Fortune-tellers popular in Islamic Iran

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TEHRAN, Nov 26 (Reuters) Clerics in the Islamic Republic of Iran frown on the practice, but Nazanin says she has more customers than ever wanting their fortunes told.

Sitting behind a computer in her Tehran apartment, she predicts the future based on her knowledge of ''jyotish'' -- the science of light -- a practice related to astrology which she said is thought to have originated in ancient Persia.

Some analysts say Iranians are turning to fortune-telling because of worries over their country's growing isolation in the world and surging prices at home. The fortune-tellers say their clients -- many of them women -- are seeking security.

''Happiness is the gap between two miseries,'' said Nazanin, who asked not to be identified by her real name to avoid problems with religious authorities. ''People from all walks of life come here to find that ray of light and find more hope for the future.'' She often switches off her mobile during sessions to avoid being interrupted by calls for appointments. Each session costs 200,000 rials () and lasts two hours or more. Time -- not demand -- restricts her to two or three customers a day.

It is not only Nazanin who says business is booming.

Readers of tarot cards and coffee grounds say customers are queuing up. Street vendors selling prophetic poems from the revered Iranian poet Hafez say they can always find buyers seeking guidance in their everyday lives.

Iran's clerics, who have ruled the Islamic Republic for the past three decades, say such practices can be misleading so should be avoided.

But many in Iran, a predominantly Shi'ite Muslim country, are not deterred.

''The age of my customers ranges from 12 years to 70. I have very religious customers and those who are not religious at all but they are mostly affluent,'' said Nazanin.

''From young girls to old women, it seems everybody is looking for a good husband,'' she said with a laugh.

PEERING INTO COFFEE Rima, a fortune-teller from Iran's Armenian Christian community, said her client numbers were rising by the month.

Many turn to her when they have financial or social problems, she said.

''Many people, especially women, come to us as a last resort.

They are mainly emotionally insecure and it gives them a good feeling to know their future,'' said Rima, looking at Tarot cards laid on a wooden table in front of her.

As well as using cards, Rima reads fortunes by peering into the dark dregs poured out from small Middle Eastern coffee cups into a saucer after the client finishes the drink.

Psychologist Sima Pourshahriyari said rising economic and social pressures could explain why many Iranians were turning to fortune-telling as they struggle with sharply rising prices and fret about growing isolation over a nuclear row with the West.

''People feel they can take refuge in fortune-telling which is different from the usual solutions around them,'' Pourshahriyari said.

Sometimes clients wait for days to get an appointment with Nazanin or Rima. Once they are there, Nazanin spends at least two hours describing the past and future and answering questions on topics from marriage to money.

LOVE BIRDS AND FORTUNES There are also cheaper and faster ways to find out your fate in Iran: many Iranians turn to the Fal-e Hafez -- fortune of Hafez -- that involves reading a randomly picked poem from the work of the Persian poet, who was born in the 14th century.

On the streets of the capital Tehran and other Iranian cities and towns, vendors sell the poems in colourful envelopes for as little as 2,000 rials (about 20 US cents) each.

Small birds, known as ''love birds'', sit on the hand of some sellers, trained to pick a poem from a box. Inside the envelope the poem comes with analysis and sometimes advice.

''I have regular customers, many of them businessmen and businesswomen. They stop on their way to work in the morning to buy a Hafez fortune,'' said Nour Ali Karimi, hawking the poems to drivers waiting at a red light in central Tehran.

''But not everyone is as committed. Sometimes young couples or friends walking in the street buy Hafez fortunes just for fun. Anyway, it is very cheap,'' he added.

An English literature student, who would give only her first name of Sepideh, said she's a believer.

''I know many might find it superstitious but I like to have my fortune read. You would be amazed by how correct it is,'' she said.

Clerics say fortune-telling is too fatalistic for Islam.

''Islam has a negative view of this because it doesn't have a scientific and logical basis, and for important matters in one's life it is rejected (by Islam),'' said Mohsen Kadivar, a liberal cleric.

Mohammad Hassan Saeedi from the office of Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sane'i said: ''Fortune-telling is not considered valid by Islam. Islam encourages people to have a positive view of their life and future.'' Both agreed that if fortune-telling caused harm, it would be considered a sin under Islamic law.

Nazanin is also wary about how clients use what they hear.

''Fortune-telling shouldn't harm anyone. I try to open their eyes to possibilities and choices they could have and I advise them they should decide based on logic and reason.'' REUTERS ARB BST0823

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