As the clock ticked toward midnight on New Year’s Eve, Leila Abdel Latif, a Lebanese fortuneteller, sat under the glaring lights of a television studio here and unveiled to viewers across the Arab world what 2015 held in store.
Wearing a black pantsuit and a diamond necklace, Ms. Abdel Latif peered through reading glasses and read from a stack of cards two inches thick, stating her predictions one by one.
Chaos would rock Beirut. Bloodshed would roil Iraq. Blacks and whites would clash in the United States. A band would win international fame for reviving the hits of Michael Jackson.
Such predictions have put Ms. Abdel Latif among the most prominent of the self-declared soothsayers who appear on competing Lebanese television channels in what has become a widely watched New Year’s Eve tradition in the Arab world.
In a region where religious extremism is on the rise and many governments criminalize divination, Lebanon stands apart for giving its fortunetellers a prominent role.
Besides entertaining, they often give private consultations to powerful officials. Ms. Abdel Latif says her clients have included ministers, members of Parliament, kings and presidents, although she refuses to discuss names.
During an interview, Ms. Abdel Latif, a short, chatty, 55-year-old mother of two, was dismissive of other divination efforts.
“I don’t believe in horoscopes, tarot, coffee cups or palm reading,” she said. “Every person has the sixth sense, but some people are stronger than others.”
Even though divination is deemed a sin in Islam, Ms. Abdel Latif calls herself a devout Muslim and considers her revelations a gift.
“God gives the blessings of wealth, intelligence and health,” she said. “This is the blessing of vision.”
Ms. Abdel Latif’s holiday show is the yearly highlight of her monthly program, “History Sees,” on Lebanon’s LBC network. The show kicked off this year with a slick mash-up of cherry-picked predictions from recent years followed by news clips appearing to show them coming true.
In the video, Ms. Abdel Latif said that Lebanon’s parliamentary elections would be delayed, as indeed they were. She said that Prime Minister Najib Mikati would leave power, as indeed he did. And she predicted an important role for Tammam Salam, now the prime minister.
Then two hosts in tuxedos peppered her with questions and she responded by reading her cards. While most queries focused on Lebanon, her predictions spanned the globe.
She told of terrorist attacks in the United States and fear in Europe. She foresaw improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. She said the Syrian government and the opposition would begin negotiations to end the civil war, but that President Bashar al-Assad would remain in power.
As is often the case, many of her predictions were so general they could apply to a range of events. She warned that Beirut would “shake” three times in the coming months, once because of “a crime or an important tragic event.” Other predictions are safe bets, like continued bloodshed in Iraq and attacks in Gaza.
Ms. Abdel Latif sometimes predicts moves that are made soon after by Lebanese politicians, raising suspicions among many Lebanese that officials tip her off to give their actions an air of destiny.
While she denies accepting payment from officials, her fame clearly gets her perks. During the show, she thanked both a Lebanese jeweler for her necklace and the high-end designer who made her outfit, predicting he would win international prizes. She also thanked a Lebanese businessman who, for no clear reason, gave her a Jeep.
Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said that a combination of Lebanon’s relative social openness and the uncertainty of life there has helped make it the capital of fortunetelling in a region where many countries jail accused sorcerers and Saudi Arabia sometimes beheads them.
“The Lebanese live in a country where the political situation is unpredictable and where the future of the country itself is uncertain,” she said. “When people don’t have faith in the safety net of social institutions, they turn to these clairvoyants to find out what happens next.”
Ms. Abdel Latif says her abilities surfaced early, giving her childhood a Harry Potter-like drama. At age 12, she said, she foresaw the death of her grandfather. At 14, she visualized her mother crying because something had happened to her new husband, who died soon after, she said. At 18, she became engaged to a university professor, but felt she would not spend her life with him. He, too, soon died, she said.
She made her first television appearance 20 years ago and her fame has grown since. Now, Ms. Abdel Latif says that she has been on every Lebanese station except Al Manar, which belongs to Hezbollah. She gives private consultations for $200 an hour, more than many Lebanese doctors charge.
Her record is mixed. She claims to have foreseen the Sept. 11 attacks, although there is no evidence that she did.
She once predicted “people wearing black at the Hariri palace.” Soon after, Rafik Hariri, then the prime minister, was killed in a car bombing.
Her predictions from last year’s New Year’s show are also a mixed bag. She said that a female artist would fall sick and maybe not recover. So when Sabah, an 87-year-old Lebanese diva, died in November, some said Ms. Abdel Latif had called it.
But she also predicted that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would not become president of Egypt, which he did in June.
When asked about predictions that failed to pan out, Ms. Abdel Latif often says they need more time and compares herself to Nostradamus, the storied French seer who is credited by some with predicting world events centuries in advance.
While maintaining that her success rate is between 75 and 90 percent, she admitted that she sometimes misses.
“We are all human in the end,” she said.
The New York Times
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