3]

Ilwan wants Mahran to reform. ‘“In the past you were both a thief and my friend…. If you go back to burglary you’ll be a thief and nothing else.”’ [3]

Ilwan refuses to give Mahran a job on his paper. ‘“You’ve never been a writer, and you got out of jail only yesterday.”’ [3]

Ilwan dismisses Mahran with a gift of money. ‘Rauf took out his wallet and handed him two five-pound notes.’ [3]

Mahran feels he has been betrayed. He equates Ilwan’s betrayal with the betrayals by his wife and his friend. ‘The other Rauf Ilwan has gone, disappeared, like yesterday, like the first day in the history of man – like Nabawiyya’s love or Ilish’s loyalty.’ [4]

Mahran becomes vindictive. ‘But unless I settle my account with them, life will have no taste, because I shall not forget the past.’ [4]

The only meaning Mahran has had is his life of crime and the revolutionary ideals he used to justify that. With his companions and his mentor gone, he can only find meaning in fantasies of violent revenge. He cannot change.

Out of vindictiveness Mahran attempts to burgle Ilwan’s mansion. He fails. He is caught.

Ilwan does not turn Mahran over to the police. He chooses to humiliate him. ‘“It was idiotic of you to try your tricks on me…. You’ll always be worthless and you’ll die a worthless death.”’ [4]

Ilwan emphasises the complete nature of the rupture between them by demanding the return of the gift. Ilwan too, it would seem, has a vindictive streak. ‘“Give me back the money.”’ [4]

Mahran’s fantasies of revenge turn into active planning. The transition is seamless. Mahran is, perhaps, above all a man of action.

Mahran visits a café where he is known. It is a den of thieves. ‘…the café was quiet again. Nothing had changed. Said felt like he’d left it only yesterday.’ [5]

Mahran is seeking a weapon for his plans. ‘“I need a good revolver.”’ [5]

Guns are part of Mahran’s life. His mentor Rauf Ilwan has taught him their value. ‘“What does a man need in this country, Said…? He needs a gun and a book: the gun will take care of the past, the book is for the future.”’ [5]

Books in this case represent the revolutionary ideals. Most of Mahran’s books are gone. “I only want my books….” “Most of them have been lost….” [1]

By the time the novel opens Mahran no longer has a future. He only has a past. He is doomed.

At the café Mahran meets Nur. She too is part of his past. “It’s Nur, remember her…? She’ll be pleased to see you.” [5]

Nur is a woman who used to admire Mahran. Though it is not made explicit, she appears to be a bar girl.

The description of Nur is realistic to a fault. It is also quite sexist. ‘She’d hoped to gain his love, but failed. Her face was disguised by heavy makeup, and she was wearing a sexy frock that not only showed her arms and legs but was fitted so tightly to her body it might have been stretched rubber. What it advertised was that she’d given up all claims to self-respect.’ [5]

Nur has a wealthy lover with a car. Mahran muses about how to rob him. ‘So he likes open spaces. Over near the Martyr’s tomb.’ [5]

In the robbery we see Mahran’s ability to intimidate people and his capacity for violence. ‘Said thrust the gun so menacingly close that the young man began to plead.’ [6]

Even Nur, despite being forewarned, finds Mahran’s violence convincing. ‘“I was really scared,” Nur said as she dressed.’ [6]

Nur comments on his lack of feeling. This is the characteristic that allows Mahran to commit violent crimes. ‘“You have no heart.”’ [6]

Mahran does not argue with Nur. He turns it into a joke. ‘“They’ve got it locked up in prison, according to regulations.”’ [6]

Nur tells Mahran where she lives. ‘“…in Sharia Najm al-Din beyond the cemetery at Bab el-Nasr.”’ [6]

 Tombs are also significant in Khan al-Khalili (1945). This is one of the novels that I refer to as ‘social melodramas’. Both the Akif brothers are in love with the same young woman, Nawal. She is a schoolgirl.

The route that Nawal takes to walk to school leads her past the Cairo Necropolis: ‘…the City of the Dead was looming ahead to their left, shrouded in its eternal gloom and all-pervasive silence.’ (27).

The City of the Dead is a large area of tombs and mausoleums near the Mokattam Hills, which are a significant location in Children of the Alley. What Mahfouz does not mention is that many people live among the tombs. It is not relevant here.

Rushdi takes to walking with her to school. They pass the Akif family tomb. ‘”That’s our family tomb,” [Rushdi] said… “Then let’s recite the Fatiha,’ [Nawal] said.’ (27).

