Joseph won't read my coffee cup.
"Not today," he says leaning his chair back against the balcony wall. "I'm really not in the mood."
I put my cup down, disappointed. Reading the future is a hobby for Joseph and his gift isn't something he can turn on at will. Our sessions usually happen unexpectedly, whenever the feeling moves him. Perhaps because of this, Joseph has been eerily accurate over the years. Even when his predictions appear at first to be wrong.
Take the time he predicted the death of my aunt, one cold Saturday morning in February 2000. I'd immediately dismissed this reading because I'd just spoken to my mother the evening before. She was visiting family in Calcutta, India, and was staying with the aunt concerned. I would have heard immediately. I told Joseph he must be mistaken.
"No, I'm sure it's your mother's sister," he insisted, "and it's as though she's already dead."
I shrugged it off. What could anyone possibly see in the bottom of a coffee cup anyway?
Monday morning, the call came. From my tearful cousin I learned that my aunt had died the previous Saturday. My mother had been trying ever since to get a call through to me in Beirut, to no avail.
"Sometimes your phone just rang and rang, but most of the time we couldn't even get a line," she said. "Your mother is going crazy. We thought something had happened to you too."
I lean back against the wall next to Joseph. It's the first Sunday in August, a bright, sunny day. Normally, we'd be lying on the beach, probably in Jbeil or Jiyye, working on future melanomas. But the Israeli air force has been flying over Beirut practically 24 hours a day since the war broke out in mid-July, and the roar of military jets mixed with explosions and the buzz of armed robot drones is our city's new soundtrack. At the moment there is a rumbling sound, and two Israeli fighters glitter in the sunlight, thousands of feet above our heads.
Joseph picks up my cup. I wonder if he's had a sudden flash of intuition, but after peering closely at the grounds and turning the cup around a couple of times, he puts it down again.
"Sorry, I really can't see anything, habibi," he says, using the Arabic word for "my dear," a form of address used liberally in Lebanon.
"It must be all this," he says gesturing toward the jets, "but I just can't seem to concentrate."
We lapse into silence and return to contemplating Beirut. From his house up in the hills in the southeastern suburb of Baabda, the city proper is several hundred meters below us. The Dresdenesque remains of the southern suburbs are less than 5 miles away. The rumbling stops. There is a sharp, shrieking noise followed by a massive explosion. The windows and the door shake and the balcony vibrates. Startled, I wobble sideways and grab Joseph's arm to prevent my chair from tipping over.
Two more explosions follow. We can't see exactly what the Israelis have hit, but within seconds, a cloud of smoke, dust, asbestos and, rumors say, depleted uranium roils into the air. Eventually, some of it will ride the air currents up to Baabda and settle on the leaves of Joseph's lemon trees. He is right. Who can concentrate on reading the future when the present is still so uncertain?
Of course, Michel Hayek had seen this war coming. Three years ago.
"In 2003, I went on TV and told them that I could see Israeli troops everywhere in Lebanon, in the air, in the sea and on the land," he says, of the prediction he made three years after Israel had officially ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. "The presenter said, 'You mean they are going to come back? You must really be crazy.'"
Hayek smiles as he recounts the story. Lunacy is just one of the charges leveled at him over the years. Casually dressed in a smart pair of track-suit bottoms and a crisp T-shirt, dark hair parted roughly down the middle, the 39-year-old Hayek and I are sitting in the lobby of the members club at the luxurious Dbayeh Marina. He is the most famous, some might say most notorious, psychic in a country that is not short on coffee-cup readers, astrologers and mediums.
As anyone familiar with "Arabian Nights" or the short stories of Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz knows, the Arab World is fascinated by fortunetelling. The marked increase in public piety in recent years has made it less easy to admit to practicing or even to believing in fortunetelling, but the tradition persists, and in more culturally open countries like Lebanon, it has even flourished. Psychics like Hayek, Maguy Farah and Samir Zaiter are regularly invited to make predictions on Lebanese television, especially at the end of the year or after a major disturbance, such as a natural disaster or an assassination - or an inconclusive war.
Hayek's gaze is friendly but penetrating. Slightly round-faced, with generous Levantine features, I feel like he is looking into me, not at me, but perhaps I'm just projecting. He continues with his litany of accumulated epithets: liar, harbinger of doom, acolyte of the devil, anti-God, atheist unbeliever.
"And," he adds, delivering another high-octane smile, "they say I get my information from evil spirits."
Less easy to laugh away have been the accusations that he is actually an intelligence agent, an unfortunate and rather dangerous reputation that it is increasingly easy to acquire in the tightly wound Middle East.
Knowing that whatever he says, he'll never be able to end such allegations, Hayek chalks it up as an unpleasant but unavoidable side effect of the accuracy of his predictions. There is, however, the unmistakable hint of bitterness when he talks of his accusers.
"When do the intelligence services go on television to tell people the secrets they know?" he asks, sarcasm coloring his voice. "Have you ever seen that?"
It is easy to understand why so many people have come to that particular conclusion. In a New Year's Eve TV show at the end of 2003, Hayek predicted the deaths of both Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassine, both of whom died within the year. On the same show in 2004, he foresaw the assassinations the following year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, publisher-parliamentarian Gebran Tueni and the failed attempt against the life of former Interior Minister Elias el-Murr. Of the 18 predictions Hayek made that December night, 16 have come true, but it was the murder of Tueni, the only figure Hayek mentioned by name, that really fueled the intelligence accusations.
In fact, a persistent rumor has circulated since 2005 that Hayek was summoned for questioning by Detlev Mehlis, the United Nations-appointed prosecutor initially in charge of investigating the Hariri assassination. The German prosecutor, the rumor went, suspected Hayek of being a mouthpiece for some rogue security services agent or that he was relaying information he had (over)heard from one of his high-profile political clients.
