‘Rabetat Karihy Selim El-Ashi’ (Selim El-Ashi Haters' Association), by: Sameh El-Gabbas, (Cairo: Dar Al-Ain)
Could there have been a prophet in the twentieth century that we have not heard of? Could his ideas have influenced writers, philosophers, musicians, politicians, and novelists? Could those who wrote about him or met him have vanished as well and fell from books and magazines? Is it possible that an individual has written one hundred and fifty books in Arabic but none of them exist in the Arab World? That is what Sameh El-Gabbas is telling us in his latest novel ‘Selim El-Ashi Haters’ Association”.
The novel’s beginning is any writer’s dream, an assignment to write a novel about a specific person, the material needs digging, the writer’s creativity is added to the mix, the time is unlimited, and the financial return is quite lucrative.
The commissioned novel is about Selim El-Ashi or Dr. Dahesh, as he was called by his followers. The name means the amazing, the astounder, or the astonisher. His field was one of miracles and supernatural powers, and his legacy is establishing a philosophy or a religion unifying humanity as a whole.
Dr. Dahesh’s influence needs to be researched with an unbiased mind to be detected in the work of our contemporary writers and artists. El-Gabbas highlighted many lines or complete novels in Naguib Mahfouz, Tewfik El-Hakim, Youssef Idris, Jobran Khalil Jobran, and Youssef El-Sebai’s work that carry the obvious influence of Dr. Dahesh’s work.
The writer used a strict methodology to detect that influence in other people’s work. He used the timeline of Dr. Dahesh’s visits to Egypt and compared what was published in that year and re-read them with the intention of finding something different than the usual style of the various writers and he did.
For instance, he found that Youssef El-Sebai’s ‘Azrael’s Deputy’ (‘Naeb Azrael’) — where the angel of death deputises a human, and the question of re-incarnation and the possibility of returning back to earth in a different form was examined — to be a completely different style from his known romantic novels.
The same was found in Youssef Idris novel ‘A House of Meat’ or (‘Beit men Lahm’) — where a blind man is married to a woman and lives with her family, which is composed of her mother and two sisters; there is some sort of an unspoken agreement among the five of them that they take turns in sleeping with the blind man.
The novella is weird and El-Gabbas made the connection between ‘A House of Meat’ and Bethlehem, where Dr. Dahesh was born. These are just a couple of examples among many that the novelist found through research of the literature (magazines, short stories, and novels) that he sees carried the influence of Dr. Dahesh when he visited Egypt and certainly spread his ideas.
The novel was written in a New Testament style. Each close individual or disciple told Dr. Dahesh’s story from his or her own perspective. How they met him, what did they see to make them believe in him, the miracles that he performed that they witnessed, and the superpowers he possessed.
His powers varied from mind reading to speaking in English at the age of three, turning white papers to money, healing the sick, having multiple personas that uncovered themselves in the same time in front of his disciples, hypnotism, and summoning the spirits. All these unnatural powers were observed by many who did not believe in him at first and ended up becoming his followers and advocates.
Dr. Dahesh and his followers suffered due to their new-found doctrine, he was imprisoned for a few months, exiled and stripped of his Lebanese citizenship for a few years, some of his followers were tortured in prison, others had their money and properties taken from them by the government, and many were erased totally from history by their own families.
They were simply considered as stains in their families’ histories. His followers were among the upper class in general, families that have political influence and power; having a Dahesh follower among them would have a certain negative impact on their image in society, as well as their influence and interests.
Dr. Dahesh performed miracles that can only be compared to those of prophets — according to the testimonies of his followers dug and discovered by the novelist. Having believers is only normal after seeing with their own eyes the abilities he possessed.
El-Gabbas’ writing style is smooth and attractive, the type that keeps the reader in anticipation to the last page. The twist in the end combined with a love story that the fictional writer that wrote the tale experienced during his research is a reminder that this is a novel despite the many facts mentioned and documented within it. The novelist made a huge effort to find Dr. Dahesh’s followers and found the main ones, those who kept writing about him until they died, and those who believed in his reincarnation theory and found their call in carrying on his message to those who did not hear about it.
Dr. Dahesh’s ideas can be summarised in the following paragraph that the writer took from one of the books talking about ‘Daheshism’: “I believe that there is a divine justice, that all what we go through in our lives is a punishment for sins that we have committed in pervious lives, therefore we should accept the pain that we experience without complaint, rather acknowledging the celestial justice.”
This paragraph highlights the concept of “recycling” spirits. This idea creates an instant conflict with the main three religions of the Middle East, which in turn led to a full-scale war against Daheshism. This war manifested itself in the deliberate absence of all his books in Arab countries and the complete removal of his traces from the area as if he never existed.
Away from the novel and the information it holds — which seems quite real — there are two facts that we are sure of; first, there is a museum carrying Dr. Dahesh’s name in New York that was opened officially in 1995 and still functions to this very day. Second, Dr. Dahesh died in 1984 and his will was to be buried in Lebanon, but so far this wish was not accomplished. The logical deduction was that the authorities refused such a request for unknown reason(s), especially that such a request is granted easily for individuals who die outside their native land.
The novel is certainly an example of how authorities re-write history as they see fit according to reasons that they only know about. The message is clear: if you are outside the norms that society upholds, then you will be erased from existence.