The fortune-teller of Kabul
Guardian Longread, Sep. 1, 2015
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.
Five years earlier, Sharifi had begun working as a shopkeeper’s assistant in Kabul selling carpets, gemstones, and other souvenirs. His customers were the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who came to Afghanistan following the US-led Nato invasion in 2001. They were experts, advisors, aid workers, and adventurers, each with their own ideas about what Afghanistan needed the most. Sharifi sold them chapan robes with vertical stripes, the kind worn by former president Hamid Karzai, or Jinnah caps made from the fur of aborted lamb foetuses – things foreigners could bring home and brag about. Business boomed.
For many young English-speaking Afghans like Sharifi, the early years of the occupation had expanded their sense of what was possible. However, the mood had begun to turn from 2007 onwards, when insurgent attacks rose in response to the dramatic escalation of foreign troops. That year, 1,523 civilians were killed, an increase of more than 50% over the previous year. In the years that followed, levels of violence – suicide bombings, assassinations, ambushes – continued to soar.
As embassies, NGOs and private contracting companies retreated behind concertina wire and blast walls, Sharifi’s customers began to disappear. He had once thought that he might be able to save up for a nice car, perhaps a BMW. Back then, it did not seem vainglorious to think that a shopkeeper’s assistant could aspire to such wealth. But by 2013, for the first time since the American invasion, the shop was struggling to make rent. Its owner let him go. Sharifi found a clerical job on an American military base, but that, too, ended when the camp shut down in 2014 as troops packed up to go home. 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. Spirit mediums inhabit the interstices between the old and the new: in one neighbourhood in old Kabul, a row of falbin fortune-tellers sit receiving visitors just outside a modern medical clinic, to serve those who want to cover all bases. These men – and the occasional woman – are living manifestations of Afghanistan’s complicated relationship with Islam. Before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, Afghanistan was home to many other belief systems: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, as well as pagan traditions. These beliefs left their marks on Afghan culture and still resonate today.
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. In the cab ride across town to meet the spirit medium, Sharifi considered his options: remaining jobless in Afghanistan or trying his luck abroad. At weddings, or over tea, the talk was always about leaving. Recently, a high-school friend had nearly drowned on a boat headed for Australia. The friend was being detained — Sharifi was not sure where exactly — and sometimes he called home to complain. He advised Sharifi to stay put. But Sharifi wanted to make his own mistakes.
On that early winter morning, the taxi deposited Sharifi and Sayed in a busy commercial area at the other end of town, a lively neighbourhood of vegetable sellers, street food vendors, and makeshift bus stops. Shah’s office was not difficult to find; everyone seemed to know where it was. The young men turned onto a side street, known as Koch-e-Halabi Savi, or, Tinsmith Alley, where workers had been making wood-burning stoves since Amanullah Khan’s reign at the turn of the 20th century.
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 (35p, 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.
The experience was comforting, Sharifi told me later. “To hear another voice outside of our heads tell us that everything will be okay. That is what we needed.” Shah was full of platitudes that day – of the “things will get worse before they get better” variety – but among his prognostications was one that Sharifi now clung to. Shah had told them that they still had “journeys” left in them. In other words, should they decide to join the tens of thousands of Afghans leaving for the better shores of Europe or Australia, they would find success.
Sharifi was not what the UN called a refugee candidate, however. He was not a member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, nor was he a political dissident. He was not running away from famine or civil war, but from the slow death that comes from having little control over one’s life. To the rest of the world, Sharifi and Sayed were “fighting-age males,” or, at best, “economic migrants,” and the gates of the richer world were closed to them.
* * *
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.
The war may be winding down for Nato forces, but long after foreign troops have left, the civil conflict in Afghanistan will continue. Forty thousand Afghans were killed or injured in 2014, and so far this year casualties among Afghan police and soldiers have been 70% higher than last year. Nobody knows how long it will take for the inchoate peace talks between the Afghan government and the insurgents to finally stop the killing, or if they ever will.
Every weekday morning, a serpentine queue forms in front of the passport office in Kabul. Nearly every travel agency in the city now runs a side business in fake visas. (The going rate for paperwork and travel arrangements that will get you to Europe ranges from $5,000 to $25,000.) In 2013, the United Nations Refugee Agency registered 36,081 Afghans seeking asylum in developed countries. In 2014, that number increased by almost 40%. Many more are making the journey abroad undetected, to neighbouring Iran or Pakistan. And each day, some of these people wanting to flee Afghanistan – and some who have already left – turn to Shah for guidance.
