The first time I read Paulo Coelho’s ubiquitous masterpiece The Alchemist, I was fifteen years old and about to start my sophomore year of high school.
What I found most appealing about the story at the time was the idea that dreamers are rewarded – not immediately, and maybe not until they’re at the brink of surrender, but the book stressed the idea that if a person continues to believe and presses on despite massive hurdles, he will eventually and inevitably achieve what he seeks.
I loved this idea because it reaffirmed what I adamantly believed was my “struggle” and inspired me to never, ever give up on my dreams. And yet… there was little I could relate to in the story itself. I wasn’t a shepherd. I hadn’t sold everything I owned in pursuit of treasure. I hadn’t entertained the thought of a dream destination to which, despite having the means and the time, I would never travel. I hadn’t traversed miles of desert and narrowly escaped death multiple times only to lose everything regardless.
Of course, when I say that I didn’t experience these things, I mean it in the metaphorical sense of the word. Not everyone starts out as a shepherd in pursuit of treasure – but the Hiba Tahir equivalent of Santiago’s experiences had not yet come to pass in 2011.
Four years later, I purchased the 25th anniversary edition of The Alchemist for my personal collection. I didn’t plan to read it immediately – after all, my to-be-read pile was just a few hardcovers away from requiring its own zipcode – but something happened that convinced me I needed this story that had so profoundly inspired me during my pivotal years as a teenager.
In order to fully explain the significance of this post, I need to explain in greater detail what occupied so much of my time and so many of my thoughts in 2015.
As many of you know, I was supposed to go to France this year. I was supposed to spend six days in Paris just two weeks after my twentieth birthday, and then three months in a picturesque chateau that would become my home away from home as I explored ancient castles and traveled through Europe. Best of all – because the program was affiliated with my university, my scholarships would cover all but my solitary travel excursions during the weekends. I was going to Europe virtually for free. My lifelong dream was so close that I found myself doubting its authenticity.
Surely, it’s too good to be true, I kept telling myself.
And then suddenly, it was.
One rainy day as I edited an article for a workshop at my university’s newspaper, my phone buzzed with a notification. I saw the words “attacks.” I saw the words “Paris.” I thought nothing of it.
I waited till my editor left the room and opened my breaking news app, skimming an early article. Still, I thought nothing of it.
I went to the cafeteria to meet my best friend for dinner. We talked and laughed and joked about our day as always while my phone continued to buzz with updates. I thought nothing of it.
It took weeks, but eventually, I would wake up gasping for air in the middle of the night, plagued by nightmares revolving around death. Something unsettling settled in the pit of my stomach.
I thought nothing of it.
A few days later, we were joined at dinner by some graduate student we’d just met. The conversation turned to our plans for next semester.
“Hiba won’t be here,” my best friend lamented.
“Oh really?” The graduate student asked, raising an eyebrow. “Where will you be?”
And then, once we told him, “You can’t go there. At least, not with a hijab on.”
My friend and I exchanged a glance.
“What? Why not?”
“They’ll kill you,” he said matter-of-factly. “Don’t go. I wouldn’t.”
We laughed it off. We retold the story to our friends over and over again, exclaiming at the blatant rudeness.
But every time I recounted those words, I become acutely aware of the unsettling thing in the pit of my stomach. My nightmares grew worse, and I threw myself into planning, researching every aspect of my trip as though it might somehow keep me safe.
What are the odds? I wondered.
Meanwhile, I turned away from headlines about Muslims being attacked in the streets of Europe. I turned away from nasty comments calling for mass genocide, hashtags where people expressed their desire to kill people like me. I turned away as though doing so would somehow make them cease to exist.
The voice of reason in my head pushed back with the obvious arguments – you could die if you went… but you could die if you stay. You could walk out right now and get hit by a car. You could suffer a heart attack. A number of things could happen.
Or worse – you could live. You could spend the rest of your life as a hermit wrapped in bubble wrap. You could live knowing how close you were to achieving your lifelong dream, and how you turned it down because you were afraid.
