Women take on various roles in different societies and literature. In conservative societies, a woman’s role is generally restricted because they are only allotted with menial housework. On the other hand, liberal societies allow more freedom for women to engage in society. In The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz, Nur’s role is closely associated with the stereotype of prostitutes and women in Arab society. She abolishes the stereotypical image of prostitutes by arguing that prostitution is simply an occupation, and at the same time represents exploited women in Arabian societies.
Mahfouz defeats stereotypes by presenting prostitution simply as an ordinary profession. When Said queries Nur whether she had been drinking, she responds directly and almost flippantly, “I have to; it’s part of my job. I’m going to take a bath. Here are your newspapers” (96). She is completely at ease discussing her profession, and is not at all troubled that her beloved knows about this part of her life. Through this dialogue, Mahfouz argues that prostitution is simply another way for an underprivileged person to make a living and gain financial freedom. Nur’s actions iterates that drinking and having sex should not be viewed as shameful or dishonorable because “it is part of life” (96). The action of Nur going to ‘take a bath’ immediately after she returns home symbolizes that the occupation is manageable just like all others (96). All professions in the world has occupational diseases and setbacks. Thus Mahfouz is simply saying that bathing is a part of Nur’s occupation and a way for Nur to deal with its vocational setbacks (96).
Other character’s impartial view towards prostitutes allow Nur to gain emotional independence. For instance, when Said finds Nur vomiting after being attacked by her clients, he does not condemn her profession; instead he “angrily” regards her clients as “dogs,” and says “It is not fault at all” (108). Said does not deem Nur as a dirty and contemptible woman who provides pleasure for other men, but condemns the customers who abused her. Mahfouz uses strong words such as “dogs”,a word often used to describe enemies or the worthless, to address the clients because they practically stole sex from Nur (108). In this case, women alone are not to be criticized, since prostitution also involves clients who use money to debase themselves and wield control over women. Nur’s innocence is emphasized when Said says “It’s not fault at all” in an “angry” tone (108). Said is able to comfort Nur and make her understand that she has done no wrong. Mahfouz creates Nur’s image as an Egyptian prostitute who admits her profession with no shame to encourage the readers to question the common stereotypes on prostitutes. Prostitution in The Thief and the Dogs is neither disparaged nor acclaimed. However, Mahfouz abolishes the stereotypes against prostitutes through Nur, who also represents symbolizes Egyptian women.
Nur also represents the inferiority of women in Arab society as she is abused materially. Even when Said first meets Nur, he can only think of taking advantage of her. While Said clearly respects and cares for Tarzan, he seeks to financially benefit from Nur as he tells her that what he “really needs is a car” (62). Instead of asking Tarzan to provide a car for him, Said asks Nur to help him steal one because he reckons her as inferior, treating her as bait in his crime. Said’s abuse of Nur represents the general attitude of Arabian men towards women. Mahfouz uses the word ‘needs’ to relay the idea to readers that women are subordinate to men and thus can be demanded to provide something for their superiors (62). In an Arabic society, this word, ‘need,’ is supposed to act as a cue for the female character to work to satisfy the man.
In addition, Nur is not only materially abused, but also taken advantage of emotionally. Said takes Nur’s love for granted and expresses none back to her. Mahfouz describes Nur’s affection towards Said, that “ had been like a nightingale singing to the rock, a breeze caressing sharp pointed spikes” (60). Mahfouz uses these imageries to give a euphonic effect to the reader and a clear view about the relationship between the two. Nur is depicted as the “nightingale” and the ‘breeze’ (60). Hence, the author uses these images to evoke a positive impression of Nur: as sweet as a nightingale and as pleasant as a breeze. On the other hand, Said is described as “rock” and “sharp pointed spikes” (60). Thus, the author uses these images to set up a negative impression about Said as some cold person who rejects the nightingale, Nur, and inflicts pain on her with his ‘spikes’ (60). The emotions of Nur is accepted by Said as he wishes to satiate his need for comfort. However, he gives none back as he is like the rock and sees Nur simply as some subordinate being he could leech off emotional comfort from. The “rock” is an inanimate object, a static thing that does is inelastic to external influences (60).
In another instance, Nur’s emotions are also abused when she shows her true feelings towards Said and mentions, “you are dearer to me than my own life and breath, in my entire life I have never known happiness except in your arms. But you’d rather destroy yourself than love me…” (129). Nur is devoted to Said and is willing to do anything for him. She finds being in ‘ arms’ the best thing in her life (129). However, Said betrays her feelings and shatters her dream of living happily ever after in a distant place. He only wishes to satiate his desires and ambitions for revenge, but ends up murdering innocent men, and thus ‘destroys ’ (129). Mahfouz further highlights the amount of love Nur feels towards Said as she mentions ‘you are dearer to me than my own life and breath’ (129). This allows the readers to feel that Nur’s love was not shallow, but truly devoted. By using ‘life’ and ‘breath,’ Mahfouz successfully conveys the idea that to Nur, Said is like a primary necessity (129). Through the portrayal of a rejection by Said of a true love, Mahfouz successfully passes on the idea that women were viewed as inferior to men and women’s emotions were leeched off by men. Although through the profession as a prostitute, Nur is able to find financial and emotional autonomy, she is constantly exploited by men and thus represents Arab women. The actions of using Nur indeed reiterates that Nur is a representation of general Arab women of Mahfouz’s days when they were viewed as subordinate to men.
Nur certainly holds a very important role in The Thief and the Dogs through reputing the customs on prostitutes and representing women in Arab society. This is evident through her interactions with others as she defines prostitution simply as another job while being exploited by men throughout her career. The stereotypes held on prostitutes and Arab women are still persistent in the modern society. Mahfouz’s depiction of Nur, however, makes the readers curious whether such commonly held views will be eradicated in the future with the influence of novels such as The Thief and the Dogs.