Afghans who have managed to get to Europe or Australia and then begin the long process of seeking asylum send photos of their lawyers to Shah via free messaging apps. They want to know if these foreign men and women can be trusted. The unlucky ones call him from detention facilities in Greece, Germany and the UK. Many of these calls tend to come through on Sundays, and Shah has learned to keep the afternoons open. As business is brisk, he has also hired an assistant, Sadeq Nazari, whose duties include managing his boss’s five mobile phones – two Galaxys, an iPhone, an HTC, and an ersatz Apple Watch. Nazari, a former metalsmith, is a shy young man. Owing to his aching timidity – downcast eyes, hunched gait, sad and sober countenance – or intense loyalty, he does not like to gossip about his employer. Instead, he spends most of his waking hours sifting through the 70 or so calls and messages that flood in each day through Skype, Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp.
Shah, a jocund man of 45, has a round face that is a mark of wealth in Afghanistan. He is proud to have eaten lunch at the same restaurant for the past eight years. Each time he orders the same dish, mahicha, a lamb shank stew. It is known as the preferred dish of strongmen and gangsters, and Shah believes it to be a healthier and more virile alternative to the standard Afghan fare of kabuli pulao, braised lamb over rice. Every day, around noon, he can be seen slurping meat off the bone, and throwing the remains onto the table with great relish. He takes a childlike joy in eating, and this attitude extends to social interactions as well. His daily routine involves empathising with the misfortunes of others, but he remains seemingly unaffected by the trauma that has become his life’s work.
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 self-consciously modern approach to his work has drawn the ire of the older generation of spirit mediums, who criticise him for operating outside the gentleman’s agreement of the trade. That is, maintain the fiction that you carry divine preternatural powers, encourage deification by others, be vague on sources and methods. None of the established mullas – many of whom enjoy the patronage of powerful men such as warlords, politicians and patriarchs of prominent families – wished to speak to me. Shah pointed to this as an example of their cowardice and chicanery. “I studied. The other mullas, they are uneducated. That’s why they don’t want to speak to the media. They are liars.”
Over the course of a year, I visited Shah more than a dozen times. I met his family, listened patiently as he tried to convert me to Islam, attended his mother’s funeral, and sat through a seance. Together we analysed bootlegged DVDs about paranormal activities and discussed major world events, including the Charlie Hebdo shooting. He made me a brass amulet meant to keep me safe while reporting, and I explained the sorcery of American congressional politics to him.
According to his estimation, Shah sees as many as 1,000 customers a month. Most hear of his service by word of mouth, but others find him through the TV commercials Shah regularly airs on local networks. On these adverts – triumphs of psychedelic music and computer graphics – he promises prospective clients that he could help them quit addictions such as “cigarettes, hashish, or wine”. His clients come from a wide variety of backgrounds. During the time I spent with Shah, his visitors included a man who came to get his daily ration of water blessed, another who worked as a security guard at the presidential palace, a woman whose husband had taken a second wife, a civil servant who came to get his palm read, a boxer who came to seek help for his migraines and a middle-aged woman, a judge, who came complaining of depression.
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.
Sakhi told me that in 2010, he had met and married an Afghan woman in Turkey. They lived there for some time before moving to Afghanistan. Then, in October 2014, his wife disappeared, taking their one-year-old son and $50,000 in cash with her. She had sold the family gold.
For weeks, Sakhi did not know where his wife was. In time, he learned that she was in Iran, on her way to Europe. She was supposedly planning to fabricate a story about her husband being killed in a suicide attack, and use her status as a widow to seek asylum. Sakhi believed that his wife would come back to him if she did not find success. And so he had come to Shah hoping for a “taweez that would make her legs feel heavy, so that she wouldn’t continue on to Europe”.
For Sakhi, a man of modest means, Shah was his only resource; in a country that lacks social services and functioning institutions, men like Shah play the role of a village elder, a judge, a psychiatrist, a fixer of all things. Often, the supernatural is a practical solution to the inconvenient facts of life: extramarital affairs, male infertility and so on. I once heard about a man who was said to have lived for years with a shishak, a lascivious semi-phantom female spirit. In the end, it emerged that he was having an affair with a married woman. There was also the fertility mulla who would help women bear children. Childless women would pray with him in a private room overnight, and soon enough, their bellies would swell.
It would be easy to call Shah an imposter, a swindler playing tricks on the gullible. But he has the numinous quality of a man who considers himself part of a world beyond ordinary human understanding. Many of his clients appear to be in awe of him, and the truth is that they need Shah’s powers as much as he needs their patronage; their faith is a necessary and sufficient condition to Shah’s magic. Shah legitimises their suffering and gives shape to it, offering an explanation and a balm.
