Joseph won’t read my coffee cup.

“Not today,” he says leaning his chair back against the balcony wall, “I’m really not in the mood.”

I put my cup down, disappointed. Reading the future is a hobby for Joseph and his gift isn’t something he can turn on at will and our sessions usually happen unexpectedly, whenever the feeling moves him. Perhaps because of this, Joseph has been eerily accurate over the years. Even when his predictions appear at first to be wrong.

Take the time he predicted the death of my aunt, one cold Saturday morning in February 2000. I’d immediately dismissed this reading as I’d just spoken to my mother the evening before. As she was visiting family in Calcutta and was staying with the aunt concerned, I would have heard immediately. I told Joseph he must be mistaken.

“No, I’m sure it’s your mother’s sister,” he insisted, “and it’s as though she’s already dead.”

I shrugged it off. What could anyone possibly see in the bottom of a coffee cup anyway?

Monday morning, the call came. From my tearful cousin I learned that my aunt had died the previous Saturday. My mother had been trying ever since to get a call through to me in Beirut, to no avail.

“Sometimes your phone just rang and rang but most of the time, we couldn’t even get a line,” she said. “Your mother is going crazy, we thought something had happened to you too.”

I lean back against the wall next to Joseph. It’s the first Sunday in August, a bright, sunny day. Normally, we’d be lying on the beach, probably in Jbeil or Jiyye, working on future melanomas. There is a rumbling sound as two Israeli fighters glitter in the sunlight, thousands of feet above our heads. The IAF has been flying over Beirut practically 24 hours a day since the war broke out in mid-July. The roar of military jets mixed with the mosquito buzz of armed robot drones and barrages of explosions is Beirut’s new soundtrack.

Joseph picks up my cup. I wonder if he’s had a sudden flash of intuition but after peering closely at the grounds and turning the cup around a couple of times, he puts it down again.

"Sorry, I really can't see anything, habibi." he says, using the Arabic word for 'my dear', a term of endearment used so liberally in Lebanon, that it instantly transforms even complete strangers into cherished intimates. 

“It must be all this,” he says gesturing towards the jets, “but I just can’t seem to concentrate.”

We lapse into silence and return to contemplating Beirut. From his house up in the hills in the south-eastern suburb of Baabda, the city proper is several hundred metres below us. The already Dresdenesque remains of the southern suburbs are less than 5 miles away. The rumbling stops. There is a sharp, shrieking noise followed by a massive explosion. The windows and the door shake violently and the balcony vibrates. Startled, I wobble sideways and I grab Joseph’s arm to prevent my chair from tipping over.

Two more explosions follow. We can’t see exactly what the Israelis have hit as their target is hidden by the buildings in front of us, but within seconds, an evil-looking cloud of smoke, dust, asbestos and (if some of the rumours are to be believed) depleted uranium too, roils into the air. Eventually, some of it will ride the air currents up here and settle on the leaves of Joseph’s lemon trees. He is right. Who can concentrate on reading the future when the present is still so uncertain?

Of course, Michel Hayek had seen this war coming. Years ago.

“In 2003, I went on TV and told them that I could see Israeli troops everywhere in Lebanon, in the air, in the sea and on the land,” he says, of the prediction he made three years after Israel had officially ended their 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. “The presenter said ‘you mean they are going to come back? You must really be crazy’.

Hayek smiles as he recounts the story. Lunacy is just one of the charges levelled at him over the years. Casually dressed in a smart pair of tracksuit bottoms and a crisp t-shirt, dark hair parted roughly down the middle, the 38-year-old Hayek and I are sitting in the lobby of the members club at the luxurious Dbaye Marina. He is Lebanon’s most famous, some might say most notorious, psychic and this in a country that is not short on coffee cup readers, astrologers and mediums.

As anyone familiar with the 1001 Nights or for that matter the short stories of modern writers like Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz will know, the Arabs are just as fascinated by fortune telling as anyone else. Modernity, religious injunctions against belief in such ‘magic’ and quite possibly the fact that the old colonial powers frequently depicted the Arabs as overly superstitious in order to confirm Europe’s ‘superiority’ and justify its domination of the region, has significantly reduced public espousals of sorcery.

