This recent article from the Guardian newspaper is a fascinating account of fortunetellers in Afghanistan where fortunetelling is a crime punishable by death. Here is a short excerpt:
For centuries mystics have channeled the hopes and fears of Afghans. With the nation in turmoil, their services are as popular as ever. But can they survive the latest crackdown by religious hardliners?
Last November, Abdullah Sharifi visited a spirit medium. By his own admission, Sharifi was the last person you would expect to indulge in mysticism. Twenty-two years old, tall, handsome, with slicked-back hair, Sharifi usually wears blue jeans and a leather jacket, and walks with a swagger. But by that autumn, he had lost the spring in his step. Sharifi had been without work for nearly a year when he decided to go and see a man named Arab Shah.
Shah is a fortune-teller – a falbin, a taweez naweez mulla, a djinn hunter – who belongs to a long tradition of men who practise magic said to predate Islam. Sharifi was ashamed that it had come to this, resorting to magic over reason, and so kept his visit to Shah a secret. Only his best friend, Maqsood Sayed, knew and agreed to join him.
After a wait, Sharifi and Sayed were ushered into a small room. A naked bulb hung from the ceiling, shedding a harsh light. Floor-to-ceiling one-way mirrors made up two out of the four walls, so that you could look out, but those waiting outside could not look in. Arab Shah, a moon-faced man wearing a fisherman’s vest over a long perahan shirt, motioned them to sit. From his desk, he checked Sharifi’s pulse – first on his right wrist, then his left. Next, he raised his thumb to Sharifi’s forehead and kept it there for a while. Shah did the same to Sayed. He then seemed to run calculations on a loose sheaf of paper, with an air of martial precision, and delivered his findings: Sharifi and Sayed’s futures were bright, but things would get much worse before they got better. He collected his fee of 30 afghanis (31p, the price of one can of Coke) each and motioned for the next supplicant to come through. It was over in less than 10 minutes.
Afghans have been going to see fortune-tellers for centuries but reasons for visiting have changed over time. When Arab Shah began telling fortunes nearly two decades ago, most visitors came to see him about matters of love or money; now they chiefly come to ask how they can leave the country. They want Shah to use his vatic powers to tell them which smuggler they should use, and what would be a reasonable fee. Shah serves as a receptacle for the hopes, dreams and desires of Afghans who have lost faith in their country and want to get out.
Shah treats fortune telling less as a mystical gift than as an occupation. His magic is imbued with a spirit of scientific inquiry: just as an electrician or a baker learns how to install wiring or knead dough, Shah believes that mastery of mysticism can be achieved through hard work and practice. When I first met him in April 2014, he proudly showed off his professional and academic accolades: print-outs in neat frames above his desk. His email signature reads “Sayed Arab Shah, Hypnotherapist,” and lists the half-dozen ways in which he can be reached. Shah is not a pedlar of charms, but a specialist in the occult.
Shah’s most popular service is a taweez, a tailor-made amulet containing Qur’anic verses that serves as a talisman. The rolled up paper can be used as a good-luck charm as well as for black magic. Ghulam Sakhi, a pawnbroker, is among those who come for Shah’s taweez service. Last December, he travelled six hours by road from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to visit Shah, in the hope of getting his wife back.
As part of his training, Shah says that he was sent to the Russian city of Volgograd. Here, as a young officer, Shah encountered the world ofmetafizikthat would become his life’s work. On most days, Shah’s desk is strewn with books and CDs on subjects such as telepathy, hypnotism, palm reading, dream interpretation, clairvoyance, and telekinesis. At the heart of his business, however, is his gift of communion withdjinns. It is the djinns, Shah explained, who give mystics their supernatural powers. They tell Shah whether the currency trader calling from Utrecht calling on Viber should buy kroners or euros this week, or whether young men like Sharifi should go “east” (Australia) or “west” (Europe). Most female mystics were silly and became “possessed” bydjinns, Shah said, while assuring me that his interactions with djinnswere professional, and wholly in line with teachings of Islamic scripture.
Shah has many enemies, but his most formidable detractor is a clean-shaven, suit-wearing TV personality named Fahim Kohdamani. From 2009 to 2012, Kohdamani produced, directed and starred in Biya wa Bibin, which roughly translates to “Come and See”. Every episode featured Kohdamani ambushing a fortune-teller and engaging them in a debate over the legitimacy of their trade according to Qur’anic scripture. “I am an educated man,” Kohdamani told me earlier this year. “I am a religious scholar, and these so-called mullas are fleecing the uneducated masses.”
