After standing in line for four long hours, my turn finally came to get Paulo Coelho's signature on his wonderful novel, The Zahir. Delighted to finally be face to face with this great author, I told Coelho that I was a big fan of his, for which he thanked me with obvious sincerity. I progressed to tell him that he had changed my life. At that, he stood up, shook my hand, looked into my eyes and said: "We are warriors. Warriors help one another."
Two years later, I was in Paris, at a meeting attended by a number of experts in different cultural fields. Only a few minutes before the meeting started, Paulo Coelho entered, greeted everyone and sat next to me, taking the only vacant seat. I was so overjoyed being at such close proximity to this great man that I don't remember much of what was said at that meeting.
After the meeting, Coelho and I had a brief discussion about Japanese culture. He told me that he liked my way of thinking and, before we parted, asked for my business card.
A few days later, I sent him an e-mail asking whether he still remembered me and whether he would agree to become my mentor. I was delighted when I received his reply, which I quote here: "I remember you very well, and I have your business card with me. You are really a brave person. Let's start working together. Please, send me some texts that [you] have written so far, so I can analyse them and give you feedback. Also, I will allow myself to be very tough, and I will demand the best from you. Rigour is important at that stage."
Two years later, Coelho came to Dubai to attend the Dubai International Film Festival. We met and decided to take a trip to the desert. The plan was to spend only half an hour there, as he had to attend an important meeting afterwards. It was my good luck that our car got stuck in the sand. I played no part in the event, as he was the one driving. We stayed there for four hours, until help arrived late in the evening. The time we spent together was videotaped and can be watched on YouTube.
That wonderful, yet so unexpected, experience was more of a spiritual journey with a Sufi philosopher who records his observations of the world and his understanding of existence in novels, rather than in books, as is common for philosophers and Sufis.
On the last day of his trip to Dubai, Coelho said to me: "I want to write a book with you about Dubai. I'm sure this city has a lot to say." I was very happy at first, but after some consideration, I became hesitant.
If I am to be truthful, I have to admit that the prospect of such a great undertaking overwhelmed me. I was afraid to get involved in such a grand challenge and worried about whether I would meet the great writer's expectations.
Three years passed without any further discussion on the plans for the book. Then, one day, Coelho sent me an e-mail with a link to an article published in a newspaper in the United States. According to the writer, despite having all the resources and the infrastructure. Dubai hasn't been able to produce a single bestselling novel. In his view, the only world-class novel that has ever been associated with Dubai is The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho.
In that e-mail, Coelho said: "I'm ready to change that impression of Dubai. Let's go ahead with the project we talked about a few years ago." I suggested we write 30 short stories about the rich culture and heritage of the Arabian Peninsula, rather than focusing on Dubai alone.
The heritage of the Arabian Gulf countries is interconnected and people share the same culture, worldviews and much of the same history. One can listen to the same folktales and myths in Dubai, Kuwait and Jeddah, and hence a book combining them all would really make sense. He liked the idea.
So far, we have written 26 short stories, and expect to publish them in a single volume early next year. During this process, we have found a good working dynamic that suits us both — I write the stories and Coelho enriches them with his literary vision, which stems from his view of the heritage of our region. The stories range from historical children's games to stories of sacrifice, generosity and ambition. One of our stories, for example, is about "Tilah" — a game played by children using glass marbles of different colours. The marbles, fashioned as small planets, represent the dreams of the little children and the game speaks of their struggle to achieve them.
Another story is about "the sail", which represents sailors' hopes and dreams for a better future.
Burj Khalifa is the subject of yet another story, as it is a symbol of hard work and ambition that has no limits. Although Burj Khalifa is not part of the heritage of this region, it is a human achievement worth recording, for it has value and meaning that transcends time, cultures and geographical locations.
I know that Coelho's ambition is not only to introduce the heritage of our region to the world, but also to present a young Emirati writer as one worthy of literary merit, because he believes in the voice of the youth. Although he is a very kind man, he is also very honest, and I know that he hasn't told me that because of his extreme politeness and kindness.
I am very grateful to my esteemed friend for this experience, which has been immensely enjoyable and educational. Every time I sit down to write, I remember the advice he gave me when I visited his home: "Publish less than you write." I have also learnt from him that a good book may not change a person's life but it will surely push him or her to make a difference.
We haven't yet agreed on a title for our book, or the city it will be launched in, but it will most probably be Dubai, as Coelho has suggested. There will be a launching ceremony to promote the book, which will also be translated into several languages, as we hope to reach out to readers across the globe. I am grateful for the chance to work with such a renowned author and a truly great person.
It is said that teaching a man how to fish is better than giving him a fish. However, I have been fortunate to be the recipient of both. Thus, in closing, I want to say to Paulo Coelho, "Thank you for giving me the fish and teaching me how to catch it myself."
Yasser Hareb is an Emirati novelist and writer on political and social affairs. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/YasserHareb