This is symbolic. Before the end of the novel Rushdi will die of tuberculosis. Nawal does not know this when Rushdi points out the tomb to her. He will be buried there.

Bab al-Nasr is one of the surviving gates of Old Cairo. The cemetery does not appear to be as well-known as the City of the Dead. Nevertheless Mahfouz is making a similar point. Mahran is going to live among the dead. His own death is imminent.

This sense of fatality has an element of tragedy. Mahran however lacks the nobility that is required for a truly tragic character.

Once he has the pistol and the car Mahran commences on his career of revenge. ‘To kill them both – Nabawiyya and Ilish – at the same time would be a triumph.’  [7]

Mahran has not yet accepted that his paranoid obsession will destroy him. ‘Even better would be to settle with Rauf Ilwan, too, then escape, go abroad if possible.’ [7]

In a curious inversion, Mahran thinks that Nabawiyya and Ilish are the criminals, not him. ‘Treachery is abominable, Ilish, and for the living to enjoy life it is imperative that criminal and vicious elements be eradicated.’ [7]

Said goes to his old flat. He thinks Ilish will still be there. ‘He drew his gun and gave the glass one blow thought the twisted bars that protected it…. A man’s voice… said, “Who’s there…?” Said pressed the trigger and the gun roared like a demon in the night. The man… hit the floor, where he lay like a sack.’ [7]

Mahran assumes that the man’s wife is Nabawiyya. ‘A woman shrieked for help….’ [7]

Mahran shows his megalomania.  ‘“Your time will come! There’s no escape from me!”’ [7]

He also describes himself in the language of evil. ‘”I’m the devil himself!”’ [7]

Mahran has now killed a man. His reaction is somewhat grandiose. ‘A murderer…! you have a new identity now, and a new destiny!’ [7]

He is not so far gone that he cannot recognise how much the act has changed him. ‘You used to take precious goods – now you take worthless lives!’ [7]

It is only when Mahran reads the papers that he realises his mistake. The papers are to become important to him. ‘“Dastardly Murder in the Citadel Quarter.”’ [8]

Said has killed the wrong man. ‘Said Mahran had come to murder his wife and his old friend, but had killed the new tenant instead.’ [8]

Said does not attempt to rationalise his failure. He sees the futility, and has some sense of his growing madness. ‘A failure. It was insane. And pointless.’ [8]

Eventually Said’s paranoia takes over. ‘Suspicion had tainted his blood to the last drop now: he had visions of infidelity as pervasive as dust in a windstorm.’ [16]

He does not wholly lack insight. ‘“Is this madness, then?”’ [15]

It is when he thinks of his situation that Mahran descends into melodrama. ‘Said’s life was finished, spent to no purpose; he was a hunted man and would be till the end of his days… alive but without real life.’ [8]

Living near the cemetery is a powerful symbol of being ‘alive but without real life.’ The association of Mahran with death is strong. ‘Not a day passes without the graveyard welcoming new guests.’ [11]

Mahran sees the graves as an expression of his plight. ‘What a lot of graves there are…. Their headstones are like hands raised in surrender….’ [10]

Nur offers Mahran a relationship. ‘“Stay here all your life, if you like.”’ [9] Nur does not know at the point she makes the offer how short Mahran’s life will be.

Mahran is incapable of responding. He does not care for her. ‘…one puff of wind would be enough to blow you away. You only arouse pity in me.’ [9]

The search for love appears to give Nur’s life meaning. She strongly suspects that Mahran is incapable of love. ‘“Is there anything more important than love? I often wondered if your heart wasn’t made of stone.”’ [9]

Their relationship is little more than instinct. It is illusory. It is destructive. ‘A moth overhead made love to a naked light bulb in the dead of the night.’ [10]

Nur relates an incident that shows the reality of a life constant poverty. ‘“I’m worn out,” [Nur] said weakly.’ [11]

It also shows that life for a woman without a male protector in a traditional society is very precarious. ‘“They beat me! …some young louts, probably students, when I asked them to pay the bill.”’ [11]

What Nur wants is very little. It indicates the depths of her deprivation. ‘“I just want to sleep safe and secure, wake up feeling good, and have a quiet, pleasant time.”’ [11]

Mahran uses Nur. He needs her help in preparing his next step. ‘“I’m going to ask you to buy some cloth for me – something suitable for an officer’s uniform.”’ [10]

Nur does what Mahran wants. ‘Nur watched him as he tried on the uniform.’ [12]

She is nevertheless worried. ‘“Do be sensible. I couldn’t bear to lose you again.”’ [12]

Nur finally discovers what Mahran has done. ‘“You’ve killed someone! …How terrible! Didn’t I plead with you?”’ [12]

