Book Review: ‘It’s the thought of Makkah that keeps me alive’

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After spending the night in the valley of Mina, the pilgrims reach Arafat, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Makkah. Bottom: Around 4,500 scouts are taking part in different activities to facilitate pilgrims during Hajj this year. (SPA photo)
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An elderly pilgrim heads to Arafat. (SPA)
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Around 4,500 scouts are taking part in different activities to facilitate pilgrims during Hajj this year. (SPA)
Updated 21 August 2018
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Book Review: ‘It’s the thought of Makkah that keeps me alive’

  • Paulo Coelho’s novel highlights merchant’s powerful narrative about the pilgrimage
  • Coelho has a Guinness World Record for the most translated book by any living author

JEDDAH: One of the famous books that refers to the Islamic pillar of Hajj is “The Alchemist,” a novel by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho that has been translated into more than 80 languages and sold more than 30 million copies.

The novel highlights the Hajj dream when a young shepherd, Santiago, working for a crystal shop owner tells his employer about his desire to visit the pyramids, which leaves the latter asking why the young boy was so determined about to see the pyramids.

“You’ve never had dreams of travel,” the shepherd boy tells the shop owner in Tangier, the Moroccan city that used to be a part of Al-Andalus until 1062.

The crystal merchant had never thought of traveling, except for Hajj — traveling to Makkah had long been his dream and only thought.

However, the merchant explains to the boy that he lives by the book of Qur’an, and that Islam has five pillars which are mandatory for Muslims to fulfill.

After explaining the first four pillars, the merchant suddenly stops with tears in his eyes. So the boy asks him about the fifth obligation.

The merchant answers: “Two days ago, you said that I had never dreamed of travel. The fifth obligation of every Muslim is a pilgrimage. We are obligated at least once in our lives to visit the holy city of Makkah.

“When I was young, all I wanted to do was to put together enough money to start this shop. I thought someday I’d be rich, and could visit Makkah.”

The merchant refers to those who pass by his shop on their way to Makkah, and to those pilgrims who have performed Hajj and are proudly showing that off on their house doors.

However, when Santiago asks the merchant why he never made the trip and fulfilled his dream, he answers that if he did, he would no longer have anything to live for.

“Because it’s the thought of Makkah that keeps me alive.

“I’ve already imagined a thousand times crossing the desert, arriving at the Plaza of the Sacred Stone, the seventh time I walk around it before allowing myself to touch it. I’ve already imagined the people who would be at my side, and those in front of me.”

Meanwhile, the merchant’s business grows after he agrees to Santiago’s suggestion to sell tea. The tea becomes popular in the town and the merchant hires more staff.

As a result of the shop’s success, Santiago also becomes rich and decides that it is time for him to leave.

One day he wakes early and tells the merchant about his decision to leave and buy a large flock of sheep.

Santiago encourages the merchant to travel to Makkah. However, the merchant believes that he will not go to Makkah because it is “maktub,” which means “it is written,” as his destiny.

Coelho has a Guinness World Record for the most translated book by any living author.


Book Review: Sinan Antoon pays tribute to war’s forgotten losses

Updated 45 min 51 sec ago
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Book Review: Sinan Antoon pays tribute to war’s forgotten losses

  • The story follows the life of introspective academic Nameer Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi living in the US
  • It was written by internationally celebrated author Sinan Antoon

CHICAGO: Out of Baghdad comes “The Book of Collateral Damage” by internationally celebrated author Sinan Antoon, whose fourth novel follows the life of introspective academic Nameer Al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi living in the US. An encounter in Baghdad with an eccentric bookseller while travelling with documentary filmmakers as a translator leads Nameer to a manuscript that forces him to explore memories of the past, the loss of his home and the destruction caused by war.

The year is 2003 and Nameer is moving from Massachusetts to New Hampshire to teach at Dartmouth. Before moving, he travels back to Iraq for the first time since 1993. Encountering his old home, his relatives and the streets he used to travel, Nameer finds himself at a bookseller’s shop on Al-Mutannabi Street. The stall owner, Wadood, hands him a manuscript in which he has documented everything destroyed by war, from inanimate objects, to people to the flora and fauna. Intrigued by Wadood’s book, he takes it back to the US with him and finds himself suddenly consumed by it.

Through Nameer, Antoon takes his readers on a journey that is profound and deeply rooted in Iraq and its culture. From classical poetry collections and the last days of Abbasid-era caliph Harun Al-Rashid, to the Kashan rugs made in Iraq and sold as if from Iran to the Ziziphus tree — all have witnessed the destruction caused by war. Wadood’s cataloging of “the losses that are never mentioned or seen. Not just people. Animals and plants and inanimate things and anything that can be destroyed” are painfully explored.

The first-person narrative allows Antoon to bring to life an intense sense of heartbreak that inevitably follows political turmoil and devastation. There is a back and forth in his novel between Nameer and Wadood’s manuscript — narratives that parallel to one another. And there is a magical realism as he personifies inanimate objects who feel love and sorrow, who feel their own deaths when bombs fall down on them and fires engulf them. Tragedy befalls the lives of people who are victims of power, but also befalls objects that are the collateral damage of powerful people’s wars.