Seeking comfort in the coffee grounds: A tale of fortune tellers, their fans and skeptics

Seeking comfort in the coffee grounds: A tale of fortune tellers, their fans and skeptics

Left: A fortune teller picks up a coffee cup to conduct a reading. (Credit: Ghadir Hamadi/OLJ); Right, manicured hands hold a tarot deck (Illustrative photo by Bigstock))

BEIRUT — A woman sits at a table inside a bustling café in Hamra district. In her hands is a small white coffee cup. She gives an all-knowing smile as she looks down at the swirls of coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup, draws a long deep breath and nods.

She looks up from the cup with a smile that suggests she knows too much and addresses one of the six young women, most of whom are in their early 20s, who are surrounding her, gazing at her with admiration and a hint of fear glistening in their eyes.

“You have walked on a long hard path my child,” the fortune teller, who asked to remain anonymous, begins telling the young woman, who is nodding at her with bewilderment. “However, this path will come to an end in around two to three months, then you will find joy and happiness that have long escaped you.”

Although what she has described seems like the normal course of any person’s life, the girl seems eager to know more.

“You will meet someone – God willing – next year. You will have a few turbulences within your marriage, but you will be happy. You will have two kids,” the fortune teller concludes, with a thin smile forming on her lips.

The girl pays LL150,000, equivalent to around $5, as her friend, who was sipping from a similar small white cup, drinks the remaining coffee quickly and takes her seat across the table to have her fortune read in turn.

The fortune teller’s family does not know that she reads fortunes for a living.

“They would accuse me of heresy — they think I’m a waitress here,” she said.

A tradition of divination

Fortune-telling – the act of decoding the past and future, particularly through the patterns in a a drained coffee cup – has long been a staple of Lebanese culture. Although no one seems to know exactly when fortune telling became so common in Lebanon, 78-year-old Youmna Azzi said many believe that the “art of fortune telling was taught to the Lebanese by Moroccans.”

She recalled that when she was a young girl in Zgharta, old Moroccan men would come on horses and pass by her village to read people’s fortune for a few lira, or in exchange for spices, yogurt, or even homemade delicacies.

Azzi said that the men would take a look at the person’s face and tell them the characteristics of a future spouse, how many kids they would have, and whether they would live a life of luxury or misery.

Today, fortune tellers use different ways of predicting the future.

Some are palm readers, others use tarot cards. Some meet their clients at cafes, while others summon them on the streets. Others make star appearances on national television.

“I have made friends with many presidents, officials and stars, but I never let my emotions influence my predictions,” says Leila Abdellatif. (Rights reserved)

Leila Abdel Latif has become what many Lebanese refer to as a celebrity fortune teller. With her lavish clothes, big bouncy hair and loud clear voice, she has attracted devoted viewers as she predicts the future of politicians and other public figures on the national, local and international levels.

In the past twenty years, she has appeared on nearly every Lebanese station, with the exception of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar.

Even though divination is deemed a sin in Islam, Abdel Latif calls herself a devout Muslim and considers her revelations a gift. She asserts that she simply has the sixth sense, and that it’s a blessing from God that she thanks him for.

Lina Budeir, a sociologist who teaches at the Lebanese University, said the uncertainty of life in Lebanon has helped make it a hub for fortune telling, in a region where many countries jail or even execute fortune tellers and consider attempting to know one’s future as a lack of faith in God’s plan.

Seeking comfort in the future

In Lebanon, you can find fortune tellers in even the most remote little towns and villages, and among all sectarian communities.

Dana Maaroufi decided to seek advice from Um Dalil, a local fortune teller in her hometown of Dhour Choueir in the Metn district, for a fee of LL350,000, when she turned 29 and still wasn’t married.

“It seemed odd to me,” she told L’Orient Today. "After all, most of my friends and relatives within my age group had gotten married so I headed to Um Dalil.”

Maaroufi added, “Most of the people of the village avoid Um Dalil, they say she has contact with the djinn.”

Djinn are spirits believed to be inhabiting the earth but unseen by humans, capable of assuming various forms and exercising extraordinary powers. However, Maaroufi doesn’t believe that and insists that Um Dalil knows how to decode the hidden symbols that lie within the lines of one’s palms.

