Photograph: Prashanth Mukundan
ONE Wednesday evening, Paulo Coelho walked into the emotional and spiritual consciousness of Dubai’s residents. And he hoped that they would share their souls with him because that is what he does with his writing.
He said the solution to the Iraq crisis “will not come from politicians or the military but from people like us. Look at Mahatma Gandhi. Without belonging to the classic political system, he used a unique process to bring about change. What I do (as an author) is to share my soul. What I hope others will do with me is share their souls. We are part of the divine light and we have a reason to be here.”
Denying any political inclinations, he said even silence could be construed as a political attitude. “If you speak you are taking a political attitude. If not, again, there is a political attitude. What you must then do is go back to discuss things and take decisions based on discussions. You cannot do anything without being political.”
The best-selling author of The Alchemist and most recently, The Zahir, Coelho is in Dubai on a private visit. He took time out to do a book signing session on Wednesday evening at Virgin Megastore, Mercato Mall, and also to meet the Dubai press on Thursday.
Coelho said he sensed a sense of identification after meeting with his readers (and fans) in the UAE. “At the signing session, I met people from the Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia... Some of them had travelled all the way to make an eye-contact with the author. I could read in their eyes the enthusiasm… that we are in the same boat.”
The author, whose works have been translated in some 60 languages, said he does not seek to inspire people. “I don’t think I give anything. It is not my intention to teach anyone. Who am I to teach? What I try to do is share (my experiences) because I am obliged to share. Every single person on earth who wants to live his or her full human condition has to share something. When I do that, I feel I am not alone, as I saw (at the book signing). Don’t think I am the one who knows the answers.”
“My first visit to Arabia is not this physical one,” said Coelho. “My soul came here first. I visited Arabia through my imagination, through the books. The Alchemist, my most famous book, is based in Islam. Let’s see what the outcome of this visit will be. At the end of the day, it is about people – whom you meet, talk and share opinions.”
Dressed in black, with one pony-tail of white hair on otherwise baldness, Coelho spoke his mind with the intellectual honesty of “I don’t knows” to why his works are universally popular, what his inspirations are and when and how he puts the title to his books. He says imagination, inspiration and experience go together in his writings.
Coelho said he has still not understood himself. “The moment I understand myself, I am dead. The confrontation that you have in your soul is what makes life interesting. You are always a surprise to yourself.”
Quoting Rene Descartes, he said: “I still have my doubts, therefore I think, and so I exist.”
He said every book of his has to be written in his soul before typing it out. And that process could take many years – it took almost a decade for his work, Eleven Minutes.
Coelho said the day one sees his name in the screenplay credits of a film, “remember that it is the end of my career.” He does not see films as downgrading. He cited Once Upon a Time in the West and Matrix as two powerful scripts. “I am not skilled in doing this (screenplay writing). I see many writers doing this change from books to screenplays. It is a very dangerous step because the structure is totally different. It is like a violin player playing a piano. Of course, you can do both but if your soul is in violin, you can never play a piano as you play a violin.”
Coelho writes “short stories every week to keep him writing” (he only writes a book every two years; he will release his next book next year based on the weekly writings). He said there are no rules as to what it takes to be a writer. Some authors used imagination; some banked on experience. “You have to know how to express your thoughts. That makes you a good writer.”
He said the question every one asks him is why his books are so popular. “I can give you a fake and honest answer. The honest answer is: ‘I don’t know.’ I write in Portuguese and I have to overcome so many barriers (to reach to the English-reading audience). When I write a book I try to forget that I have sold some 80 million copies. If you have three people reading a book, that is 240 million readers. If you start thinking about that, then you can’t write. So I go back to my inner sense and try to express my soul. Then it is up to the reader.”
He said readers will not forget or forgive if authors try to find a formula to write. “They will read the first or second book but never the third.” Coelho said, therefore, he did not want to know what makes his books sell. “The moment I understand that I will be tempted to follow the formula and I will lose my innocence.”
