As we try to balance shorter and longer works in our hopes that students will fully read and engage with the texts in the syllabus, I think we are all inclined to look for works that work;  for works that are reasonably riveting for all of our students and that expand our sense of the complex world we live in, that foster some growth in both understanding and reading skills.

People often find that Crime and Punishment, a work of considerable length, can effectively engage many of their students. I’d like to propose a PLT work from a completely different culture that is much shorter but would provide both a high level of engagement on its own and would also serve as a provocative counterpoint to the Dostoefsky work or simply as an expansion of the range works studied in a school program.

The Thief and the Dogs by Nobel prize author, Naguib Mahfouz, has a great deal to recommend
it. It’s a gripping tale of a man who has been sent to prison as a thief and returns to find himself betrayed by his old partner in crime as well as his wife, and who is cut off from contact with his young daughter. The novel operates on a clear literal level, but also provides a compelling metaphor inscribed in its title, with an allusive comment on the politics of Egypt in the 1950’s.

The novel is finely crafted and intense, exposing its protagonist, Said Mahran, to many conflicting forces outside him and the turmoil within his own mind and heart. There are many critical angles to pursue, not the least of which is the narrative method which juxtaposes a kind of interior monologue articulated by the protagonist, played against a third person narrative voice.

The novel moves between past and present, and often includes striking descriptions of the natural setting. The role of the media in the novel’s plot provides a further element for examination and reflection as do characters who live in the shadows of Cairene society. The inclusion of a practitioner of Sufism provides another facet of influence on Said Mahran. All in all, for a novel of a 158 pages translated and with a helpful short introduction by Trevor Le Gassick, there is much to explore, to discuss and to write about.

There are some rich resources to help prepare teachers and students for reading the novel and I include a few below.

A very helpful guide to important materials and good ideas for lessons.
An essential resource for Mahfouz’s views as a writer and thinker
Ample context in terms of Egypt’s political history

A brief set of quotations that can provide interesting provocations for discussion and writing.

A short video which conveys some sense of the writer and his place in the world.

“The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in Mahfouz’s work as the streets of London were conjured by Dickens.” Newsweek