The marked increase in public piety in recent years has made it less easy to admit to practicing or even to believing in fortune telling but the tradition persists and in more culturally open countries like Lebanon, it has even flourished. Psychics like Hayek, Maguie Farah and Samir Zeiaitir are regularly invited to make predictions on television, especially at the end of the year or after a major disturbance, such as a natural disaster or an assassination, while dozens of others write monthly columns or offer consultations at home.

 Slightly round faced, with generous Levantine features, Hayek’s gaze is friendly but penetrating. I feel like he is looking into me, not at me, but perhaps I’m just projecting. He continues with his litany of accumulated epithets; liar, harbinger of doom, acolyte of the Devil, anti-God, atheist unbeliever.

“And”, he adds, delivering another high-octane smile, “they say I get my information from evil spirits”.

Less easy to laugh away have been the accusations that he is actually an intelligence agent, an unfortunate and rather dangerous reputation increasingly easily acquired in the tightly wound Middle East.

Knowing that whatever he says, he’ll never be able to end such allegations, Hayek chalks it up as an unpleasant but unavoidable side effect of the accuracy of his predictions. There is, however, the unmistakable hint of bitterness in his voice when he talks of his accusers.

“When do the intelligence services go on television to tell people the secrets they know?” he asks, sarcasm colouring his voice. “Have you ever seen that?”

It is easy to understand why so many people have come to that particular conclusion. In a New Year’s Eve show at the end of 2003, Hayek predicted the deaths of both Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassine. On the same show in 2004, he foresaw the assassinations the following year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, publisher-parliamentarian Gebran Tueni and the failed attempt against the life of former Interior Minister Elias el-Murr. Of the 18 predictions Hayek made that December night, 16 have come true but it was the murder of Tueni, the only figure Hayek mentioned by name, which really fuelled the intelligence accusations.

In fact, a persistent rumour has circulated since last year that Hayek was summoned for questioning by Detlev Mehlis, the United Nations-appointed prosecutor initially in charge of investigating the Hariri assassination. The German prosecutor, the rumour went, suspected Hayek of being a mouthpiece for some rogue security services agent or that he was relaying information he had (over)heard from one of his high-profile political clients.

Tina Meouchi also knows that fine line between seer and spy. Less public than Hayek, she works with astrology and Tarot cards and her past accuracy has gained her an impressive following, especially amongst the region’s movers and shakers.

Throughout 2004, the year before the Hariri assassination and the massive pro-democracy demonstrations that finally forced the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon, all but destroying Damascus’ 29 year hold over its smaller neighbour, Meouchi was telling clients associated with the former Syrian-installed regime that their era was coming to a close.

That kind of advice didn’t go down well.

“They said that I would be sent to Mezze (one of Syria’s most infamous political prisons) if I repeated what I was saying,” she says, lighting a cigarette and exhaling deeply to one side. “Look, I’m apolitical. I read everybody’s cards. I don’t care what party they come from.”

Although it is difficult to believe now, 18 months ago, talk of Lebanese self-determination could and did cause people to ‘disappear’. Often scared by what she read in her cards that year, Meouchi says she found it impossible to keep it to herself, however dangerous. Readings suggesting the end of Syria’s rule in Lebanon were cropping up so often, she felt she was being shown it for a reason.

So when she was asked to write some predictions for an end of year supplement produced by Lebanon’s English-language newspaper the Daily Star in December 2004, Meouchi wrote that in 2005, the country would be ‘faced with an internal desire for freedom and autonomy’. Buried in a welter of other predictions, the line somehow got past the censors.

But when it came time to make predictions for 2006, not even Meouchi was sure she was seeing things correctly. Everything suggested massive destruction, probably war, sometime between July and August.

“Lebanon was amazing this year, we were booming, our best year yet,” she sighs. “I was seeing all this in my readings but not believing it in real life.”

