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A Muslim Woman’s Response to The Witch of Portobello

April 8, 2012

Title: The Witch of Portobello

Author: Paulo Coelho

Publication Date: February 2008

Genre: Literary fiction 

Source: eBook from library

This strangely mesmerizing book was a source of spiritual inspiration, even if its theological approach did not sit well with me.

Since I approach the world and my reading with a Muslim ethnographic approach, this book was no exception. I took it and enjoyed it on its own terms, but as I did so, another part of me absorbed its spiritual implications for my relationship with God.

This story is about a woman named Athena with a disposition towards high spiritual awareness. She evolves from being a devout Christian teenager to a pagan priestess, reminding me of the transition so many people like myself have undergone: starting from the outwardly ritual-oriented version of institutionalized religion and moving onto defining faith in highly personal and metaphysical terms involving God’s presence in all things and experiences. It is not the story, but the spiritual attitude that is laid out (as fact, true to Coelho’s style) that I feel is worth exploring further.

One of the things whose discussion I enjoyed and that I feel orthodox teachings in Islam don’t have room for is spiritual enlightenment through creative expression. Dance and calligraphy are two ways Athena cultivates her natural way of getting close to the divine. What she says of dance struck a resounding note for me:

[Dance is] a very ancient way of getting close to a partner. It’s as if the threads connecting us to the rest of the world were washed clean of preconceptions and fears. When you dance, you can enjoy the luxury of being you.

Shouldn’t one’s faith involve being able to surpass one’s context to celebrate who they are, as God made them? Even if extending this celebration continuously is, in my opinion, not healthy, isn’t the ability to have those moments a way of affirming our existence?

During the pauses in the music as she dances, or when she has to shift her calligraphy pen to go on to the next word, Athena experiences a void which is both a source of anguish and intrigue for her:

I’ve always been a very restless person. I work hard, spend too much time looking after my son, I dance like a mad thing, I learned calligraphy. I go to courses on selling, I read one book after another. But that’s all a way of avoiding those moments when nothing is happening, because those blank spaces give me a feeling of absolute emptiness, in which not a single crumb of love exists.

As I also discovered while I was reading The Gifts of Imperfection, the modern affliction of ‘busy-ness’ is a way of avoiding those gaps, of avoiding being in moments where one has to just be.

Athena’s guide and mentor Edda, knowing the depth of her anguish and her need for more than a normal life of contentment, instructs her being in a perpetual state of awareness and worship, even in the most mundane of tasks:

When you’re washing up, pray. Be thankful that there are plates to be washed; that means there was food, that you fed someone, that you’ve lavished care on one or more people, that you cooked and laid the table. Imagine the millions of people at this moment who have absolutely nothing to wash up and no one for whom to lay the table.

The boundary between the sacred and the profane—my washing up so that I can sit down and read the Book, for instance—is quite unnecessary. We’re Muslims not because we vocally enunciate words signifying submission: what really makes us Muslim is that we strive to be mindful of this submission as much as we can in such a manner.

Another beautiful moment in the book is when Athena asks someone why he has so many books, telling him:

You hang on to them because you don’t believe. . . Anyone who believes will go and read up about [things] . . . after that, it’s a question of letting the Mother speak through you and making discoveries as she speaks. And as you make those discoveries, you’ll manage to fill in the blank spaces that all those writers left there on purpose to provoke the reader’s imagination. And when you fill in the spaces, you’ll start to believe in your own abilities.

I was immediately reminded of the story of Ghazali and his notes and his realization that true education couldn’t possibly mean being only as good as one’s notes. This has made me think very long and hard about my library, my way of learning, and the physical possession of books and notes as a false form of intellectual validation.

Two final noteworthy points to highlight about this book would be: 1) its celebration of the feminine and 2) its depiction of how non-codified spiritual practices have been historically marginalized. Unsurprisingly, the two overlap in the phenomenon of “witchery,” society’s pervasive fear of the woman who establishes her life on her own terms without caring for the attitudes of those around her. A witch, I now more fully understand, is a placeholder label for a “radical” woman who believes in something greater than herself.

It would be hard to summarize the impact of this book on me, so I’ll just lay out the following symptoms: I’m more mindful of my prayers and have somehow learned to be more in the moment as I perform them. Washing up is a joy. I try to read and learn in a way that doesn’t involve my needing to hold onto an artifact. Most importantly, I’ve stopped feeling guilty for experiencing the void of those empty spaces. Instead of avoiding them, I now understand that it’s a symptom. It’s a sign of the universal human need to live a meaningful as well as a successful life.

I’ve developed a newfound respect for paganism and think that it’s spiritually perhaps a much harder journey to take. Because there are no established ways for spiritual practice, one has to find the one they have the greatest aptitude for. However, as much as I think I’d like to worship in a creative way, I’m still thankful for Islam’s structure and moral code. I’m glad that I’m given ways of doing dhikr while still being able to say duaas in free form. As a Muslim, I feel like I have the best of both worlds when I preserve fiqh and practice tasawwuf.

But hey. I’m all for the idea of the Muslim witch.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2012 3:52 am

    Paulo Coelho is defo one of my favorite authors. I like how he finds the sacred in otherwise non-orthodox things such as dance. I enjoyed your unique perspective on this great book Sarah, and how you applied it to Islam.

    • April 9, 2012 6:19 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Great to hear from you, hope you’ve been well.

  2. Jane permalink
    April 9, 2012 5:51 pm

    Great post, loved your insights on this book.