Earlier this year, Kohdamani and other orthodox Muslims found the perfect martyr for their anti-fortune-telling cause. In March, on the eve of the Persian new year, a young woman named Farkhunda Malikzada began to excoriate the fortune-tellers selling amulets near one of Kabul’s oldest historic shrines. In response, one man accused her of having burned the Qur’an. The crowd, inflamed, formed a mob around her. The 27-year-old was stoned, beaten, set on fire, and left to die on the bank of the Kabul river.
The religious conservatives were quick to respond, demanding that all taweez charms and taweez naweez mullas be banned. Salafist members of parliament spoke out in favour of the ban. By the following week, President Ashraf Ghani had ordered an investigation into Malikzada’s murder, and the Religious Affairs Ministry had banned all fortune-tellers and amulet sellers across the country. The Kabul police arrested 47 men suspected of being part of the mob that killed Malikzada. Three men convicted of the murder are serving 20-year sentences, a fourth man 10 years.
When I called some fortune-tellers around the city to ask how the ban was affecting their business, many said that they were lying low for a while, but that, as ever, things would go back to normal again. They had survived all these years because they served a social need, and they were unperturbed by this latest attack on their calling. The country was heavy with frustration, and frustration was good for business. Shah, too, received a visit from the authorities. He said: “I told them, this is not a taweez naweez centre, this is a hypnotism darmani,” a clinic for the treatment of depression. Shah reiterated that he was a medical professional, pointing to the framed certificates on the wall. The men went away and did not return.
Have an apartment to sell in Hong Kong that may be haunted? Prepare to lower your price according to Business Week.
There’s a grim phenomenon in Hong Kong’s real estate market: discounts of as much as 50 percent for home seekers willing to live in an apartment where a murder has occurred. Unnatural deaths typically result in rental discounts of 10 percent to 20 percent and can be more than double that for killings, says Sammy Po, head of the residential department of realtor Midland Holdings. Chinese believe such places, known as hung jaak, the Cantonese term for haunted apartments, are unlucky, he says, adding that “the Chinese really do care” about living in these places.
This year, Hong Kong had almost 190 apartments or homes where an unnatural death took place, including murders and suicides, according to a database compiled by Square Foot. The website lists the date of the incident, the address, the district, and a brief description of the death. Among recent listings were an apartment where an 18-year-old male student slipped a plastic bag over his head last month and jumped to his death; one where a middle-age couple, plagued by financial troubles, committed suicide by inhaling burning coal smoke; and another where a mother was hacked to death by a mentally unstable neighbor while protecting her two daughters.
Superstition and geomancy beliefs run deep in Hong Kong, where people also shun sites close to cemeteries, hospitals, and churches, which can be considered unlucky. Buildings typically omit the fourth floor because the number is a homonym for the Chinese word for death—much as many U.S. buildings don’t have a 13th floor. Property developers rely on feng shui, the Chinese practice of arranging the physical environment in harmony according to beliefs about energy and design. “For those growing up in Hong Kong, feng shui is hammered into your mind, even if you don’t believe or understand it,” says Ng Wai-pok, a former lecturer in feng shui at the University of Hong Kong. “A large part of it is psychological, but there is also the metaphysical.”
Remember the good old days when astrologers had some power at the White House? That era is gone with the passing of Joan Quigley who advised Nanacy Reagan who, in turn, advised President Ronald Reagan. And there are many who recall the Reagan administration with great fondness. Maybe, just maybe, using astrology to improve the timing of things during his tenure helped create his enduring success. Here is Joan's obit from the New York Times:
In his 1988 memoir, For The Record , Donald T. Regan, a former chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, revealed what he called the administration’s “most closely guarded secret.” He said an astrologer had set the time for summit meetings, presidential debates, Reagan’s 1985 cancer surgery, State of the Union addresses and much more. Without an O.K. from the astrologer, he said, Air Force One did not take off. The astrologer, whose name Mr. Regan did not know when he wrote the book, was Joan Quigley. She died on Tuesday at 87 at her home in San Francisco, her sister and only immediate survivor, Ruth Quigley, said.
Mr. Regan said that Miss Quigley — a Vassar-educated socialite who preferred the honorific Miss to Ms. (she never married) — had made her celestial recommendations through phone calls to the first lady, Nancy Reagan, often two or three a day. Mrs. Reagan, he said, set up private lines for her at the White House and at the presidential retreat at Camp David. Further, Mrs. Reagan paid the astrologer a retainer of $3,000 a month, wrote Mr. Regan, who had also been a Treasury secretary under Reagan and the chief executive of Merrill Lynch.
“Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise,” he wrote in the memoir, “For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington.”
