Lebanese psychics keep a nation on its toes

BEIRUT — When psychics and astrologers jostle for air time on Dec. 31 to tell TV viewers what to expect in 2006, sceptics may be tempted to switch channels.

But, after last year’s predictions, many will think twice.

Take Michel Hayek, Lebanon’s most famous psychic, whose prognostications for 2005 bore an eerie resemblance to the reality that followed.

In his once-a-year appearance on LBC TV, which airs internationally, Hayek said a huge attack in the capital would disrupt life in downtown Beirut. Six weeks later a car bomb killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others, sparking massive protests in the downtown area that forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

He also warned that five prominent Lebanese would be targeted for assassination, including anti-Syrian lawmaker Gibran Tueni, an unnamed minister and President Emile Lahoud.

Tueni was brutally murdered Dec. 12, Defence Minister Elias Murr survived a car bombing July 12, and journalist and activist Samir Kassir and politician George Hawi, both anti-Syrian, perished in car bombs in June. There has been no reported attempt on Lahoud’s life, and Hayek freely acknowledges he makes mistakes.

Then, there’s Carmen Chammas, who will make a special New Year’s Eve appearance to talk astrology. On Feb. 14, she told radio listeners that it was the worst possible day for Scorpios, who should “be vigilant and keep your eyes open.” Four hours and 50 minutes later, Hariri was killed.

He was a Scorpio.

Whether or not one believes that any of this is more than pure chance, its effect is acutely felt.

Last spring, Hayek had to appear on TV to deny rumours he expected anti-Syrian protesters to be harmed in a violent act during a demonstration. And this month phone text messages circulated saying Hayek had warned of a weekend attack in downtown Beirut. Although Hayek emphatically denied saying it, downtown on that weekend was almost deserted.

Islam forbids fortune-telling and several clerics have issued edicts against it, notably Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Barrak, who said “Muslims should beware of those charlatans.” Nevertheless, Arab newspapers run horoscopes, even in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and psychics operate by word of mouth.

Lebanon, with its mix of Muslims and Christians, is the freest Arab country, where psychics and astrologers have regular TV and radio shows.

Hayek, a 38-year-old Christian, strongly defends his work, saying he tunes in to “the billions and billions of vibrations in the sphere … like a wireless device that doesn’t stop, even during sleep.” If the clerics are so opposed, he asks, why don’t they “rise up against Bill Gates, who invented new computer programmes?” Yasmine Abdullah, an Egyptian who hosts astrologers on her popular weekly “Stars and Horoscopes” show on Dream TV, said her guests stick to analysis rather than prediction when responding to callers, “because in Egypt it’s not as open as in Beirut, for religion reasons.” But last Dec. 31, she broke tradition by hosting a New Year’s Eve special that featured predictions — the first time such a programme had aired on Egyptian TV, she said.

“I believe if you are able to predict bits and pieces through astronomy, this is because God has created a certain code for us to read,” she said. “We are not invading something we should not know.” Chammas said she tries to be diplomatic when giving bad news because Arab societies “cannot handle too much frankness.” “I believe in her predictions. Most of them come true,” said Mona Mehio, a housewife waiting in line for Chammas to sign her latest book, containing predictions for 2006.

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