Understanding the appeal and stigma surrounding psychics in Tunisia

It’s a humid August evening in Hammamet, a beach town near Tunis, where I’ve been drinking tea and munching sunflower seeds outdoors with my mom and her friends. We’ve been discussing the same boring gossip over the weekend, and I am desperate for anything interesting to happen. Eventually, they propose calling a psychic. After two phone calls and an address exchange, the psychic confirmed her availability that evening. Mind you, it’s 32 degrees at midnight but I guess the grind never stops when you are a psychic in Hammamet. One hour later, a radiant lady named Foufa arrived with bleached blond hair and hot pink lipstick. “I can’t believe they come to your house to read your future!” says one of our friends, to which my mom answers, “it’s a good business strategy, right?”

After explaining her rates and how she works, Foufa reads our palms and draws cards to answer our questions individually in the backyard. Thirty minutes in, she told me that I would ditch my Aquarius lover and fall in love in Paris in November, and that did happen. As stupid as it may seem, this first experience alone convinced me that psychics could give accurate, encouraging predictions. Several weeks after Foufa visited us, I told my friends this story, and the reactions were mixed. Several found it funny, others were intrigued, and others told me it was more of a business scheme than “intuition”. 

Considering how popular and busy fortune tellers have become, it can be difficult to understand how they can assess your situation and tailor their advice. My friend Khadija amusedly once told me, “I know a lot of people who see psychics. They even consult them via Zoom and cannot make a major life decision without consulting them first. I’ve also consulted one for fun, but I’m so surprised at how organized it is and how much of a business it is. They have waiting rooms and personal assistants, and you must book weeks in advance.” 

But is it even possible to trust a psychic on Zoom? What about the sense of intimacy during a session when she holds your hands and reads your coffee? The practice of psychics has existed since ancient times, but due to digitalization, the diaspora’s displacement, and the post-pandemic world, it is fundamentally changing. Psychics who take their profession more spiritually still conduct their sessions in an old-school manner. Khadija adds, “they can prescribe you incense, plants, or sometimes a trip to the marabout on the other side of the country.”

Despite my humour regarding my experience, some friends were still creeped out by the idea of seeing a psychic. Most of the questions hovered around the concept of ‘what if they tell you something you’re not ready to hear?’ But I have always told psychics that I am only interested in hearing good news. I also understand the fear of psychics stemming from personal religious beliefs related to the idea that only God can know the exact details of your future, and seeking such knowledge is “7aram” (forbidden).

I had some interesting stories about psychics from my friend Asma, who has had several experiences with them even though it was highly taboo to discuss psychics as they’re often associated with black magic. Yet still, she knew her mother sought their advice to manage future expectations.

Asma thinks there is a tricky relationship with destiny in Tunisian society – everything is maktoub (an Arabic word that stands for written, meaning destiny) by God’s decision. However, people often believe psychics can provide a glimpse of the future to help people control their destinies. Additionally, fortune-telling is known to be especially popular in crisis-stricken countries. Economic or social crises affect citizens’ perception of the future and exacerbate their anxiety. Due to the post-revolutionary period, Tunisians prefer psychics to government officials for answers. 

Perhaps seeing a psychic adds a sense of nonchalance and offers a quick fix to dire issues we refuse to bring up in therapy or amongst friends. I dared to ask Foufa questions I wouldn’t have usually asked my peers. I had nothing to lose since the worst-case scenario is a false prediction, and the best-case scenario is a  concrete answer.

Months later, I spoke about my experience with my mom again and she noted how the whole psychic thing can be fun but slightly dangerous. Her friends’ family befriended a psychic once, and for over four years, she often stayed at their place and ate with them. Although she was everyone’s friend, she was also feared because of her psychic abilities. It is often said that when my aunt made fun of her, she experienced crippling pain all over her body that night. Eventually, we discovered that the psychic only built up the trust to scam them and run off with their money.

While my mom knew this woman was a fortune teller, other people assumed she was a family friend. She was never introduced as ‘the psychic of the family’ mainly to dispel the stigma associated with fortune tellers. To this day, many people refuse to discuss fortune-telling out of fear of judgment. Those opposed to psychics often claim that they are irreligious and manipulative imposters disrespecting our customs. They also point out that educated people shouldn’t believe in irrational coffee or card readings and should be better off consuming news and taking charge of their own life.

But no matter how much stigma or societal fears taint fortune-telling, it remains a satisfying and entertaining experience for most people. After several conversations with “3araffa (psychic) addicts,” I realized that psychics are no longer these obscure, mystical women out of reach. Whether they’re in their residence, at your friends’ house, on Zoom calls, or well alive on some Facebook group, you can always find them.

Yasmine is a Tunisian-Italian freelance writer based in Amsterdam. Her writings are strongly inspired by her North African upbringing and culture, and her thoughts on identity and diasporic nostalgia. You will mostly find her reporting on societal phenomena in the MENA region, often in relation to digital culture, art, and fashion