She shows that up to a point she was realistic about his feelings and their future. ‘“You don’t love me…. I know that. But at least we could have lived together until you did love me!”’ [12]

Nur does not seem to have a problem with burglary. Murder is different. ‘“What’s the use… when you’ve committed murder?”’ [12]

Nur does not stop loving Mahran. It makes her despair all the more poignant. ‘“I just don’t understand you. But for heaven’s sake have mercy and kill me too….” “I feel as if the most precious thing in my whole life is about to die.”’ [15]

Eventually Mahran shows some feeling. ‘…he responded spontaneously, with a sense of gratitude, knowing her now to be the person closest to him for as long as he might live.’ [12]

It is too late. Nur leaves him. ‘Dawn was close, but Nur had not returned….’ [16]

Nur is affected by the atmosphere of death that increasingly surrounds Mahran. ‘Up in the graveyard heights a dog barked and Nur let out a long, audible sigh.’ [11]

The dog is symbolic. Mahran calls his enemies dogs. ‘“You dogs, you!” he roared in a frenzy of rage….’ [18]

It is the dogs finally that trap him. ‘…he heard dogs beginning to bark in the distance…. The dogs had come at last and there was no hope left.’ [18]

Being with Nur only serves to underline how alone Mahran is. ‘Now he was alone in the full sense of the world….’ [10]

In isolation Mahran has little defence against ‘…his latent insanity….’ [10] In that state Mahran begins to imagine he is a great man and will do great things. ‘He was the very centre of the news, the man of the hour, and the thought filled him with both apprehension and pride….’  ‘He felt sure he was about to do something truly extraordinary, even miraculous….’ [10]

In some people’s eyes he becomes a popular hero. ‘“I’ve heard many people express their admiration for you.”’ [11] This is emphasised. ‘“People are talking about you… as if you were some storybook hero.”’ [12]

Said finally comes to believe it himself. ‘“They, the people, everyone… are on my side, and that’s what will console me in my everlasting perdition….”’ [14]

Said’s world is becoming dangerous. His friend the café owner cannot help him anymore. ‘“Even my café is no longer safe for you…. Go into hiding. But forget about trying to get out of Cairo for a while.”’ [12]

Rauf Ilwan continues the campaign in his newspaper. Ilwan and Mahran are more like each other than they seem. Said sees Ilwan as a great man. He sees himself as a popular hero.

Said wants revenge. Similarly, Ilwan is vindictive. ‘Rauf Ilwan would never rest until the noose was around his neck….’ [12]

Said cannot establish the whereabouts of Ilish Sidra. ‘So Ilish Sidra has slipped out of his clutches….’ [13]

Instead of giving up, he goes further. ‘Rauf, the only hope I have left is you….’ [13]

Mahran attempts to murder Ilwan. He knows it is pointless. ‘”It’s senseless, all of it, a waste. No bullet could clear way its absurdity. But at least a bullet will be right, a bloody protest….”’ [14]

It is not enough for Mahran simply to kill Ilwan. He is self-dramatising. He wants Ilwan to know who his killer is. ‘“Rauf! This is Said Mahran! Take that!”’ [14]

In announcing himself to his intended victim, Mahran alerts a hidden guard. ‘But before he could fire, a shot from within the garden, whistling past him very close, disturbed his aim.’ [14]

Mahran flees. He doesn’t know if his shot has found its mark. ‘But had he managed to kill Rauf Ilwan? And who had shot at him from inside the garden?’ [14]

Mahran is worried that once again he has killed the wrong person. ‘Let’s hope you didn’t hit some poor innocent fellow like before.’ [14]

The papers soon confirm that Mahran’s fears are justified. ‘…the unfortunate doorkeeper had fallen. Another poor innocent killed!’ [15]

The attempted murder of Ilish was personal. Ilish was Mahran’s friend. Ilish had betrayed Mahran with Mahran’s wife.

The attempted murder of Ilwan is also personal. Ilwan was once Mahran’s best friend. But it is also political. Ilwan taught Mahran the ideals he used to justify his crimes. Ilwan betrayed those ideals.

In that it is political, the attack represents an assassination. Assassinations were the plague of Egyptian political life.

I believe that Mahfouz is saying that the danger of killing an innocent person makes assassination illegitimate. It is an argument that one could use against any act of political terror. It is perhaps ironic that Mahfouz was himself the victim at the age of eighty-two of an attempted assassination.

