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Lake Rumi
The Alchemist moves

By Nakissa Sedaghat
August 22, 2001
The Iranian

People think I am a bookworm but I am really very narrow-minded when it comes to literature, which is a great fault. I tend to stick with the few "classical" authors I know, most of them the proverbial "Dead White Males" of centuries ago.

So when a friend gave me The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, I did not know what to make of it at first. The title sounded like some New Age Oprah Winfrey Book-of-the-Month and I faulted the author for simply being alive. That's the greatest sin for an author, as far as I'm concerned. So at first I did not know how this book could fit on my shelf.

Thank god I gave it a chance. I read the two first pages and literally dropped the book from my hands. I don't know how to explain the feeling. Instead of me reading the book, I felt as if the book was reading me! I will share the prologue here with you:

The alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had brought. Leafing through the pages, he found a story about Narcissus.

The alchemist knew the legend of Narcissus, a youth who knelt daily beside a lake to contemplate his own beauty. He was so fascinated by himself that, one morning, he fell into the lake and drowned. At the spot where he fell, a flower was born, which was called the Narcissus.

But this was not how the author of the book ended the story.

He said that when Narcissus died, the goddesses of the forest appeared and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake of salty tears.

"Why do you weep?" the goddesses asked.

"I weep for Narcissus," the lake replied.

"Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus," they said, "for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand."

"But... was Narcissus beautiful?" the lake asked.

"Who better than you to know that?" the goddesses said in wonder. After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!"

The lake was silent for some time. Finally, it said:

"I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected."

The Alchemist really moved me. It is kind of like Saint-Exupery's Little Prince, a tale written so simply it could be read by anyone at any age. Yet each person will find his/her own meaning in the story.

When I did some research on Paulo Coehlo, the Brazilian author of The Alchemist, I found out that he has based his writings on Rumi. In a strange way, I guess this is part of why I felt so connected to this story. Coehlo actually visited Iran last year. He was given a very warm welcome by Iranians, who are avid readers of his works.

His books have been translated into 51 languages and he is a bestseller worldwide: Even more shame on me, the supposed "bookworm", for having discovered him so late! When Coehlo gave a talk in Shiraz last May to a crowd of 1,500 young devotees, he urged the Iranian younger generation to "guard the rich culture of their country and preserve the old and cherished customs and traditions of the past."

I recommend The Alchemist for everyone out there who has not read it yet. It is also available in a Farsi translation. A friend just brought me a copy from Iran which I will give to my grandfather. My mother read the book with me and she was equally moved. Ever since my good friend Vida gave me this book, I have discovered many other Alchemist devotees among my circle of friends. I am sure it could also be a good gift for a young teen or even a child.

Meanwhile, I am making more room on my dusty shelves for living writers.

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