A Fortune Teller Exposed by war


When the Syrian war broke out, Umm Turki was in crisis. Most visitors would ask her about a missing or detained person. Her skills in trickery and manipulation proved useless, as the situation was different here.

09 August 2018

Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

(Damascus) On a large farm on the airport road, where a lavish stone villa stands, dozens of people sat waiting for their appointment with the fortune teller, Umm Turki. It was usually hard to get an appointment, as though one was scheduling a visit to a well-known nerve or heart doctor. Few were the lucky ones who managed to get an appointment a month after calling for one.

Umm Turki who is in her fifties is a famous fortune teller in the countryside. Simple people still believe in the stories of jinn [supernatural creatures in Islam], mediums and darb al-mandal [striking the magic circle in which the fortune teller sits when he conjures up spirits] to predict the future. People sought her out to find out the hidden details of a theft, adultery, murder, their roots or a lost identity. The tricks of Umm Turki that resemble those of other fortune tellers worked their magic on these people. The farm was filled with evil and creepy forms — tar-painted roosters, black cats, models of hay and sticks in each corner—some burnt and others lined with pins and sharp objects— and mummified snakes and lizards.

Seeing this was enough to deprive visitors of any sense of logical reasoning or doubt and to leave them with a general feeling of unsafety. Then, there were the shaqi’a — little kids eavesdropping on conversations and curious women asking about the purpose of the visit with fake innocence. This is how Umm Turki got her information about each visitor and surprised them with knowing the reason for their visit before they even revealed it. Believing in her supernatural powers and deep secret, the visitor would fall victim to Umm Turki’s manipulation and redirection of his doubts from one place to another.

Physically, Umm Turki was a big woman with a hoarse voice and serious and rough features. Faced with her phony confidence, the visitor would stutter. The lined up crowds in front of her door gave her credibility and attracted many similar clients. Her success stories motivated many people seeking answers to come to her. In fact, more often than not, the truth was evident to Umm Turki, as the visitor would already know the answers but would not dare admit them. It was not difficult for her to detect when the visitor or whoever was with him was lying, for she had mastered the art of lying. And, a liar cannot fool a fellow professional.

Umm Turki made a fortune from her job— a fortune which protected her from the authorities and spared her jail. Her clients included officers and officials who would come to her for fun sometimes and because they believed her other times. Occasionally, she was a collaborator in a prank or mean joke. Once, an officer visited her, asking her to tell a fellow officer that he would die of a chronic disease.

As a result, the victim of the prank spent lump sums of money on tests locally and abroad. But, everything proved he was fine. He was not convinced until his friend told him it was just a prank. The next day, the duped officer went to Umm Turki’s house and shot her in the hand, as a result of which she lost two fingers. But, she exploited this deformation and fabricated a story claiming that a jinn bit off her fingers in exchange for leading her to the murderer of a child.

When the Syrian war broke out, Umm Turki was in crisis. Most visitors would ask her about a missing or detained person. Her skills in trickery and manipulation proved useless, as the situation was different here. The saying that “even blue genies could not find them” [a saying that reflects the impossibility of knowing the whereabouts of a certain person] was totally justified. So, Umm Turki changed her tactics. Sometimes, she would say the jinn were collaborating with the security institution and would not cooperate.

Other times, she would tell the mother, father or wife of the victim what they wanted to hear and promised them good news soon. When she found out the likelihood of bad news was higher, she would change her approach and expect the worst to preserve her reputation among clients. But, in reality, having answers or not having them did not affect her work. Visitors kept flocking, waiting and asking. They paid whatever she asked for, because their desperation to discover any piece of information blinded them. Umm Turki’s clientele changed. Despair and fear for their loved ones drove educated parents who normally would not buy into the tricks of fortune-telling to Umm Turki. They were ready to do anything, even if it was illogical and scientifically impossible.

Turki (20), Umm Turki’s son, was not pragmatic like his mother. He was an only boy out of five girls, and he was exempt from conscription. However, he was impulsive and hasty. All his and his mother’s attempts to get him the technical school certificate failed. Umm Turki could not predict the answers to the exam questions for her son. Turki’s failure in school would have been bad marketing for Umm Turki’s metaphysical capacities, if her clients were to use their minds.

The young man jumped from one profession to the other, and when most of his friends in Al-Kaswa in Rif Dimashq held weapons against the regime in 2013, he joined them without blinking. It was as though he was teaming up with a group for a computer battle game. Umm Turki felt ashamed, facing her acquaintances and clients who had security connections. She told them she washed her hands of her son until kingdom come and that she asked the jinn to grant the government victory against the insurgents and terrorists, even if that cost her son his life.

But, in secret, she would carry amulets and repeat spells, asking the jinn which she knew were illusions to protect her lost son. She was desperate and worried. She tried to contact him by all possible means to convince him to retreat from the fights so that they could travel far away from the jinn and people of that country. Her fortune was enough to provide her with a good and decent life away from that place.

The regime's army proved faster than the jinn. An informant planned an ambush against Turki and a group of his friends. And, Turki vanished into thin air. Umm Turki’s connections with security officers and psychic mediums did not help in finding her son. Her money which saved her from jail repeatedly was not useful either to reveal his place or release him from prison. She paid millions to brokers and crooks, but in vain. Although she was almost certain they were liars, she chased the hope of finding Turki.

She forgot that she had openly cursed her son and wished him death in front of the security officers, and she begged them to help her find him. She continued working without showing her son’s disappearance affected her. She had to pull herself together to continue making money, because she would need it to free Turki sooner or later. When asked about him, she would say she knew his whereabouts and that he was fine, claiming he would serve the needed time to learn the lesson.

A year and a half later, somebody called Umm Turki to pick up the identity card of her son who had died in jail. She did, then returned to her farm, kicked out all the clients, and burnt the amulets and the mummified lizards and snakes. She threw away the cats and roosters. She shut the door of the villa, leaving the farm gate open, and left. The town folk never saw her again.

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