Debating whether or not to reveal what she saw, Meouchi confined herself, uncharacteristically, to couching her predictions in softer language. She told her readers to expect “a disturbing end to (July)”, during which Lebanon would live “from day to day”, that the armed forces would be out on the streets, especially at night and “nervousness would come to control the country”.

“I was writing for a woman’s magazine,” she says, “how could I tell those readers to expect death and destruction?”

Since his infamous predictions eighteen months ago, Hayek has kept a low profile. He declined to make public predictions for 2006, a decision that was widely interpreted as proof that whatever he had seen, it must have been really, really bad.

In a letter to Pierre Dagher, the owner of LBC Television, the channel that for the last few years has broadcast his New Year predictions, Hayek says he explained why he didn’t want to appear that year and made a series of private predictions for Dagher instead.

Towards the end of July, as the war was already underway, the contents of that letter began to circulate on the Internet. It read like a Neo-Con wet dream. Hezbollah would be found guilty of some of last year’s assassinations and would splinter into smaller parties. Bashar Assad would be ousted by a military coup in Syria and his cronies all placed under arrest and Hassan Nasrallah would be killed in an Israeli air strike as he attempted to cross the border into Syria. Of course, Hayek vehemently denies those predictions were his.

Based on purely anecdotal evidence – in other words, a straw poll of friends, associates and even the odd stranger encountered at restaurants and cafes  – a lot of Lebanese don’t believe the denial. Almost without exception, those asked pointed out that whether they believed in them or not, given the politically explosive nature of the predictions, they could see why Hayek would want to distance himself.

Their logic. Is impeccable. Although I can’t see Hassan Nasrallah or even Bashar Assad making decisions based on a some vision of the future, in the Byzantine obscurity of Middle Eastern politics, where more is revealed by suggestion than by deed, it is conceivable that people who know that they are squarely in the sights of both Israel and America might perceive the predictions as some kind of veiled threat, a warning to behave, or else. Right now, I wouldn’t want my name associated with them either.

“You don’t know how many people write things and then put my name to it,” Hayek sighs. “I tell everyone, unless I say it on television, it is not me saying these things.”

Although he denied authorship immediately, a few days after the letter appeared, Hayek received an anonymous phone call telling him to ‘take care’ of his properties in his hometown of Beit Shebab. A few days later, the gas station he owns ‘accidentally’ burned down.

“I did see something about Nasrallah,” he says, leaning forward and tapping my notebook. “I saw a triangle. At the top it said Hassan Nasrallah/Hezbollah. At the bottom left, it said ‘conflict, blood, destruction’ and at the bottom right corner it said ‘a gift to Lebanon’.”

As to what exactly that means, Hayek can’t, or won’t elaborate.

For her part, Meouchi sees at least two years of instability ahead for Lebanon, although she believes any conflicts will be much smaller. She also firmly rules out the possibility of civil war. At least in Lebanon.

Hayek has yet to release his long awaited post-conflict predictions but in a recent interview, he predicted a Gaza-like situation developing, possibly in southern Lebanon, where Israeli-Hezbollah will continue to clash.

There at least, both Meouchi and Hayek appear to be reading the same cards as the rest of Lebanon. Call it cynicism, bred of years of bitter experience, or call it a savvy reading of an increasingly unsavoury situation, but with Hezbollah still armed, Israel still occupying the south, the peace-keeping forces still not in place and both Iran and Syria gloating about the ‘triumph’ of the resistance, the Lebanese do not believe the current ceasefire will last.

I think again about Hayek’s triangle. Could that ‘gift’ be the waning of Hezbollah’s star? The realisation by the international community that only politics, not war can end this standoff? Or could it be that by surviving the Israeli onslaught, Hezbollah’s ‘gift’ will be to inspire armed resistance elsewhere in the Arab World?

That’s precisely the problem with predictions. Nebulous and imprecise, they are open to endless interpretation. But then in a world where everyone from George Bush to Mahmoud Ahmedinajad is now claiming (divine) victory in Lebanon, I wonder whether the difference in the Middle East between prophecy and politics isn’t as wide as we would all like to believe.

Originally published on Salon