Nur is the voice not so much of conscience but of rationality. ‘“There’s no limit to your madness!”’ [14]

She is profoundly affected. ‘“I’m really very depressed.”’ [14]

Nur predicts the outcomes accurately. She is expressing perhaps what Mahfouz thinks of political violence. ‘“You won’t kill them. But you will bring about your own destruction.”’ [14]

Nur’s flat is not the first place that Said goes to for refuge. After his rejection by his daughter Sana, he goes to the Sufi lodge that his father used to attend. The lodge is strongly associated with memories of an innocent childhood. ‘His heart beat fast, carrying him back to a distant, gentle time of childhood, dreams, a loving father, and his own innocent yearning. He recalled the men filling the courtyard, swaying with their chanting, God’s praise echoing from the depths of their hearts.’ [2]

The location of the lodge is significant in relation to Mahfouz’s other work. ‘Here, enclosed by ridges of the Muqattam hill, was the Darasa quarter, the scene of so many pleasant memories.’ [2]

The Muqattam hills are where Qassem and his followers in Children of the Alley build their new community. It is a symbolic recreation of the hijra to Medina.

There is another allusion to Children of the Alley. ‘The simplicity of the house, which could hardly be different from those of Adam’s day, was striking.’ [2]

The protagonist of the first two parts of Children of the Alley is Adham. He is based primarily on the scriptural Adam.

Said remembers the formulae. ‘“Peace be upon you, my lord and master.”’ [2]

The Sheikh replies with the corresponding formula. His words are conventional in the context. The way he says them has a preternatural quality. ‘“Peace and compassion be upon you,” said the Sheikh in a voice like Time.’ [2]

Said makes an excuse. ‘“Forgive my coming to your house like this. But there’s nowhere else in the world for me to go.”’ [2]

There is something preternatural also in the Sheikh’s insight into Mahran’s state of mind. ‘“You seek the walls, not the heart…. You seek a roof, not an answer.”’ [2]

The Sheikh’s utterances would be comprehensible without much effort by a genuine seeker. Mahran knows he is not in a spiritual condition where he can understand. ‘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.’  [2]

Yet he appears to trust the Sheikh. ‘What other refuge do I have?’ [2]

Mahran may be beyond spiritual help. Yet the lodge evokes genuine human feeling. ‘…he loved the dawn, which he associated with the singing of the prayer call, the deep blue sky, the smile of the approaching sunrise, and that remembered joy.’ [8]

The Sheikh does not acknowledge Mahran’s criminality. Yet he has direct insight into his state of mind. ‘“You are very wretched, my son.”’ [8]

The Sheikh responds with care. ‘“You are tired. Go and wash your face. This is your home.”’ [8]

The Sheikh does not relax his spiritual principles for Mahran. ‘“You’re responsible for both this world and the next…! ‘“You can save yourself, if you wish.”’ [17]

The Sheikh is aware that Mahran has a purely material existence. ‘“Go to sleep, for sleep is prayer for people like you,” the Sheikh said.’ [18]

On the last night of his life Mahran goes back to the lodge. When he wakes he finds that the Sheikh has provided for his material needs. ‘”He… near his pile of books some cooked meat, figs, and a pitcher of water.”’ [18] There could hardly be a more powerful image of nurturance.

Mahran has two teachers, Ilwan and the Sheikh: one material, one spiritual. He only listens to Ilwan. It is the teacher he does not listen to who cares for him.

The Thief and the Dogs is unusual as a novel about crime and a criminal. It is about human capacity for evil rather detection and pursuit. It explores the nature of evil without justifying the criminal or the crime. In that it reminds me, though the resemblance is not close, of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

The Thief and the Dogs is also a political novel. Said Mahran believes that Rauf Ilwan has betrayed him by abandoning the revolutionary ideals they once shared. That is a belief that is part of Mahran’s paranoia, and his encroaching madness.

Rauf Ilwan has become a successful journalist. He has acquired a mansion which is furnished with objets d’art. He has become a bourgeois. Said Mahran, particularly in his relations with Nur and the Sheikh, remains what he has always been: a man of the people.

Ilwan, in embracing the Arab Socialist revolution and using it for his own advantage, has not just betrayed Mahran. Symbolically he has betrayed the Egyptian people.

It is a point that is a little veiled by Mahran’s paranoia. It is possible that Mahfouz was testing the censorship.

The betrayal of the Egyptian people by the bourgeoisie is a theme that Mahfouz continues to explore in Autumn Quail, The Beggar, Adrift on the Nile and Miramar.

At the time of writing (15/8/2018) I am unsure as to whether this theme also occurs in The Search (1964). The Search seems to be somewhat anomalous in this group of novels.

Photo credit: iTripleM on /  CC BY

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