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.