The Coelho effect
Paulo Coelho said his book signing in Dubai was a “magical moment.” Though he has signed for seven to eight hours in London and France, the response in Dubai surprised him.
It could not have been without reason. He involves his readers emotionally apart from helping them embark on a sublime spiritual quest.
That was more than evident at the book signing ceremony at Virgin Megastore. Long queues had formed at the store much before the author arrived, a little after 6 pm. He continued signing three books per person (sometimes even more) later than the scheduled two hours, taking only a short break in between. In between the signing sessions he also obliged fans with quick photo sessions.
Coelho’s readers in Dubai – a true slice of the city’s multicultural crowd - let their guard down when it came to displaying the emotions of meeting with the author. Faces would beam in triumphant smile when some got their books signed. A woman broke into tears in front of Coelho. Women in wheelchair and children pushed ahead in prams (one mother had an Eleven Minutes placed on the pram) jostled to meet and greet the author.
Coelho meant differently for different people. Rabih Choucair, an account manager, had come to the signing ceremony to get a book signed for his fiancée who is a huge Coelho fan. When that was mentioned to Coelho, he gracefully wrote: “In the name of love…” on the book. “He seems to be a nice man,” was the parting comment of Choucair, visibly pleased.
Shirly Sagum, a client administrator, couldn’t contain her excitement. She is an ardent reader of Coelho, has read Alchemist many times over and even has her personal diary titled, The Alchemy. She said the author helped her in self-development and that reading his books was a spiritual experience.
Nilufer Rafatian, an Iranian, brought the Coelho’s Farsi translation to get them signed. Nilufer bears the pain of multiple sclerosis and moves around in a wheelchair. She said Coelho’s books give her hope.
Muskaan had only a quick comment to make: “His books have an inspiring effect on you. They make you believe in your dreams.”
Deena Kamel, an AUS student, had a pertinent observation to make. “It is great to have Coelho in Dubai but not every one is here because of his books or ideas.” She said the book signing was more of a celebrity event. What was needed was an open forum to exchange views and ideas with Coelho.
She also cited the case of mistaken identity. When Prof William Haney, professor of English Literature, AUS, walked in with his students, his uncanny resemblance to the author caused a stir with fans running up to him and the security staff trying to bring the situation under control.
Coelho’s books, meanwhile, flew off the shelves of Virgin. People waited patiently, some with rose bouquets - all carrying bunches of books. They chanted “We love you” to Coelho as he took the small break to walk down the aisles.
A bunch of teenage kids, clutching movie tickets in their hands, walked in to the store to explore the commotion. One boy commented: “Seems like a lot of people in Dubai read books.”
Boy, you said it!
Coelho quotes in Dubai
I am who I am.
You cannot do anything without being political.
My first visit to Arabia is not this physical one… my soul came here first.
Men are more faithful to authors than women.
It is not my intention to teach anyone. Who am I to teach?
Normally, publishers don’t like my titles.
“I have to fulfil my quota of monuments and landscapes (on every visit). I want to walk in the market, see monuments and that is what I am going to do here. On arrival, we decided to go to the souk. What we did not know was that it took one hour from the hotel to get to the souk. So we stopped in the middle. We did not go but it is something I am really planning to do…”
How ‘The Alchemist’ was not to be
Paulo Coelho said he coins the titles for his books arbitrarily. The Alchemist began with the title. The Pilgrimage came after finishing the book. The Zahir and Eleven Minutes came in the middle of the book.
Coelho recalled: “When The Alchemist was first accepted by Harper Collins in the US, they said: ‘Fantastic book but horrible title. There is no alchemist in the book. The alchemist is only at the end of the book. So let’s put a better title: The Shepherd and His Dreams” Coelho put his foot down to retain the title.
He faced the same resistance with Veronica Decides to Die. “Oh my God, you cannot put that title. It must be a sad because Veronica decides to die.”
“When I put a title, nobody can change that. So far, I think I have very good titles,” said Coelho.