  3. April 11, 2012 3:16 am

    Salam Sarah, hope you’re well Insha Allah.
    I haven’t read this book but your analysis is wonderfully well worded and you have stroked a number of fascinating topics here – in particular, ones apparently insular world with God that has no room for the influences of any other.
    Sorry to put you to work, but why did the character leave her devout Christian roots? Perhaps the answer is implied by the main theme of the book, but I just wanted to ask.
    Jamal
    PS I’m glad you’re enjoying your washing up these days 🙂

    • April 11, 2012 9:10 am

      Wsalaams Jamaal! So nice to hear from you, I hope you’ve been well!
      I’m glad you asked that question: Athena leaves her Catholic roots because when she divorces from her husband, she can no longer be part of the community. There is a particularly heartbreaking and pivotal scene in this regard written from the priest’s perspective: she lines up to take communion as usual and he has to refuse to give it to her. She is effectively shamed in front of the rest of the congregation. Devastated, she leaves with her son at her hip, saying that Jesus would have never turned anyone away in such a manner.

      Interestingly, the book is much harsher on representatives of religion rather than religion itself. Athena from what I remember is more upset at the lack of community rather than Christianity itself failing her. Her banishment serves as the catalyst for spiritual growth in other ways.

  4. Proud Believer permalink
    April 13, 2012 6:20 am

    what an amazing analysis I always felt closer to God after reading Coelho, whether its his awesome books, blogs, one liners…. it always makes me understand life and Islam much better. Its sad whenever I shared this experience with a fellow student of Quraan they couldn’t relate. its so lovely to read ur comment. I wish any Divine religion had been understood properly and life had been so much peaceful, happier and profound in all the ways.
    Thanks again for your amazing analysis.
    stay blessed n happy.
    love
    Nadia

    • September 21, 2012 8:26 pm

      Thank you for your generous comment, Nadia! Much peace and happiness to you too.

  5. April 17, 2012 10:11 am

    This is a book that I read and didn’t particularly enjoy, but reading your thoughtful review made me think that I skipped over or missed much of interest in the book. Perhaps because I don’t have that base spirituality, I missed many of the points? Hard to say.

    As to the comments on books and education – have you read Love in a Headscarf? I recently read it (borrowed it from Carina on our recent vacation) and it had a section that touches on that, in a way. The various ‘levels’ of belief and worship and love, and how they have to be processed through rather than staying stuck at one level. I realize that is a terrible attempt to summarize, but I think you would find it interesting. If you’d like, I can ask Carina if she’d mind me lending it to you!

    • April 17, 2012 3:17 pm

      I’ve actually been trying to figure out how to get hold of Love In a Headscarf…it would be great if you could ask Carina that!

      As for this book and Coelho in general: some of his writing does seem naive and prescriptive, even to a ‘spiritual’ person. But somehow, it works, as in the case of this book. I could barely stand The Alchemist and wouldn’t have read this book if my friend hadn’t told me that it raises some really interesting points.

      • April 17, 2012 3:21 pm

        Heh I also hated The Alchemist so perhaps my easy dismissal of this book had something to do with that. I purchased it in an airport bookstore in a hurry thinking it looked interesting… sat down on the plane and saw “by the author of The Alchemist’ on the back and immediately groaned in disgust. 😉

  6. Bill Ellis permalink
    October 30, 2012 2:45 am

    So I am 81 and have been collecting Coelho quotes for some ten years having now read, and in some cases re-read all his novels except the very last one, And have this very day just assembled them into a twenty-one page document! But, unlike others, I have long thought that the piece in The Alchemist when Santiago transforms himself into the wind to be one of the most remarkable pieces of writing that I have ever read.

    And when I just went looking on the internet to find the publication date for The Witch …i was drawn to your posting. And, like those of who have commented before me, I am really impressed and heartened by your insights Sarah. So bless you for an insight into Muslim thinking that is sadly so far removed from what see too much of in the papers today. Incidentally, the Sarah in the Jewish tradition as I recall was wise woman too. Be well.

    • December 17, 2012 10:04 pm

      I am so thrilled and flattered by your comment! That means a great deal, especially coming from such a devotee to Coelho’s writing. Much peace to you, Bill.

      • Bill Ellis permalink
        December 18, 2012 2:55 pm

        So, Sarah, to my surprise this posting came out of nowhere today, when my life suddenly has some rather large challenges in it. So it seems that the divine force, by whatever name we use, sends along messages like yours to brighten the darkness just when they are needed. The other thing is that I am in the process of developing a web-site ~ it doesn’t have a name yet ~ with two main themes. The one called People will contain the best writings of the great authors and spiritual teachers. The other will be Subject oriented e.g. What is God? What is Fear? What is Dance? etc. And I just found a Coelho piece in your blog about the latter to add to the others I have collected so far. So thanks for that gift and also for the gift of peace without which we would all be lost. Blessings. Bill. P.S. And the sun just came out!

      • December 18, 2012 3:05 pm

        How fortunate indeed! Your comment had completely gone under my radar at the time you posted it. I was puzzled to find out last night that I had not responded to it, and did so immediately. I am delighted that you will to add this piece to your collection. Please keep me posted about the site!

      • December 18, 2012 3:06 pm

        I also got to read your comment at the perfect time, so I very much understand your point about receiving such messages when we need them most 🙂

  7. Bill Ellis permalink
    December 18, 2012 3:31 pm

    I have added my name to your blog and intend to let you know when the web-site is operational. Hopefully the design begins in the next couple of weeks. I have about thirty “essays” already done. And Ralph Waldo Emerson has inspired the planned title. Lastly, I am sure that we both know that there are no mistakes in “God’s/ Allah’s” heaven and that everything happens when it is supposed to. Look at how my original posting got “lost” and re-appeared just when it needed to. But I don’t know how to add a smiley face to this so just imagine a big grin please!! And, now, out into the world of Victoria BC I go. (Forty years in Ottawa before that).

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