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Originally written in Portuguese, Paulo Coelho’s book follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd from Spain through North Africa to the pyramids of Egypt. This had become a highly popular book during my time at university – and still is – so I became inclined to read it. However, without sounding like too much of a Hipster, the last time I read a popular book (The Kite Runner) I was left very disappointed.
In some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I previously read Paulo Coelho’s Veronica Decides to Die which contained Coelho’s trademark pop-philosophy themes that tell his readers, in a true Bob Marlean spirit, that “everything’s going to be alright”. Of course, a multimillionaire best-selling author is likely to have a more positive outlook on life. The irony is that Coelho sells this outlook to his less fortunate readers through his books.
What is the book about?
I preferred Veronica to The Alchemist. The idea behind The Alchemist is that the shepherd’s journey becomes an analogy for life’s perils and wisdoms. In short, the shepherd boy has a recurring dream. He goes to a fortune teller (who happens to be Romani…) to understand its meaning. The fortune teller tells the boy he will find a treasure at the pyramids of Egypt.
The boy is then encouraged by an old king to sell his sheep to fulfill his “Personal Legend” of visiting the pyramids. Along the way, the shepherd boy meets two main characters; an English traveller in search of an Alchemist, and an Arab girl with whom the shepherd falls in love. Her name is Fatima. Fatima agrees to marry the boy only once he completes his journey.
Near the end of his journey, the boy too meets the Alchemist, who essentially forces the shepherd to turn himself into a dust storm in order to avoid a dangerous tribe and reach the pyramids. Once in the vicinity of the pyramids, the boy is robbed of his possessions, and the leader of the thieves tells the boy that his treasure had all along been in the ruined church in which he had had his original dream.
What is the message conveyed?
For me, at least, the message behind The Alchemist is clear. The journey is one’s journey towards one’s goals. The shepherd’s requirement to sell his sheep represents the personal sacrifices we must make before acquiring success or reaching one’s objectives. The requirement for the boy to wait until reaching his destination to marry Fatima represents two things: a) that true love does not die so soon, and b) that patience is required for love. But, of course, this is subjective and my interpretation may be open to dispute. Essentially, the “Personal Legend” is a so-called “rite of passage”.
Why is The Alchemist a dangerous book?
I highly, highly disliked The Alchemist because it is “orientalist” in nature. In other words, it is a typical representation of Arab and Muslim culture that is embodied by a colonialist attitude. The Englishman is the traveller and observer, the Arab girl is delicate, submissive and waiting for her husband to marry her – she has no other life prospects and her life is centred around the ambitions and objectives of her future partner. The Andalusian shepherd boy has a simple job and does not know what he is searching for. The “Arab deserts” through which he and the Englishman travel are filled with mystery, tribes, magic, mischief, uncertainty, danger and thieves. This is all too typically romantic for yet another “mystical” book centred on the Arab world.
This is a dangerous narrative as it reinforces the colonial attitude that Muslim and Arab cultures are “fascinating” interactions that are to be “observed” or “studied” by more intelligent and ambitious European travellers and readers – at least, that is the implication. As someone of Moroccan origin myself, I find this very objectifying – almost as if we are exhibits in an art gallery waiting to be observed and commented on for all of our mystery and majesty. I have not met many Arabs in the Arab World that have read The Alchemist, and the ones who have have found its mystical themes of the desert repetitive, condescending, unoriginal and even offensive. What makes this worse is that Paulo Coelho and his audience are probably unaware of the orientalist tone of the book. I don’t believe that Coelho has written this book intentionally to disempower Arabs – he appears to be a very kind and humble person on social media. I have therefore concluded that he, too, is a victim of age-old narratives on Middle Easten culture that simply “sell” to European audiences.
This brings me to my next point – if you believe I am looking into this a bit too much, I humbly believe not, for two main reasons:
1) I do not look at this book in isolation. The Alchemist is part of a bigger mechanism of orientalist literature on the Arab World. When you realise that The Alchemist is similar to 1001 Nights, Aladdin & Rudyard Kipling’s Kim in its romanticism of non-Western cultures, we begin to see the real problem. Alchemist‘s Fatima is not much dissimilar to Aladdin‘s Princess Jasmine – she is a redundant character who’s sole purpose as an Arab woman is to look beautiful and wait for a man’s company. This theme is too common and is highly reductive: it can give young readers – Arabs and non-Arabs – a wrong impression of what it means to be an Arab girl, an impression we should be breaking down.
2) Finally, of course, we must identify problems – no matter how small or large they may appear to others – in order to resolve them. For me, the problem with The Alchemist is larger than the book itself: Paulo Coelho unintentionally feeds into a continuous postcolonial narrative that objectifies the Middle East and tells us that the region is “different”, strange, peculiar, exotic, and to be observed. The purpose of the Arab World for these books appears to be what the Arab World means in relation to the Western World.
Responding to books like The Alchemist
So, what is the solution? Firstly, I would humbly suggest that part of the solution is to write and distribute reviews like this that expose the darker side of mystical literature centred on the Arab World. But also, it is important to encourage Arab writers to continue to write alternative books in accessible languages that create a more grounded, empowering and productive portrayal of the Arab World. I don’t regret reading The Alchemist as I now realise the importance of an Arab intellectual, cultural and artistic base in order to challenge these colonial preconceptions of the Arab World, but I would not say The Alchemist is a unique and impressive read.