In her first novel, journalist and managing editor of Ahram Online Dina Samak guides us through a journey into the mind.
Ayahuasca, published by Al-Maraya publishing house in 2021, is Dina Samak’s first novel, but not her first book. Samak wrote her first self-help book some 20 years ago under the title ‘How to Manage Your Time.’
From the opening scene, which starts off with a brilliant fire that effectively sets the stage for the story, Ayahuasca captivates the reader all the way through. The story revolves around a mystery involving a missing woman, and the events eventually lead the main characters to use the psychedelic drug Ayahuasca to delve deeper into their own psyches and to find the missing woman.
Ayahuasca is a psychoactive beverage prepared from the bark of a woody vine and the leaves of a shrubby plant that grows in South America.
The book, although skilfully written, feels more like a script for a movie.
“When I started to write this novel, it was supposed to be a treatment for a film, but as I started writing it turned into a mystery novel,” Samak explained to Ahram Online.
“I wanted a mysterious introduction that would engage the reader from the very beginning. What we’ve learned in 25 years of journalism is that you really need to start with something catchy, because if you lose the attention of the reader in the first paragraph, you won’t be able to grab it again. So, I think it is the journalist in me that wrote the prologue, which some of my friends who read the first draft said needed to be edited because it was ‘too journalistic.’ However, I insisted on giving the journalist the lede she was looking for,” Samak smiles.
The author approaches the topic of psychedelics with the caution of a journalist.
Psychedelics, also known as hallucinogens, are a class of psychoactive substances that produce changes in perception, mood and cognitive processes. They alter a person’s thinking, sense of time and emotions. Some psychedelics occur naturally, in trees, vines, seeds, fungi and leaves, while others are made in laboratories.
What is Ayahuasca? How safe is it? Who is desperate to try it and why? These questions are answered in the book as each character reveals their background and how far they have come in their journey of self-exploration.
Samak admits that unlike her characters, she herself has never been courageous enough to embark on such a journey of self-exploration.
“Actually, trying psychedelics or some other path to dig into yourself and face your fears and traumas takes courage, it can take people years. Some people quit meditation and therapy simply because they get too close painful truths, which scares people,” she added.
What attracted Samak to the topic is that she thinks we live in a traumatised society. With the political turmoil Egypt has seen over the past decade, most people working in this field have seen peers die or imprisoned, have seen people lose loved ones, and have had their own lives threatened. Many of the people Samak knew throughout this journey have fallen into depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety. Some had the courage to seek help, while others did not.
“What really scared me was how mainstream therapy seems to deal with every case as if it were the same. At the end of the day, patients are getting the same medications at different dosages. I am not against the idea of medication by any means, but I think that mainstream science/medicine and pharmaceuticals cannot provide people with the right medications to very unique traumatic experiences,” argued Samak.
This is reflected in the book’s lead characters. The two main characters have suffered a lot throughout their lives, and it is because of this suffering that they were able to reach a point where they would embark on a self-exploration journey.
“When I started writing the novel, I was going to write about psychedelics in general. I thought that this is a subject that should not be taken lightly. We have heroes who have been fighting for it since the 1990s to bring psychedelics back into psychology. And these people are actually opening the door to so many promising solutions,” she explained, adding how she started doing her research not only into Ayahuasca, but also LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics.
“[These drugs] are a double-edged weapon, however. I mean, when these substances left the lab in the 1960s and became recreational drugs, it not only harmed those who take them, but also others who saw spiritual and psychological potential in these drugs. It can either benefit those who are suffering or add to their suffering. The more I read into it, the more I realised that traditional medicine can actually give us what we are looking for, if we take it seriously,” she elaborated.
Unfortunately, the use of traditional paths to self-healing have become more of a trend among the younger generations that feel alienated. Samak explained how with the interconnectivity of today’s world, they have been exposed to the brutalities and injustices of the world: the coronavirus, the aftermath of the Arab spring, the world economic crisis, and even the images of death transmitted on the airwaves during the Iraq war.
All of this leads the younger generation to feel alienated, she says. Expectations can traumatise people in their teens and early 20s and cause them to start a journey in search for happiness. And by default, the younger generations have the courage to experiment and do not have the taboos that we were used to.
“However, I think that one of the most important messages about facing our fears is knowing that therapy is a journey, and there is no journey without a guide. There is no therapy without a doctor because if we start the journey alone, it will be catastrophic.”