Paulo Coelho speaks to Sami Moubayed about Damascene-dwelling Sufism and what it’s like to be The Alchemist


I first heard the name Paulo Coelho in college. Word was spreading on the streets of Beirut that a writer from Brazil had invaded the world stage, with a thundering new book called The Alchemist.  Young people would swear by it, saying that it had completely transformed their lives.

The Alchemist was first published through an obscure Brazilian publishing house in the 1980s, and went on to become “one of the bestselling books in history,” with more than 65 million copies, in 67 languages. Within no time, Coelho become a household name in Damascus as well, where he is mostly read in Arabic translation by millions of young Syrians. His books are found everywhere, on the campus grounds of Syrian universities, on bus, airplane, and train chairs, or tucked next to the beds of young people.

In total, the 62-year old literary legend has sold more than 100 million books in over 150 countries worldwide, earning rank in the Guinness Book of World Record for “most translated book by a living author.” He has spoken to Forward Magazine, his first and only interview with a Syrian publication, about what it means to be number one.

Reading through your novels, one finds a strong influence of Sufism. Is there a particular Sufi that influenced your life, and whose influence was reflected in your works?

Indeed, Sufism has inspired me a lot throughout my life and I refer to this tradition in some of my books such as The Alchemist and more recently The Zahir. Rumi is of course the first figure that springs to mind. His teachings and visions are incredibly subtle and clear. Another figure that I am very fond of is Mulla Nasrudin (aka Nasr Eddin Hodja). I really enjoy how he managed to get to the core of things with such irreverence and simplicity. The path of wisdom too often appear as foolishness to the world.

Which is your favorite among your novels – a difficult question for writers – and if you were to chose, which one would you select to be made into a movie, and why? We read that The Alchemist is being made into a movie by one of your fans, Laurence Fishburne. Is the project still on, and are you involved in any aspects of the novel adaptation into cinema?

I find it impossible to answer this question. Each book has a very specific value in my life – each reflecting a world, a state of mind and sensitivity. It’s like asking me which of my children I love the most: they are all part of me. I am not directly involved in The Alchemist’s adaptation of into film. I prefer to stand aside and see how others will envision the book – this in my eyes is the best solution for a writer.

Of all the characters in your works, is there one that best reflects Paolo Coelho, and why?

When you write a book you try to project onto the main characters not exactly what you think but what they think, then you realize that these characters are part of your soul and that you are very complex. Sometimes I may not agree with what Chantal or Bertha are thinking but they have a life of their own and I have to respect it as a novelist. Each one is unique and reflects a part of my questioning, of my hopes and doubts.

Why did you choose an Arab character (Sherine Khalil) in your novel, The Witch of Portobello? Is she inspired by a real character or is she imaginary?

This novel sprang from both a real event and a storytelling need. In October 2005, I met in Transylvania a Romanian stewardess who told me how she had been adopted by an Austrian family and about her gypsy roots. She was merely the starting point of the novel. From this meeting I started to weave the threads of a story that for a long time I wanted to tell: the feminine side of God. I wanted to plunge into the heart of the Great Mother. I felt the need to question why society had tried to lock away the feminine side of God. The character of Sherine Khalil, with her freedom and courage, was my way to tackle this subject and to unveil the shackles of dogma.

You are a novelist who has tremendous influence over people – especially the young – and this transcends political boundaries and geography. If you were given a decision-making post, what would it be, and how would you use it to further advance the status you have already achieved as a writer?

Regarding the influence you speak of: I may have one but I think that the strength of it comes from the freedom contained in each one of us. I enjoy the freedom I have attained – being able to write about virtually anything without political or marketing agendas. Furthermore, I think that it is everyone’s responsibility to be involved in one’s community. I’ve always been very skeptical about people that say: “I want to save the world, help others,” and so on. This is because to save the “world” is Sisyphean; too abstract to actually be put into practice. What is possible – and the most difficult task – is to first look at oneself and try to identify what’s wrong. Before searching for the other, one has to find oneself.

I took forty years to find myself, to accept my dream, to become a writer. Only when I started to walk down the path of my personal legend was I able to honestly turn myself towards others; before that there were too many walls inside my soul. I looked around me and said, “I can’t change the world, I can’t change my country, I can’t change my city, I can’t even change my neighborhood. What I can change is my street.” That’s when I went to a “favela” (in Rio, “favelas” are in the center of the city) and met a group of people that were taking care of children. Since then I’ve been cooperating with them and now we take care of 430 children.

Spirituality is the core of your works. When you were writing The Alchemist, what were the influences you were under? You certainly influenced the lives of millions through this book, but few people know what were the powers influencing you.

I think my spirituality came from curiosity and, later, by understanding there is a silent presence around myself. I don’t try to explain it, but I try to live my faith according to the things I believe. For me, literature and spirituality are the same. In my first book, The Pilgrimage, I wrote about my real journey, my true story.

You see, during my pilgrimage it became increasingly apparent that I wasn’t happy and I had to do something about it – stop making excuses. I realized that you don’t have to jump through a series of complicated hoops to achieve a goal. You can just look at a mountain and get a connection with God; you don’t have to understand the mountain to feel that.

When I first got back from the trip it was an anti-climax. I found it hard to acclimatize to my normal life and I was impatient to change my life immediately. Changes happen when you’re ready, and it took a few months to realize that I must solely concentrate on writing a book, rather than trying to fill various roles as I had before. The pilgrimage was to be my subject and as I started I took my first step towards my dream.

Going on a pilgrimage reawakens that awareness, but you don’t need to walk the Road to Santiago to get the benefits. Life itself is a pilgrimage. Every day is different, every day can have a magic moment, but we don’t see the opportunity, because we think, “Oh, this is boring, I’m just commuting to work.” We are all on a pilgrimage whether we like it or not, and the target, or goal, the real Santiago, if you like, is death. You must get as much as you can from the journey, because, in the end, the journey is all you have. It doesn’t matter what you accumulate in terms of material wealth, because you are going to die anyway, so why not live? When you realize that, you can be brave, and that is the first tenant of any spiritual quest: To take risks.

If the clock of time were to click backwards, what would you have done differently in your professional life, since you started writing in 1982?

To be honest, there are things I regret I haven’t done.  I never regret things I have done.

You once said, “I always knew that my personal legend, to use a term from alchemy, was to write.” Your career has seen much more than writing; ranging from being a popular songwriter on the Brazilian rock scene, to imprisonment by the military dictatorship of Brazil in 1974. As a young man, you traveled the world learning about secret societies, oriental religions, and mysticism. Who were the heroes in your life, and what made Paulo Coelho the man he is today?

There are many people I deeply admire, such as Mandela, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. They certainly have made a difference for the better in our world. But I find that too often we overlook the greatness that is contained in people that lead less “extraordinary” lives. I’m talking about the everyday heroes that go about their lives and try, daily, to improve their surroundings. It may be a taxi driver, a person that you meet by chance in the bus: if you are attentive to the signs – this person, even if you never see him/her again, will give you the right input to take the decisions that you are postponing. Therefore, all we need is to be attentive to signs, open to people and willing to share our souls.

Forward Magazine, April 2009