I wrote last week about an Egyptian novel, Stealth, by Sonallah Ibrahim, which while I liked I felt presented certain impediments to first time western readers of Egyptian, or Arabic fiction. My suggestion for a more accessible read in modern Egyptian fiction is Naguib Mahfouz’s 1961 “The Thief and the Dogs” — so long as, of course, you don’t take it to represent all Egyptian literature, or even all from the last 60 years, and so long as you consider something written in 1961 as “modern.” It’s a good choice both because of its brevity, its setting, its cast of characters and rapid, straight ahead development. It will remind you of American or French noir, with a bit of Raskilnikov and Mersault appearing as Said Mahran re-enters his old neighborhood after four years in prison, betrayed by his right hand man and his wife — now married and living where they are easy to find, and to whom he directs his steps:
…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 underworld of Cairo life just after the 1952 Nasserite revolution comes to life as Said finds his way back:
People came up… from the shops on both sides of the street; voices were loud and warm in congratulation and Said found himself surrounded by a crowd — his enemy’s friends, no doubt– who tried to outdo one another in cordiality.”
He goes to the house and is pulled up by a police detective. In a wonderful bit of the negotiating dialog that goes on throughout Mid East literature we hear, through the veils of custom and circumspection, several things.
He is allowed to see his little girl, in the company of many others, and she, hardly recognizing him, will not kiss him or call him daddy. So reality begins to press into his prison dreams.
Without a house, or any place to stay, he makes his way to the house of a Sufi Sheikh he had known as a child, and to whom his father had devoted himself. Again, in a few lines of dialog, as Mahfouz is so sure with, we get a glimpse of Cairo culture of the back streets of the time.
“Forgive my coming to your house like this. But there’s nowhere else in the world for me to go.
The Sheikh’s head dropped to his breast. “You see the walls, not the heart,” he whispered.
“…I got out of jail today… you haven’t seen me for more than ten years and in that time strange things have happened to me. You’ve probably heard about them from some of your disciples who know me.”
“Because I hear much I can hardly hear anything.”
Said goes on
“I thought…I would find your door open.”
“And the door of Heaven? How have you found that?”
“But there is nowhere on earth for me to go. And my own daughter has rejected me.”
“How like you she is!”
“In what way, Master?”
“You seek a roof, not an answer.”
But he is allowed to stay and then sets out to find his main hope, the man who had been his revolutionary mentor, who had found the revolutionary justification for his life of stealing, and had listed the wealthy who were to be the targets.
“You discussed everything with me, as if I were your equal. I was one of your listeners – at the foot of the same tree where the history of my love began – and the times themselves were listening to you, too. “The people! Theft! The holy fire! The rich! Hunger! Justice! … it was you who gave me the names of people who deserved to be robbed, and it was in theft that I found my glory, my honor…”
Rauf Ilwan, however, is now a wealthy newspaper columnist. After a tepid welcome in his mansion Said is sent away — and back to his life of burglary. His thirst for revenge against all those have betrayed him becomes an enveloping nihlistic force — always with his self confidence at full throttle.
“Ilish Sidra’s escape was not a defeat,not as long as punishment was about to descend on Rauf Ilwan. For Rauf, after all, personified the highest standard of treachery, from which people like Ilish and Nabawiyya and all the other traitors on earth sought inspiration.”
“They, the people, everyone – all the people except the real robbers — are on my side, and that’s what will console me in my everlasting perdition.”
“…at least a bullet will be a right, a bloody protest, something to comfort the living and the dead, to let them hold on to their last shred of hope.”
As his madness for revenge and redemption takes over he begins, dimly, to recognize love, from a woman he had once spurned. He begins to hear that someone cares for him and that there is more than revenge to live for. Too late, however. Not Hollywood. The life of a man consumed by his failed connections to others and the missed opportunity of responding to the one which might bring him life.
Mahfouz is the master of unexpected images, phrasing the ordinary in a way that both implies a culture different than our own, and an individual writer with rich gifts.
The setting sun flashed through the window, like a jewel being carried by a flight of doves from one point in time to another.
If only a deceit could be as plainly read in the face as fever or an infectious disease! Then beauty would never be false and many a man would be spared the ravages of deception.”
“She was like some lovely melody, welcomed wherever she went.
The “dogs”, by the way, of the title would not only be those howling and warning of trespass in the back alleys of the Darrasa quarter, or chasing him down on the last page….
Just an excellent read from the 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many other novels of his are available in good translations, if this one attracts you.