The Lingering Legacy of Doctor Dahesh
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Sunday, March 18, 2012
At a busy intersection in Beirut’s Zoqaq al-Blat, a crumbling 19th century mansion with a gaping, tarp-covered hole in its side sits perched above a stoplight. The fluorescent lights of the fast food restaurants below help illuminate the mansion’s pale, earthy walls, but somehow, its complete exposure and proximity to the road render it almost invisible. If a faint yellow glow wasn’t emitted from a room at night, you would think it is abandoned. This was once the home of Doctor Dahesh.
Dahesh slept in a small, austere room fit with only a single bed, a journal, and many books. Fares Zaatar, a lawyer based in Zahle, describes the house as it was in 1963, when, at the age of 15, he first met Dahesh.
“The house appeared alive, a hub of activity, [with] people of all ages coming and going,” he said. On the inside, “stacks of books, magazines, and newspapers were everywhere. The long corridors were lined on both sides with bookshelves rising up almost to the high ceiling.”
■ Photo Blog: The House of Dr. Dahesh by Marwan Tahtah
Beginning in the 1940s, Dahesh performed what his followers described as miracles, and his detractors dismissed as magic. Lebanese newspapers denounced him as a charlatan, but his devotees accepted his claims that he was a prophet – a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Mario Chakkour, now in his 50s, remembers the “long ceremonial hallway, sort of like a sun room, where everybody would sit.” It was here that he says he witnessed one of Dahesh’s miracles. According to Chakkour, Dahesh got up from the salon and walked into the kitchen. Then, he returned from the opposite end of the hallway wearing different clothes, a feat that Chakkour believed spatially impossible. This was not the Dahesh that had been sitting in the salon before, but the manifestation of one of his six spiritual personalities.
Ghazi Brax, a close companion of Dahesh, explained the concept of spiritual personalities in a 1971 lecture at the American University of Beirut: “They may sit, talk, and even eat with you, but nevertheless they are not human beings but spiritual extensions of Dahesh living in different celestial worlds of the universe. Their spiritual degrees are loftier than those of human beings. Thus they are not subject to the natural laws of this earth, such as the law of gravity, time and space, or death.”
“Over the years of talking to my friends and what not, I realized it’s not anything anybody is going to believe. So eventually I let go, I disconnected, disassociated myself,” said Chakkour, a Beirut-born architect and designer now based out of the eastern United States. Chakkour has no intent of returning to Lebanon. “I’m gone,” he said.
A skeptic himself, Chakkour understands that most people are averse to what could be called “weird” beliefs. When he says that “rational thinking sometimes is overrated,” he laughs knowing that this could be taken out of context, and quickly states again that he’s a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I sort of live a double life – in a good way – meaning, I totally understand those who say this can’t be logical, this is a hoax,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve experienced and lived these things, so I have a totally different perspective.”
“To me, he is the return of Jesus. I don’t care if people shun me or won’t invite me to their luncheons. Sometimes you have to take a stand,” he said.
The Life and Miracles of Dr. Dahesh
Dahesh lived and held “salons” in his Beirut house up until at least the late 1970s, when he traveled intermittently yet extensively to the United States. Upon his death in 1984 in New York, Dahesh left behind no progeny, no widow, and no physical monuments to his memory. What remained was his massive collection of European art and a loyal group of followers who, convinced of Dahesh’s divinity, would carry on the modern religion of Daheshism. This mission has not been without difficulties.
Even though its adherents consider Daheshism both a religion and a philosophy, they will acknowledge that it’s far from being an organized one. There is no official temple and no central religious hierarchy, nor is it one of the 18 officially recognized religious sects in Lebanon. It’s difficult to ascertain the number of followers in either Lebanon or the US but some estimates say there are thousands. Daheshists don’t believe in proselytizing, so there are very few chances for the religion to grow. Many still living in Lebanon are open about their religious views, but it still remains somewhat underground. Followers know they run the risk of being misunderstood, especially in light of Dahesh’s tumultuous relationship with his chosen homeland.
Born Salim Moussa Achi in Jerusalem in 1909, Dahesh moved to Lebanon at a young age. His followers attribute to him countless miracles, the most notable being healing the sick and changing losing lottery tickets into winning ones.
After some of his first miracles were allegedly performed in the 1940s, a host of Lebanon’s cultural and intellectual “elite” flocked to him – including the sister-in-law of then President Bechara el-Khoury – and he subsequently drew the ire of the religious establishment and Khoury himself. Dahesh was imprisoned and his citizenship stripped from him.
Daheshists view the imprisonment as a most serious persecution, but also, as the manifestation of a centuries-old spiritual conflict dating back at least to the period of Christ, but possibly thousands of years before. Ultimately, Dahesh’s persecution, as well as the Lebanese people’s failure to stand up against this perceived injustice, is often viewed as the “spiritual” or karmic cause of the Lebanese Civil War by Daheshists.
To outsiders, this might seem like a grudge taken too far, but it’s a view rooted in the Daheshist belief in reincarnation. Out of context, these views might seem bizarre, but Dahesh’s followers are just regular individuals who believe they have witnessed extraordinary and inexplicable things.
Spiritual Fluids and Cosmic Civilizations
In his law office in Zahle, Fares Zaatar is reserved about expressing his personal beliefs, but forthcoming about his admiration for Dahesh. Hanging above the desk is a blown-up photo of the doctor in India in 1983, wearing a grey blazer with a pansy pinned to his lapel. In the hallway hangs a black and white photograph of Dahesh looking dapper in his younger days. Dark wooden bookshelves hold both volumes of legal texts and the works of Dahesh, who wrote over 150 books in his lifetime.
