The practice of fortune-telling in Lebanon is hardly new. The traditions are ancient, and their popularity is enduring.
An Associated Press article from 1973 tells of Frida Maroun, a fortune-teller “who holds court in one of Beirut’s more fashionable boutiques,” reading the fortunes of Arab women among whom deciphering coffee grounds is “almost an obsession.”
But it seems to be encountering something of a resurgence at the moment. Michel Hayek, the oracle who offers his predictions for the coming 12 months on every New Year’s Eve, once a rarity, now competes with a raft of similar figures, and a fortune-teller of some kind tucked away in a corner has become an increasingly familiar sight in Lebanon’s cafes.
Café Najjar, a coffee shop in Beirut’s Sassine neighborhood, is reminiscent of that AP article on a Wednesday morning. Instead of Frida, Najjar employs Georges Naim, a fortune-teller with 17 years of experience, who reads coffee grounds, tarot cards or palms. A new generation of well-heeled women are here, having their fortunes told and returning to their tables giggling, to share the knowledge he has just imparted with their friends.
Nora Mouwad, the manager of Café Najjar, says they have been hiring a fortune-teller for a decade but in recent years she has seen a significant increase in the number of people coming for a consultation.
“Four or five years ago we started to offer this early, at 9:30 am, and I was shocked by how many people came,” she says.
The practice seems to walk a fine line between superstition and pure fun. Moawad herself says she’s not a believer and the majority of women here for a reading also seem to view it only as a light-hearted exercise.
“I don’t believe in fortune-telling, but I came for the entertainment,” says one customer, Zizou.
A group of five middle-aged women decline to be interviewed, insisting they have nothing more to say on the subject other than that it is a bit of fun. If this is the case, why does its popularity endure?
“In times of uncertainty, you cling to every piece of information that might help you cross the turbulences,” says Charles Harb, an associate professor of social psychology at the American University of Beirut. “Fortune tellers claim a connection to the future, and give people a suggestion about their future. It might motivate people, give them hope.”
“[In Lebanon] people are very weary after decades of wars, turmoil, bloodshed, and internal strife,” says Habib Malik, an associate professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University. “Many have lost whatever flimsy spiritual moorings they might have had and are scrounging around for alternatives and substitutes.”
After hearing the flippancy with which these women and Mouwad discuss the talents (or not) of Café Najjar’s resident oracle, it’s somewhat strange to encounter the intensity of Naim himself.
“I know that I have something given to me by God,” he says of those who criticize him for offending their religious sensitivities. “On one hand I have 666, the number of the devil, and anyone can see the 666. On the other, I have the name of [Saint] Charbel, so I know I have the powers of both good and evil. But of course good triumphs over evil.”
Divination is considered a sin in both Islam and Christianity, and extreme religiosity, like Naim’s claim, seems common among fortune-tellers, perhaps as a method of compensation.
At Baladi restaurant in Jeita, Nadya Baroud says she considers her work telling fortunes to be chosen for her from God. “Only God knows the ultimate path,” she says. “We are all created from the one God and all I can do is tell people what I say, and I cannot make them go on that path.”
Ranine, a recently engaged 27-year-old (whose name has been changed upon her request), says that despite her commitment to her religion, she still comes to Café Najjar to see Naim for a reading once every six months or so, and has been coming for four or five years.
“I used to come every week,” she says. “I know it’s not 100 percent right. I have faith and I pray. [But] it’s just like psychiatry, only cheaper.”
“I trust Jesus that he’ll lead me,” she says. “People say it’s a sin but I’m not putting all my energies and beliefs into it. It relaxes me.”
She hesitates just before she departs, “just as long as my fiancé doesn’t find out. He doesn’t know I come here.”