Tina El Meouchi also knows that fine line between seer and spy. Less public than Hayek, she works with astrology and tarot cards and her past accuracy has gained her an impressive following, especially among the region's movers and shakers.
Throughout 2004, the year before the Hariri assassination and the massive pro-democracy demonstrations that finally forced the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon, all but destroying Damascus' 29-year hold over its smaller neighbor, Meouchi was telling clients associated with the former Syrian-installed regime that their era was coming to a close.
That kind of advice didn't go down well.
"They said that I would be sent to Mezze (one of Syria's most infamous political prisons) if I repeated what I was saying," she says, lighting a cigarette and exhaling deeply to one side. "Look, I'm apolitical. I read everybody's cards. I don't care what party they come from."
Although it is difficult to believe now, a year and a half ago talk of Lebanese self-determination could and did cause people to "disappear." Often scared by what she read in her cards that year, Meouchi says she found it impossible to keep it to herself, however dangerous. Readings that suggested the imminent end of Syria's rule in Lebanon became so frequent, she felt she was being shown it for a reason.
So when she was asked to write some predictions for an end of year supplement produced by Lebanon's English-language newspaper the Daily Star in December 2004, Meouchi wrote that in 2005, the country would be "faced with an internal desire for freedom and autonomy." Buried in a welter of other predictions, the line somehow got past the censors.
But when it came time to make predictions for 2006, not even Meouchi was sure she was seeing things correctly. Everything suggested massive destruction, probably war, sometime between July and August.
"Lebanon was amazing this year, we were booming, our best year yet," she sighs. "I was seeing all this in my readings but not believing it in real life."
Debating whether to reveal what she saw, Meouchi confined herself, uncharacteristically, to couching her predictions in softer language. She told her readers to expect "a disturbing end to [July]," during which Lebanon would live "from day to day," that the armed forces would be out on the streets, especially at night and "nervousness would come to control the country."
"I was writing for a woman's magazine," she says. "How could I tell those readers to expect death and destruction?"
Since his infamous predictions at the end of 2004, Hayek has kept a low profile. He declined to make public predictions for 2006, a decision that was widely interpreted as proof that whatever he had seen, it must have been really, really bad.
In a letter to Pierre Dagher, the owner of LBC Television, the channel that for the last few years has broadcast his New Year's Eve predictions, Hayek says he explained why he didn't want to appear in 2005 and made a series of private predictions for Dagher instead.
Toward the end of July, as the war was already under way, the contents of that letter began to circulate on the Internet. It read like a neocon wet dream. Hezbollah would be found guilty of some of last year's assassinations and would splinter into smaller parties. Syrian leader Bashar Assad would be ousted by a military coup and his cronies all placed under arrest and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah would be killed in an Israeli airstrike as he attempted to cross the border into Syria. Of course, Hayek vehemently denies those predictions were his.
Based on purely anecdotal evidence - in other words, a straw poll of friends, associates and even the odd stranger encountered at restaurants and cafes - a lot of Lebanese don't believe the denial. Almost without exception, those asked pointed out that whether they believed in them or not, given the politically explosive nature of the predictions, they could see why Hayek would want to distance himself.
Their logic is impeccable. Although I can't see Hassan Nasrallah or even Bashar Assad making decisions based on a psychic's vision of the future, given the Byzantine obscurity of Middle Eastern politics, where more is revealed by suggestion than by deed, it is conceivable that people who know that they are in the cross hairs of one regional and at least one international power anyway might perceive the predictions as some kind of veiled threat, a warning to behave. Right now, I wouldn't want my name associated with those predictions either.
"You don't know how many people write things and then put my name to it," Hayek sighs. "I tell everyone, unless I say it on television, it is not me saying these things."
Although he denied authorship immediately, shortly after the letter appeared Hayek received an anonymous phone call telling him to "take care" of his properties in his hometown of Beit Shabab. A few days later, the gas station he owns "accidentally" burned down.
"I did see something about Nasrallah," he says, leaning forward and tapping my notebook. "I saw a triangle. At the top it said 'Hassan Nasrallah/Hezbollah.' At the bottom left, it said 'conflict, blood, destruction' and at the bottom right corner it said 'a gift to Lebanon.'"
As to what exactly that means, Hayek can't, or won't, elaborate.
For her part, Meouchi sees at least two years of instability ahead for Lebanon, although she believes any conflicts will be much smaller. She also firmly rules out the possibility of civil war. At least in Lebanon.
Hayek has yet to release his long-awaited post-conflict predictions, but in a recent interview he predicted a Gaza-like situation developing, possibly in southern Lebanon, where Israel and Hezbollah will continue to clash.
There, at least, both Meouchi and Hayek appear to be reading the same cards as the rest of Lebanon. Call it cynicism, bred of years of bitter experience, or call it a savvy reading of an increasingly unsavory situation, but with Hezbollah still armed, Israel still occupying the south, the peacekeeping forces still not in place and both Iran and Syria gloating about the "triumph" of the resistance, the Lebanese do not believe the current cease-fire will last.
I think again about Hayek's triangle. Could that "gift" be the waning of Hezbollah's star? The realization by the international community that only politics, not war, can end this standoff? Or could it be that by surviving the Israeli onslaught, Hezbollah's "gift" will be to inspire armed resistance elsewhere in the Arab world?
That's precisely the problem with predictions. Nebulous and imprecise, they are open to endless interpretation. But then in a world where everyone from George Bush to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now claiming (divine) victory in Lebanon, maybe in the Middle East, the difference between prophecy and politics isn't as wide as we would like to believe.