The Zahir

Disclaimer: This is not a book review.

I chose The Zahir to borrow from among the many others displayed on my sister’s bookshelf. I thought I needed some company to keep me from boredom while waiting at the airport lounge for my trip going home. True enough, I had a lot of idle time before boarding the plane, thus I started to read few chapters of the book. Though the story may not be that engaging at the start, it nevertheless has kept my interest when I resumed my reading, enough to keep me awake and finish the book until four in the morning last week.

Another one of Paolo Coelho’s works, The Zahir is the story of a well known writer’s search for his journalist wife Esther who mysteriously abandoned him without any trace. Coelho’s stories always leave something for his readers to reflect and ponder on, especially on life’s mysteries, with a spiritual yet human feel to them. I can’t help but compare The Zahir with Coelho’s inspirational classic The Alchemist and while the latter’s plot is about a shepherd boy’s adventure and quest for an Egyptian treasure, both books tell of one’s personal journey and quest – about destiny and following one’s heart where the journey is as essential, or even more so, as arriving at one’s goal or destination.

In the first part of the book, the concept of the Zahir was explained: “According to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, the idea of the Zahir comes from Islamic tradition and is thought to have arisen at some point in the eighteenth century. Zahir, in Arabic, means visible, present, incapable of going unnoticed. It is someone or something which, once we have come into contact with them or it, gradually occupies our every thought, until we can think of nothing else. This can be considered either a state of holiness or of madness.” (Fauborg Saint-Pères, Encyclopedia of the Fantastic, 1953)

The Zahir presents insightful ideas about love, marriage and relationships without the mushiness of a romance novel. It discusses topics related to the “lack of love”, about cultivating relationships and letting go of one’s personal history in order to move forward and become a better person and consequently a better partner.

In this story, the writer was extremely affected by his wife’s sudden disappearance, his pride got hurt at the start, thinking of himself as an abandoned husband. He was torn inside – to consider himself lucky and free to love again, or be miserable about the situation. “I’m free… my wife has disappeared in mysterious circumstances, I have no fixed timetable for work, I have no problem meeting new people, I’m rich, famous, and if Esther really has left me, I’ll soon find someone to replace her. I’m free, independent. But what is freedom?” Realizing the pointlessness of seeking her, he felt the aching emptiness within despite his “freedom” of being single again.

He considers and accepts his missing wife Esther as his personal Zahir, memories of her fill his thoughts relentlessly, almost bringing him to despair. “…I wake thinking about the story by Jorge Luis Borges, about something which, once touched or seen, can never be forgotten, and which gradually so fills our thoughts that we are driven to madness. My Zahir is not a romantic metaphor… It has a name, and her name is Esther.”

Her disappearance brought him many questions and it made his love for her ascend to a different level, in the process it gave him wisdom – about truly loving somebody and knowing himself more. The difficult years without her had taught him so many lessons; he realized that before he can find her, he has to find himself first; that each person possesses within the power and gift to bless and pray for others. In the end he finds his wife as imperfect and broken as he is and still accepts her mistakes and loves her even more.

How about you, have you experienced the concept of the Zahir? Has anything or anyone touched your life in a meaningful way and this thing (or person) became your single most priority, dominating the majority of your thoughts, taking part in your dreams and with which your entire world revolves around?

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