Fortune teller Abdel Latif keeps Lebanon glued to TV

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As the clock ticked towards midnight on New Year's Eve, Leila Abdel Latif, a Lebanese fortune teller, 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, Abdel Latif peered through reading glasses and read from a 5cm-thick stack of cards, stating her predictions.

Chaos would rock Beirut. 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 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 criminalise divination, Lebanon stands apart for giving its fortune tellers a prominent role. Besides entertaining, they often give private consultations to powerful officials. Abdel Latif says her clients have included ministers, kings and presidents, although she refuses to discuss names.

During an interview, the chatty, 55- year-old mother of two was dismissive of other divination efforts. "I don't believe in horoscopes, tarot 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, she calls herself a devout Muslim and considers her revelations a gift. "God gives the blessings of wealth, intelligence and health. This is the blessing of vision."

Her holiday show is the yearly highlight of her monthly programme, History Sees, on Lebanon's LBC network. It kicked off this year with cherry-picked predictions from recent years followed by news clips appearing to show them coming true.

She sometimes predicts moves that are made soon after by Lebanese politicians, raising suspicions 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 a Lebanese jeweller for her necklace and the designer who made her outfit, predicting he would win international prizes.

Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said a combination of Lebanon's relative social openness and the uncertainty of life there has helped make it the capital of fortune- telling in a region where many countries jail accused sorcerers. "When people don't have faith in the safety net of social institutions, they turn to these clairvoyants to find out what happens next."

Abdel Latif made her first television appearance 20 years ago and 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. But she also predicted last year that Mr Abdel- Fattah el-Sissi would not become president of Egypt, which he did in June.

When asked about predictions that failed to pan out, Abdel Latif says they need more time and compares herself with 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 per cent, she admitted that she sometimes misses. "We are all human in the end," she said.

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