* * *
Shah was born in Samangan, a province in northern Afghanistan, and grew up in Kholm, a small town an hour north of the regional capital. Despite a decade of development aid, the region remains largely untouched. In 2015, just 5% of Samanganis have regular electricity and only one out of five can read and write. Most live as they have always lived: growing wheat and barley in the fields, tending to their grapevines and pomegranate trees.
When Shah turned 15, his family moved to Kabul, where he finished high school. Soon after, he claims, he went to work for the national spy agency. In his telling, he rose through the ranks at the National Directorate of Security, and became the head of a criminal investigations unit. Shah claims that 25 men reported to him, although he also told me that he lost touch with his colleagues. I was not able to reach any of them.
Shah, who is usually generous with his time, grows reticent when asked about his former career. Often he begins a sentence with “I used to hunt political criminals,” and ends by saying “I can’t tell you any more.” When I protested, he would simply add: “We were hunting down foreign jihadis.” “Mahfuz as,” he would say – it’s a secret. Better not mention it again. It is difficult to tell how much – if any – of Shah’s account of his career as a spy is true. The only supporting evidence is the terrific marksmanship he displayed when we went shooting at a firing range one afternoon last winter. An old man sitting on a cinderblock charged 1 Afghani (0.01p) for every shot at a neat row of buttons. I got one out of 10 tries. Shah hit the button every time.
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 of metafizik that 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 with djinns. 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” by djinns, Shah said, while assuring me that his interactions with djinns were professional, and wholly in line with teachings of Islamic scripture.
According to the Qur’an, djinns are ghosts: spirits that wander the earth. As God created angels from light and men from clay, he is said to have created djinns out of fire. Djinns live, die, fight, make love and experience passion as humans do. They keep to themselves, and prefer sparsely populated parts of the world: ruins, jungles, marshes. They can also travel long distances at the speed of light. The prophets Solomon and Moses are said to have had the power to speak to djinns. In 10th-century Jerusalem, Solomon even got an army of djinns to build him a 70-metre defensive wall between the Temple Mount and the City of David.
Scholarship is divided on what djinns look like. They are said to be protean, most commonly appearing as birds, cats, dogs, snakes, donkeys, lions, goats – on at least one occasion, even a water buffalo – and other humans, usually beautiful women. Extreme weather can scare them away, as can large dogs. They prefer the hours after sunset and before sunrise.
To summon djinns, you must go to a deserted area, ideally a cemetery, but barring that an unattended construction site on the outskirts of the city will do. Each djinn has a name, and you must write this down on a piece of paper and burn it, along with musk, saffron and incense. “To see them, you have to have belief in them,” Shah explained.
From the day I met him, I had been lobbying Shah to take me to meet the djinns, a trip he makes every few weeks. He always found an excuse to postpone. This was for my own good, he explained. “They can’t do anything to me,” he would say. “But it’s you I am worried about. They could hurt you. You could die.” He would add, “I will check the weather on Google and let you know in the morning,” settling the matter. Invariably, the weather was too cold or too cloudy or too whatever. Once, he told me I could not join him since I was on my period.
Still, his clients come to him, every day of the week except for Friday, the Muslim day of rest, from 8am until 4pm. One Saturday morning last December, it was 20-year-old Asma Ander. A few months earlier, her father had paid a smuggler $15,000 to get her to Hamburg, Germany, where she was to join her fiance. As often happens, the smuggler had run away with the money. His office, which was located in a business centre downtown, now stood empty.
Soon after getting engaged, Ander had dropped out of college to prepare for the trip, and now she found herself unmoored and without prospects. When she told her fiance that the smuggler had disappeared with the money, he accused her of stealing the funds herself. Her face fell as she relayed his message to me. The fiance stopped answering her Viber messages and Skype calls. For an Afghan woman, having an estranged lover can be a kind of death sentence. If he called off the wedding, she would become a marked woman, unfit for any other union. Her failure to marry would itself have consequences: single and uneducated, she would live out her remaining days in her parents’ home, viewed by many as a wasted womb, little more than another mouth to feed.
Ten months after the smuggler disappeared, Ander turned to Shah for help, paying him 100 afghanis (£1) to tell her fortune. Shah said: the smuggler will pick up his phone; he will apologise for his absence; he will get you the visa to Germany as promised; he will take you to Turkey for the agreed-upon sum, and from there, you will take the train north to Hamburg, where you will join your fiance, who will forgive you for the misunderstanding. All will be well. You are to live well there. Ander could not see how her fortune could come true, but for the next few days, she experienced a kind of optimism that she had not felt in a while. “I chose to believe him, because what other option do I have?”
