‘The Witch of Portobello’ by Paulo Coelho is not a straight biographical book or the opinion of the writer on its main protagonists. It’s what the other people transcribe the writer about the women, the Witch of Portobello.
“No one lights a lamp in order to hide it behind the door……..No one sacrifices the most important thing she possesses: love. No one places her dreams in the hands of those who might destroy them. No one, that is, but Athena.”
It’s the story of Athena, or Sherine Khalil, who was always ready to walk out of the door from the comfort zone and confront the winds, the thunder and the lightning that life can bring, again and again, all by her own choice.
According to the writer, there are four classic archetypes of women who search for a meaning to their lives or for the path of knowledge:
The Virgin (not speaking of sexual virgin): One whose search springs from her complete independence and everything she learns is the fruit of her ability to face challenges alone.
The Martyr: The one who finds her way to self-knowledge through pain, surrender and suffering.
The Saint: The one who finds her true reason for living in unconditional love and in her ability to give without asking anything in return.
The Witch: The one who justifies her existence by going in search of complete and limitless pleasure.“Normally, a women has to choose from one of these traditional feminine archetypes, but Athena was all four at once”
Shreine Khalil, known as Athena was born in Romania and her parents, a successful industrialist family of Beirut adopted her, as their much loved, much-wanted daughter, who grew in wisdom and beauty. From an early age she had a strong religious vocation and knew all the gospels by heart, which was a blessing and a curse. She had the secret desire to become a saint someday. She had everything one can ask for, and yet it didn’t satisfy her restless soul. Her adopted mother, who was always ready to take care of her, give her all the love and comfort she could, want to see her win in whatever she does, though didn’t understand her, who felt that “a mother doesn’t have to understand anything, she simply has to love and protect”. A father, who loved her, was ready to be by her side in whatever she does and believed and respected her opinions as most correct even when she was just a child. The best of education that she left before completing; got married and divorced with a son in twenty; left the Church, on which she had deep faith from her childhood, after it forbade her from receiving sacrament, due to her divorce; a good job in a bank what she left when she was being just more than successful; took the job of selling land in dessert and left that too when she was earning more than enough, a successful Journalist, whom she left, who was ready to leave everything to love her. She was a restless soul, whom the success and comfort couldn’t content, who was learning all her life to suffer in silence, abandoned again and again by her birth mother, then by her husband and then by the Church she was so attached to, was trying to understand the meaning of life, through dance reaching Vertex and through calligraphy and passing this energy, the secret of rejuvenation to everyone else.
She went to find her birth mother when she realized the existence of blank spaces in her life.
“Music only exists because pauses exist, and sentences only exist because the blank spaces exist”
It’s the blank spaces which gives meaning to a sentence, the pauses which make music. There are blank spaces in everyone’s life since no one can keep active twenty four hours a day. But one needs to understand these blank spaces to make one’s soul composed and calm.
Vertex is the culminating point of life, the goal of all those who, like everyone else, make mistakes, but who, even in their darkest moments, never lose sight of the light emanating from their hearts. The Vertex is hidden inside us, and we can reach it if we accept it and recognize it.
Calligraphy, as written in the book, is the search for perfect meaning of each word through writing, the writing which wasn’t just the expression of a thought, but a way of reflecting on the meaning of each word. A single letter requires us to distil in it all the energy it contains, as if were carving out its meaning. It teaches objectivity and patience, respect and elegance.
She kept constantly destroying and rebuilding herself. Everything in her life had followed the same pattern: from lost to found; from divorce to new love; from working in a bank to selling real estate in the desert. There was only one thing which remained intact, that was her son. He was the only connecting thread.
Nothing could contend her restless soul; nothing could bring her peace of mind, neither even reaching Vertex through dancing or calligraphy. And finally she went to teach people something she didn’t know, that’s when she was bringing the soul to the surface, and speaking what the eternity, depicted as ‘the Mother’ in the book, wants to reveal through her.
Athena was bringing to the surface the immensely rich world we carry in our souls, without realizing that people aren’t yet ready to accept their own powers. That’s why the writer describes her as a woman of twenty-second century living in the twenty-first, and making no secret of the fact either. That was her biggest problem.
“……..perhaps you came too early, and people aren’t ready yet”.
The book talks about free love, a river which overflows its banks, which is above all the concept we associate with love, like desire, possession or betray.
“Love fills everything. It cannot be desired because it is and end in itself. It cannot betray because it has nothing to do with possession. It cannot be held prisoner because it is a river and will overflow its banks. Anyone who tries to imprison love will cut off the spring that feeds it, and the trapped water will grow stagnant and rank”
“Love isn’t desire or knowledge or admiration. It’s a challenge; it’s an invisible fire”
“Love is not a habit, a commitment, or a debt. It isn’t what romantic songs tell us it is-love simply is.………………….No definitions. Love and don’t ask too many questions. Just love.”
“The energy of love can never be lost-it’s more powerful than anything and shows itself in many ways.”
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’ (Robert Frost)
That’s the path the Witch of Portobello was following throughout her life, until she was brutally murdered.