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Tajik Fortune-Tellers Face Uncertain Future

Maybe they should have seen it coming.

Lawmakers in Tajikistan are set to debate measures to add teeth to an existing ban on fortune-telling, with penalties for offenders increased from simple fines to up to seven years in jail.

There's no date set for the parliamentary debate, but the amendments to criminal law were submitted by the office of the country's powerful president, Emomali Rahmon.

Under current legislation, offenders face maximum fines of about $500, a hefty sum in Central Asia's most-impoverished country, where the average salary is around $110 a month.

In High Demand

Despite the 2007 ban, however, fortune-telling is still a popular and lucrative business across Tajikistan.

Queues outside the doors of fortune-tellers -- who offer services from helping to find stolen jewelry to making husbands change their minds about getting second wives -- hint at continuing demand for the mystical meetings.

The state committee for religious affairs says it has recently registered 179 fortune-tellers in the northern Sughd Province alone.

The list has been handed over to police for investigation, according to Suhrob Rustamov, who heads the religious committee's Sughd office. The fortune-tellers face fines and have been ordered to stop their "illegal" practice, he adds.

Mullahs and prominent religious figures frequently call on people in the predominantly Muslim country not to waste money on fortune-tellers, saying Islam bans such activities.

Hoji Hussain Musozoda, the head of Sughd's Council of Islamic Ulema, has described fortune-telling as an "untaxed business sector" in Tajikistan. It lures people who "lack religious knowledge," he told local media.

Customers say fortune-tellers' fees usually range between $2 and $10. But as with many black-market items, prices vary wildly and can reach hundreds of dollars.

Marital Magic?

Tajik fortune-tellers purport to offer anything from "predicting" the future to helping find a suitable spouse or making businesses flourish.

Mavzuna, a housewife from the northern city of Khujand who only offered her first name, says she paid $30 to get help finding appropriate husbands for her three daughters -- aged 24-30. The fortune-teller conducted separate sessions with the women to "trigger their luck," Mavzuna says, using a local euphemism for making someone desirable for marrying.

"Then she gave me an egg to throw into the river," Mavzuna says, adding that she now expects eligible men to turn up asking for her daughters' hands in marriage.

A fortune teller's tools
A fortune teller's tools

Giving customers small talismans -- mostly metal locks -- to throw into a river is a widespread practice among Tajik fortune-tellers. In July, authorities expressed concern about a "bucketful of metal locks" lying on riverbottoms that could "split the heads" of unsuspecting swimmers.

Authorities recovered "half a cart of locks from the bed of the Dushanbe River," says Khairiddin Abdurahimov, the head of the state committee for emergency situations. He says the locks were discovered "accidentally" by police investigators looking for missing weapons in a murder case.

One way authorities have sought to discourage fortune-telling is to punish its practitioners under separate laws, but that is largely dependent on proving they committed other crimes, for instance fraud.

A court in Sughd handed down a suspended eight-year prison sentence against Shahnoza Yunusova, a 26-year-old fortune-teller from the town of Konibodom. The court heard that the victim -- a local man -- was planning to pay a bribe of nearly $6,000 to an official to secure his son's early release from jail, but Yunusova allegedly convinced him to leave the cash at her home overnight so she could "make the bribe work and bring results." Yunusova reportedly failed to return the money, claiming she lost it.

In 2013, customs police said they seized six books on "black magic and fortune-telling" from an Afghan crossing the border.

Some fortune-tellers have rebranded themselves as faith healers practicing nontraditional medicine, with the right to operate with a license. But that avenue is about to close, too, as health authorities are tightening eligibility requirements. According to the Sughd provincial health department, only applicants with expertise in herbal medicine and medical massage can get licenses after passing the appropriate tests.

As the tea leaves hint increasingly at a crackdown, some fortune-tellers are getting out of the business.

Nazira, once a popular fortune-teller with a regular income and customers arriving from all over her home province of Khujand, says she is now too afraid to continue the "occupation" that she began nearly two decades ago. Nazira says her customer base is now limited to family and friends.

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