In an interview with “CBS Evening News” in 1989, after Reagan left office, Miss Quigley said that after reading the horoscope of the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, she concluded that he was intelligent and open to new ideas and persuaded Mrs. Reagan to press her husband to abandon his view of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Arms control treaties followed.
Reagan denied that he had ever acted on the basis of heavenly guidance. In her 1989 book “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan,” Mrs. Reagan described Miss Quigley as warm and compassionate but played down her influence. Mrs. Reagan wrote that the president, speaking of her astrological bent, had told her: “If it makes you feel better, go ahead and do it. But be careful. It might look a little odd if it ever came out.”
In the battle of memoirs, Miss Quigley may have had the last word. The title of her own 1990 book — “What Does Joan Say?” — was the question that she said the president had habitually asked his wife.
The resulting brouhaha over the revelations prompted a comedian to wonder if there would be a “Secretary of Health, Education and Voodoo.” Religious leaders condemned astrology as a “devil’s tool.” Democratic politicians said they were glad to hear that Reagan, a Republican, had listened to anybody.
Members of the Federation of American Scientists, including five Nobel laureates, railed at the idea that government decisions might have been informed by “fantasy.” Carl Sagan later wrote in “The Demon-Haunted World”: “Some portion of the decision-making that influences the future of our civilization is plainly in the hands of charlatans.” The columnist Molly Ivins, writing in The New York Times Book Review, mused about historical paradox: “There the poor woman was, sitting in San Francisco with full accountability for world peace, and none of us even knew her name.”
Joan Ceciel Quigley was born in Kansas City, Mo., on April 10, 1927, at 4:17 p.m. — exact birth times being critical to accurate astrological readings. Her father, John, a lawyer, went to San Francisco in 1942 after buying the Drake-Wilshire Hotel. (It is now the Taj Campton Place, a boutique inn.) Mr. Quigley and his wife, Zelda, reared their daughters in a penthouse apartment in the high-end Nob Hill area and sent them to private schools. The “Quigley girls,” as they were known, were chauffeured to parties in a Rolls-Royce and regularly mentioned in society columns.
Writing about Joan Quigley, The Los Angeles Times said she had “come from the crème de la crème of San Francisco gentility, exactly the sort of woman whom Mrs. Reagan has embraced again and again as friends in California, New York and Washington.”
Joan Quigley graduated from Vassar with a degree in art history. Intrigued by her mother’s interest in astrology, she apprenticed herself for a year to a soothsayer named Jerome Pearson. Her father disapproved of astrology, however, so she prepared her charts in secret at first while busying herself with the Junior League and charities. After college she wrote an astrology column for Seventeen magazine.
Miss Quigley met Nancy Reagan through the entertainer Merv Griffin, a client. From 1972 to 1985, Miss Quigley was a regular guest on his syndicated talk show. A Republican, she had earlier worked on Reagan’s campaigns for governor of California.
After his victory in 1966, Mr. Regan wrote, Reagan delayed his inauguration by nine minutes, until 12:10 a.m. on Jan. 2, 1967, on the astrological advice of Miss Quigley. Reagan denied it, and so did his press secretary, who said the reason for the delay was to prevent the departing governor, a Democrat, from making any last-minute appointments. Miss Quigley volunteered to work in Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980, she said, because she was dazzled by his stars. “He had the most brilliant horoscope I’d ever seen in this country in this century,” she told The Washington Post in 1988. Her relationship with Mrs. Reagan really began in 1981, after the first lady asked her if she could have predicted the assassination attempt against him that March. She said yes, if she had been looking at her charts at the time. The first lady, Mr. Regan wrote, then began paying her for advice on scheduling the president’s time and movements.
Miss Quigley wrote three books on astrology, calling herself “a technician and a very serious one.” She told The New York Times in 1988 that she took on “only people I find extremely interesting.” “I don’t take on ordinary people,” she added.
She met President Reagan only once, she said — at a state dinner in 1985 — but she said she knew the president’s horoscope “upside down.” She spoke of his “almost magical inner will.” After mining the presidential horoscope, she wrote, she advised Mrs. Reagan to urge her husband to cut short his controversial visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where remains of Nazi soldiers were buried, by skipping a planned hourlong picnic. She said he took the advice.
After Mr. Regan divulged Miss Quigley’s astrological role, Mrs. Reagan never spoke to her again, Miss Quigley said. She likened the slight to “buying a Picasso and putting it in your living room and putting adhesive tape over the signature.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 25, 2014, on page D7 of the New York edition with the headline: Joan Quigley, Astrologer to a First Lady, Is Dead at 87