Eventually, the decision was taken out of my hands. My parents called me late one night and spoke to me for well over an hour, persuading me to cancel in their gentle, pragmatic way.
To say that I was upset is an understatement. But as I sent out numerous cancellation emails and shredded countless brochures, a minuscule part of me was relieved.
Phew, you say. Of course you were! You should have been!
But I have to confess that it wasn’t so much the death of body I was glad to have evaded… It was the death of a dream.
Just a month before, a good friend picked me up from an appointment with my study abroad coordinator. We’d discussed flight plans, international health insurance, and all those little things that provide substance to a previously ethereal idea. I was still thinking of these things, and I think I must have worn an odd expression because as we drove around, my friend turned to me and asked that question that all study abroad applicants are inevitably asked before they embark on their journeys:
“Are you excited?”
I nodded automatically, but my thoughts fled to the crystal merchant in The Alchemist, who dreams of going to Mecca. Santiago is astounded to learn that despite having the means, the merchant refuses to chase his dream. The first time I read The Alchemist, I didn’t understand the merchant’s reasoning:
“Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. That’s what helps me face these days that are all the same, these mute crystals on the shelves, and lunch and dinner at that same horrible cafe. I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living.”
But in that moment, as I rode around in my friend’s car and pondered her question, I found that I’d been subconsciously terrified all along – terrified that Paris, this magical and mystical dream that had taken hold of my mind since the very first time I’d watched my favorite childhood film Anastasia, would not live up to my expectations. Terrified that it would, and that as I achieved more and more of my life-long goals, I’d have nothing left to live for.
At least now that the trip was cancelled, I had a reason to look forward to that distant future, that someday so many of us look for but never quite reach.
I realized, as I reread The Alchemist last month, that the same subconscious fear that had allowed me to feel relieved by the study-abroad cancellation had been prevalent throughout other aspects of my life.
I had written novels before I could fully comprehend what a novel was. By the time I penned the first words of the first draft of EMBERS, I’d filed away five novels. Novels that I’d painstakingly forced through multiple drafts before tossing aside. Novels that had lost the battle with perfectionism.
But was it really perfectionism that had been their end? Or was it the fear of publication, that journey to the elusive someday where I would achieve my wildest dreams of being a published author, and it wouldn’t be everything I’d hoped for?
I guess it goes without saying that this isn’t one of my typical new year’s posts – there’s no resolution, no certain outcome. There is fear, and a lot of it.
I understand the crystal merchant. I have been the crystal merchant for the past nineteen years of my life, but now that I’ve been faced with death and that inevitable question that everyone faces – What am I leaving behind? – I’m not so sure I have the luxury of time to decide whether or not I’m willing to take that leap of faith.
So I’m leaping in spite of my fear, armed with the words of Coelho himself in his new, 25th anniversary edition forward:
“I feel happiness… because I know I can never be alone. Wherever I go, people understand me. They understand my soul. This continues to give me hope. When I read about clashes around the world – political clashes, economic clashes, cultural clashes – I am reminded that it is within our power to build a bridge to be crossed. Even if my neighbor doesn’t understand my religion or understand my politics, he can understand my story. If he can understand my story, then he’s never too far from me. It is always within my power to build a bridge. There is always a chance for reconciliation, a chance that one day he and I will sit around a table together and put an end to our history of clashes. And on this day, he will tell me his story and I will tell him mine.”
I’ve realized now that I have a unique capability as a writer to incite change. I know that the majority of people who read this blog are writers as well, and I want to remind you that your words matter too. Maybe if we all continue to put our ideas out there, the bridges that bind us will be strong enough to walk upon.
And maybe – just maybe – one day, we’ll walk the streets of Paris together, free from terrorists and retaliation.
My New Year’s resolutions are to continue writing and querying in spite of my publishing fears; to build bridges through my words in order to show the world the value of unity and kindness; to have the courage to kill my dreams by realizing them; to move forward immediately with new dreams; and to be so caught up in realizing my “somedays” that each “today” becomes its own magical miracle. 🙂