That was in March. As of September, Asma is still waiting. She watches TV with her cousin Sunil, 23, who is also waiting for a visa so that he can join his wife-to-be in London. They flip between Hindi movies and the news, which has been dominated by reports of carnage across the country since spring. “We lead a boring life. There is no entertainment. There is no work, either,” Ander said. Her younger brother Murtazar told me that he worries about her; he catches her crying sometimes.
* * *
Underneath the veneer of monotheism, Afghanistan is a country of competing belief structures. If you know what to look for, remnants of ancient traditions are everywhere: the street children who weave through the interminable Kabul traffic swinging tin cans of incense – not unlike the Christian thurible – meant to ward off the evil eye, or the popular celebration of Nowruz, which marks the Persian new year. These vestigial remains of old beliefs are under constant threat from religious conservatives who consider them haram. Salafists who advocate a strict adherence to the Qur’an, argue that these practices diverge from Islam – a dangerous accusation in a country where blasphemy is punishable by hanging.
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.”
According to his critics, Kohdamani’s personal crusade against fortune-tellers has another dimension. Shah is a Hazara and a Shia, as are most of his customers. They believe, with some justification, that they have been persecuted by the Sunni majority. (Although Sunni Muslims are widely assumed to be the dominant group in Afghanistan, the exact demographic makeup is a matter of ongoing dispute. The last census, attempted in 1979, resulted in the death of 80 census takers.)
In 2009, Kodamani was jailed for three months after Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, the country’s most powerful Shia institution, filed a complaint against him for defaming the Shia faith. Kohdamani, who is Tajik, argued that his arrest was an example of Shia Iran’s unwelcome influence in Afghanistan. The Ulema Council, meanwhile, pointed to Kohdamani’s affiliation with the so-called Northern Alliance, who terrorised the Hazara population during the civil war of the early 90s, are predominately Shia and live in the mountains of central Afghanistan. (In the 2014 presidential campaign, Kohdamani served as a spokesman for Abdul Sayyaf, a warlord whose militia is accused of the death and disappearance of as many as 750 Hazaras in 1993.)
In one of the episodes of Biya wa Bibin, which aired on Emroz TV, the country’s fourth-largest network, Kohdamani profiled Shah. Kohdamani told me that he had to visit Shah twice. On the first visit, Kohdamani alleged, Shah ran away from the camera. Kohdamani claimed that Shah had begged him, off screen, not to shoot the segment, which would involve an intellectual duel between Kohdamani and Shah. According to Kohdamani, Shah confided in him that although he knew the fortune-telling business was a fraud, he was doing what he had to do to provide for his young family. Shah rejects this account. In his telling, Kohdamani did visit him twice, but after a lengthy discussion about Islam, Kohdamani conceded that Shah was a pir, a holy man, and that the two became good friends. Kohdamani denied Shah’s claims of friendship. “I absolutely reject this,” he told me.
In the episode that eventually aired, Kohdamani quizzes a cowering Shah on various aspects of Islam. “Their profession is a crime,” Kohdamani told me. “They think they can just grow a beard and wear a turban and call themselves amulla!” (Shah said that more customers, not fewer, visited him as a result of the show and thanked Kohdamani for the free press.)
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, whose name means martyr in Arabic, 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 taweezcharms 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.
* * *
One Sunday in January, I visited a fortune-teller named Haji Agha. Like Shah, Agha was making most of his living from those who wished to leave Afghanistan. Agha had acquired some renown among visa applicants after he accurately predicted when an Afghan who had worked as an interpreter for the US marines would receive his much-delayed US visa. “He told me the time. He told me the date. He told me there would be loud noise, rain, and that I would fly west. He knew, even down to how many miles I would travel,” the interpreter told me. He did not want to be named, for fear of appearing backward and superstitious in his new life in the United States. “I’m telling you, the man has secret powers.”
When I visited Agha in the plywood guardbox that serves as his office, I asked him about the weather. Afghanistan had been experiencing an unusually warm and dry winter. No snow would mean drought later in the year. Without enough water for farming, more men would end up joining the Taliban in order to feed their families. A warm winter heralded a bloodier spring. Agha, who has only one tooth and a bulbous nose that takes up much of his wizened face, blew on histesbih prayer beads, and thumbed the pearls as if on an abacus, as if he were running some transcendent calculation. He then went into a trance-like state. I checked my phone. Some time passed. It was likely five or so minutes, but felt longer. When Agha spoke, he said: “After seven days, we will have cold weather.” And the level of violence in the country? “The situation will get better.”
A week passed. In the early hours of one Sunday morning in late January, a truck carrying tangerines piled into a gas station, killing three including the driver. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. According to a Kabul police spokesman, the explosion broke a three-week spell of peace the city had enjoyed.
A few hours later, snow began to fall across Kabul. It was the first of the season.
Read at Guardian Longread.