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.