As a teenager, Zaatar was introduced to Dahesh in Beirut through his teacher Ghazi Brax. Like many of Dahesh’s followers, Zaatar questioned what he witnessed decades ago. “You have to search for the truth, it’s not easy,” he said. “[I would] examine and re-examine, am I on the right path? Is this man deceiving me? Am I being deceived?” Zaatar concluded that Dahesh was sincere and that his miracles were evidence of the divine.
Zaatar studied criminal justice and worked for the United Nations in the US, but returned to Zahle to practice general law with his brother. Born a Catholic, Zaatar believes it would have been very comfortable to go through life not questioning the foundations of his religious upbringing. Years later, he expresses utmost reverence for Dahesh and his teachings, recalling even the smallest details of their interactions.
While Dahesh was in New York, he would sometimes stay with Zaatar, but by then Dahesh had been stricken with a series of ailments. Zaatar remembers shopping in the Strand bookstore in New York and pleading with Dahesh not to continue his fast – which Daheshists undertake periodically – due to his frailty, but Dahesh refused, saying that he wished to go without food like the rest.
Through his personal interactions with Dahesh and the study of his writings, Zaatar came to a renewed understanding of his religious views. “I rediscovered Christ through Daheshism, I became a better Christian through Daheshism. Do I deny such a great personal experience in order to follow what other people say? It would be stupid to do that,” he said.
The belief that Dahesh is the reincarnation of Christ is rooted in the esoteric concept of spiritual fluids. Daheshists believe that every human has a soul that is made up of interconnected, eternal spiritual fluids that allow every individual to reincarnate 6,000 times. Everyone possesses conflicting moral and debased spiritual fluids that can pull the individual in different directions. “When you feel sad, glad, tormented, all these have to do with the interplay of these spiritual fluids that are interacting and sending you messages,” said Chakkour.
Daheshists believe that some of us have “higher” spiritual fluids than others, creating a type of spiritual caste system. In this sense, the divine spiritual fluid of Christ was transferred to Dahesh, and even to others like Mahatma Gandhi and Khalil Gibran. The spiritual fluid that Dahesh acquired is the same one that all prophets before him, including Christ, had acquired. One of the ultimate results of this complex world of spiritual fluids is that, “one person doing an evil act today could destroy a whole country 10,000 years down the road,” according to Chakkour.
Dahesh himself took it quite literally that he was the embodiment of the divine, even writing as Christ in first-person in his Memoirs of Jesus Christ. As Jesus, he writes, “My soul has grown tired of everything, my spirit weary of these vile humans.” The introduction, written by Zaatar, poses the question: “But is this book just a masterpiece of creative writing…or is it an authentic biography, or, rather, an autobiography of Christ?”
The Daheshist world of spiritual fluids is closely connected with the belief in other “cosmic civilizations” having a direct impact on life on earth. According to Chakkour, based on his readings of Dahesh texts and personal experience, the ultimate source of the Christ spiritual fluid is not of this earth, but was possibly planted here long ago by a higher form of alien intelligence.
“Life embraces the whole universe and it is the only justification for any existence. Paradise and Hell are nothing but the planets and stars – categorically the visible and the invisible,” Brax said in his 1971 lecture. “Man is but a simple and a feeble creature, a relatively backward aspect of the countless manifestations of life in the universe. He has to know his limits, his capacity and value as to where, he stands on the ladder of universal civilizations.”
A Daheshist Temple?
When Dahesh was in New York convalescing in the 1980s, Chakkour tended to his needs. One day, Dahesh wondered out loud to Chakkour, apparently jokingly, if “Reagan will give us a piece of land to build a city upon.” He then said more seriously, “You know sir that one day we’re going to have a temple.” Chakkour shrugged off the idea then, but it remained with him all these years.
Years later, a museum would be founded in his name, but it has since distanced itself from Dahesh’s spiritual legacy. In New York City, the Dahesh Museum thrives as the only museum dedicated solely to academic art in the US. Two investigations by ARTnews magazine in 1996 and 2003 raised questions as to the origins of this extensive art collection, but they encountered resistance from many in discussing the details. Eventually, reporters learned that Dahesh sold his art collection to the Saudi Zahid family after the Lebanese Civil War thwarted his plans to open a museum in the country. The Zahids, who live in Connecticut, do not speak openly about their religious beliefs, but it is reported that they are Daheshists and frequently visited the Dahesh mansion in Beirut.
With the museum severing ties to the Daheshist religions and the Beirut mansion quietly decaying, the physical monuments to Dahesh’s spiritual legacy are few and far between.
David Michael Johnson, an American architect of Baptist roots, has configured his own designs for a temple. Posted in an online forum for Daheshists, the designs are partly inspired by Dahesh’s visions of other worlds. The buildings are futuristic, stark, and look like they exist on an uninhabited planet. There are no plans to build, but Johnson believes that they are a reflection of how Dahesh’s writings can take you “outside your own head and your own world.”
Chakkour described Johnson as the “only American Daheshist who of his own choice decided that he was a Daheshist,” but Johnson just describes himself as an “island” of Daheshism.
Johnson never got to meet Dahesh. Though he regrets it, he also sees his situation as what will be the norm in a few decades, when all those who witnessed Dahesh’s alleged miracles will have passed away. “From this point forward, from 1984 on, [everyone] is going to be in my same position. It’s going to be purely hearsay and it’s going to be based upon the record of what had happened. It’ll be disregarded by many, but then embraced by others.”