Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Telling Fortunes in Kabul

Despite a government crackdown, supernatural practices remain as popular as ever in Afghanistan.
By Salma Rasa
  • An Afghan woman's face is caught in the light at the Karti Sakhi shrine in Kabul. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
    An Afghan woman's face is caught in the light at the Karti Sakhi shrine in Kabul. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Syed Razaee spends his days sitting in a wooden booth in the second district of Kabul city, selling talismans and reading palms. Wearing a white hat to indicate his supposed scholarship, he said that in fact he had inherited the business from his father.

“When I was a kid, my father provided people with amulets and I learned this art from him,” the 42-year-old told IWPR. “I studied only until 10th grade and after that I started working because my father died. I had to support my family financially.”

Rezaee said he saw about 15 customers each day, offering a range of services.

 “I am a palm-reader, a fortuneteller and sell amulets, to help the public as well as to provide for my own family,” he said, adding that he sat down to make his charms three times a day; in the early morning, at noon and in the evening.

“My amulets contain verses of the Quran which have healing properties.”

There is a long history of belief in such magical practices in Afghanistan.

Palm-readers and fortunetellers claim that they have been gifted with extraordinary powers, while specialist talisman inscribers say they can fix all sorts of problems, from diseases and infertility to bringing lovers together, tracking down lost or stolen items, and boosting or destroying a business.

Their methods include blowing on their clients, scraping them with a thorn or knife blade, hitting them with thin, wet sticks, drawing geometrical shapes, writing mysterious figures or copying out verses of the Koran to make an amulet.

Talismans often come with special guidelines instructing that they should be buried, burnt, or dipped in water which must then be drunk by the customer. Sometimes the talisman is hung around the neck of a sick person, or placed under a pillow.

Although forbidden in Islam and outlawed under Afghan law, these traditions have become so ingrained that many believe they are part and parcel of the Muslim religion.

Clerics warn that they contradict Islamic precepts and lead to exploitation by charlatans.

“There is no doubt that Quran verses are healing, but only when help is sought directly from God,” said Ghayasuddin, a 55-year old religious scholar.

“People who write and sell amulets are not scholars and don’t have the correct understanding of Islam. They are uneducated or have very little knowledge. People should not commit sins by going to them… and people who sell amulets are [also] committing a sin.”

However, Rezaee argued that he provided a valuable service.

“People who have health problems which can’t be treated by doctors come to me and I write amulets for them,” he continued. “I don’t ask for a specific amount of money. They can pay as much as they can afford. Rich people pay 100 dollars and people who live abroad send 300-400 dollars by bank transfer and I help them with their problems via telephone.”

He said that people were free to criticize those in his profession.

“What should I do? There aren’t other good jobs in our country. I built my house through selling amulets. Luckily, I have many customers. People who come to me once come again and even recommend me to their relatives. People who believe in us should visit us and those who don’t trust or believe in us don’t need to visit us.”

Indeed, some customers are very pleased with the service such soothsayers provide.

Pari Gul, 30, stopped to talk to IWPR on her way back from visiting a street where amulet sellers displayed their wares.

She said that her mother-in-law had used an amulet to cast a spell on her. As a result, Pari Gul was suffering from a variety of illnesses that did not respond to medical treatment.

“I went many times to see doctors, but I didn’t get better. One day my aunt suggested that I go see an amulet seller because she thought somebody had enchanted me, so I went to see the famous Mullah Shamshiri in Taimani. He charged me 300 dollars, but now I feel good.”

Romance is another major source of income for the talisman writers and fortune-tellers, especially when it comes to young people who face difficulties in getting married.

Hashmatullah Naweed, a 20-year old student at a private university in Kabul, has been queuing for hours to see renowned amulet seller Agha Sahb.

He said he had fallen in love with a fellow student whose family did not approve of the match.

In an effort to make his beloved’s father accept him as a suitor, Naweed had reluctantly turned to sorcery.

“This is the first time I’ve taken such step despite knowing that it is a sin, but I have to do it. Agha Sahb doesn’t charge much. In fact, even if I give him a small amount of money as a gift, he will not say.”

Naweed said he would not recommend this course of action.

“I don’t want other people to do what I am doing because I know it’s not an Islamic act and I don’t want others to commit the same sin as me.”

OFFICIAL CRACKDOWN

Jamshed Rasa, a psychologist who works in a private clinic, acknowledged that these traditional methods might have a placebo effect, especially for people suffering from emotional distress or mental problems.

“Some people who suffer from anxiety or depression go to amulet sellers because they believe that this would help. By chance, some get better, but it doesn’t happen for everybody.”

He argued that modern medicine was preferable to seeking out fortunetellers and risking serious harm.

“If somebody has mental problems, today he or she can be treated and have their symptoms controlled by medicine, because science has diagnosed and identified the causes of all these issues. It is completely wrong to turn to amulet sellers when a person has mental problems.”

Fortune-telling and similar practices are illegal in Afghanistan, and only Islamic scholars have the right to write and sell amulets.

The ministry of haj and religious affairs has recently stepped up efforts to combat the soothsayer and talisman business ever since a brutal incident in March 2015 when a young woman called Farkhunda was beaten to death by a mob near the Shah Du Shamshera shrine in Kabul.

She had protested against an amulet seller who then accused her of burning a copy of the Quran.

Mullawi Safiualllah, of the ministry of haj and religious affairs, told IWPR that they had recently closed down the operations of 250 amulet sellers and pam readers.

Officials from the ministry of haj and religious affairs said that they were working in coordination with police and local lawyers to identify amulet sellers and palmists.

Safiualllah said, “Some are really good scholars who use Quranic verses in their amulets, but there also some frauds. Our panel investigates to differentiate between scholars and fraudsters and then acts according to our procedure.”

He said that amulet sellers whose works were in accordance with Sharia would be permitted to continue working.

 “It is the responsibility of the haj and religious affairs ministry to prevent and control such professions,” said Fraidoon Obaidi, head of criminal investigations at Kabul police headquarters.

He said that his department was working closely with the religious authorities.

“The commission has arrested many amulet sellers at their shops and homes where they were operating. The commission has also shut their shops and their hunt will continue.”

The traditions may have become part and parcel of Afghan culture, but some people are happy that the police are finally cracking down on amulet sellers.

Monisa, 28, has been married for ten years but has never been able to get pregnant.

She said that despite being an educated woman she had wasted a staggering amount of money on amulets and palm-readers in the hope of becoming a mother.

“I went to many doctors in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to seek help for my problem. I also went to amulet sellers and they asked for cash, chickens, sheep, silver and silk to solve my problem. However, nothing worked and everything proved to be useless and ineffective.”

Monisa now bitterly regrets her decision to turn to amulet sellers for help, and wants her money back.

“Amulet sellers took everything I owned, all my wealth. They are robbers. The government should punish them because they deceive people by misusing the word of God.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.