The fortune teller told her that in order for her to get married, she needed to be more exposed, as her future husband did not reside within the village where she was living.

“It’s true,” Maaroufi said. “I had been laid off by the company I worked for and was not going out much. Um Dalil assured me that I would be married within the same year if I went out of my comfort zone, so let’s see.”

Others believe that fortune telling is a hoax, something people resort to when all around them is crumbling.

“Dana just wants to be comforted,” Maaroufi’s sister, Aya, told L’Orient Today.

“Um Dalil knew that Dana’s worst nightmare is remaining single, so she told her what she wanted to hear and gave her vague advice – put yourself out and meet people,” she said.

Back in the Hamra cafe, the woman reading the coffee grounds turned to her next customer.

“Put your thumb in the center of the cup, and press firmly,” the fortune teller instructed.

“Vertical lines are representative of larger goals in life; the darker and broader the line, the more promising the future is. If it teeters close to the rim of the cup, it is almost certain to happen. Dots in the cup are usually a sign of wealth and money, while triangles mean change is on the way, usually positive change. The symbols to look for are many, and it’s my job to decode them,” the fortune teller told L’Orient Today.

She proceeded to read the girl’s fortune: A loving husband was on the way, three kids and a new car would be waiting for her in the next two years, the fortune teller assured the delighted 20-something year old woman.

'Perfection is only for God'

While the young women were pleased with their fortunes, onlookers were skeptical.

Fortune tellers are “those who have no real knowledge or secrets but depend on telling their customers about general incidents which happen to most people on earth. They often go through a series of pointless rituals to capture the admiration of their clients and get them to pay more,” said Jalal Koaik, a high school business teacher, who was having his coffee in the same cafe.

“They make calculated guesses. Some of their guesses, due to their generality, may come true. Most people tend to remember the few predictions that come true and quickly forget the many which do not,” he concluded.

When asked whether more Lebanese are turning to fortune telling for reassurance amid the insecurity of the country’s multiple crises, the fortune teller said, "Nonsense."

“Fortune telling has been a tradition in the Middle East for centuries, I see no difference in the number of my clients before and after the crisis,'' she said.

The fortune tellers who spoke to L’Orient Today insisted that their business is legitimate. A tarot card reader who goes by the name Lola insisted that fortune telling is a science by itself and not a form of “ripping people off, as many accuse me of."

Tarot card reading is a form of cartomancy where practitioners use tarot cards to gain insight into the past, present or future. They formulate a question, then draw cards to interpret them for this end.

Before a reading occurs, the client shuffles the cards. Some say this transfers that person's energy to the deck. The client should also be concentrating on the question or area for which they want guidance while shuffling the deck.

Once the cards are shuffled and the deck has been cut, the reader lays out the cards in a pattern called the spread.

“Here is where the tarot card reader’s job comes in, and I assure you anyone can learn how to read them. I learned that from my late maternal grandmother, may God have mercy on her soul,” she said.

Lola charges $30 for a reading, and doesn’t limit how long she will sit with the client. She lets them take their time.

Lola says that most of her clients visit her when things get tough in their life.

“I ask them to ask the question they want to know the answer for out loud and then draw out five cards from the deck,” she said.

When the clients draw the cards and arrange them on the table, Lola decodes what each card means.

“Some cards are an indication of love or the lack of it, of health, money, fame, or travel. There are 74 cards in the deck, each symbolizing a different aspect of life,” she explained.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a content customer approach me, but this is where my role comes in,” she insists. “I inform them of potential problems, enemies, or mishaps that they may encounter, people they should avoid or people that they should keep close to.”

While confident in her abilities, Lola said that she tells all of her clients before a reading that tarot cards have a “slight margin of error and that perfection is only for God.” 

BEIRUT — A woman sits at a table inside a bustling café in Hamra district. In her hands is a small white coffee cup. She gives an all-knowing smile as she looks down at the swirls of coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup, draws a long deep breath and nods.
She looks up from the cup with a smile that suggests she knows too much and addresses one of the six young women, most of whom are in...