'Dubai is a magical place'

Paulo Coelho, the best-selling Brazilian author, has developed a special affection for Dubai. Not only is the writer of such acclaimed books as The Alchemist, The Pilgrimage, Veronika Decides To Die back in town, he has featured Dubai .....

By Vijay Dandige (Contributor)

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Published: Tue 10 Apr 2007, 11:08 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 11:46 PM

in his latest book, The Witch of Portobello. He was in Dubai last time in November 2005, on a book signing tour to launch his previous novel, The Zahir.

"In the last 20 years, Dubai was a dream that became a reality," said Coelho at a private reception at XVA Gallery in Bastakiya, organised by Tatweer to celebrate the international release of The Witch of Portobello.

With the new book, the writer returns with another uncanny fusion of philosophy, religious miracle and moral parable. The Portobello of the title is London's Portobello Road, where the book's heroine Sherine Khalil, a.k.a. Athena, finds the worship meeting she's leading - where she becomes an omniscient goddess named Hagia Sophia -disrupted by a Protestant protest. Framed as a set of interviews conducted with those who knew Athena, who is dead as the book opens, the story recounts her birth in Transylvania to a Gypsy mother, her adoption by wealthy Lebanese Christians; her short, early marriage to a man she meets at a London college; her son Viorel's birth; and her stint selling real estate in Dubai. Back in London in the book's second half, Athena learns to harness the powers that have been present but inchoate within her, and the story picks up as she acquires a teacher, then disciples, and speeds towards a spectacular end.

"This new novel is about spirituality, relationships, destiny and freedom. It's about the resurgence of the female energy in both men and women," said Coelho, dressed more formally this time in a black trouser and a black coat open at the neck.

Coelho said he didn't set out to deliberately include Dubai in the book. "Writing a book is a very unconscious process. You don't plan it," he explained. "When I was writing The Witch of Portobello, I thought there was a woman who should connect to the Arabic culture, and of the places, with Dubai. For me, Dubai is a magical place. I was here and I tried to imagine how Dubai was 20 years ago. So this woman comes here before the boom and she learns how to fulfil empty space. And this is the main lesson in life: how we can fulfil empty spaces, so the words will make sentences and the sentences will make expressions."

Coelho denied he was a religious writer or a spiritual master. "I'm a writer. I can't write about religion," he said. "I can write about a journey. I can write about madness, about prostitution. I never try to write to a formula. When I do write something, what I do is put my soul there."

Speaking about madness, the author recounted his own early brush with the idea. He said he wanted to be a writer from the age of 5 or 6. His parents wanted him to be an engineer. "When I announced my desire to be a writer, my parents thought I was mad, and they took me to a mental institution," said Coelho. "But I stuck to my decision."

And what a decision it turned out to be. Paulo Coelho's books, translated into 62 languages, have not only topped the best-seller lists, but have gone on to become the subject of social and cultural debate. The ideas, philosophy and subject matter covered in his books touch the aspirations of millions of readers searching for their own path and for new ways of understanding the world. Among Latin American writers, only Columbia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez is more widely read than Paulo Coelho, according to the 'The Economist.'

To date, Coelho has sold a total of over 90 million copies. He became the most sold author in the world in 2003 with his book 'Eleven Minutes' - even though at the time it hadn't been released in the United States, Japan or 10 other countries. The Alchemist was to be found in the 6th place of world sales in 2003. Eleven Minutes topped all lists in the world, except for England, where it was in second place. The Zahir, published in 2005, was in third place of bestsellers according to Publishing Trends, after Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

The Alchemist became one of the most important literary phenomena of the 20th century, reaching first place in best-selling lists in 18 countries, selling over 30 million copies. The book has been praised by diverse personalities, from the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe to the singer Madonna, who considers it one of her favourite books. The Alchemist has been adopted in schools in more than 30 countries, offering special editions to students.

Coelho, who was born in 1947 into a middle-class family, published his first book when he 38. "The process of writing is very mysterious," he said. "You start, but you don't have the end of the book. You have more or less the story you want to tell. In the process of writing, you try to see yourself. With every book I write, I understand myself better."

But Coelho insisted, at the same time, readers are very important too. "At the end of the day, the dream of every writer is to have readers. Not out of vanity but because you understand that you are not wrong," he said. "So when I first came to Dubai and met my readers - and they were from all over the world - I knew my soul had been here before my body. It was so easy to connect with people, because they knew me...they knew my heart."

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