Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A taste for tasseomancy

Gamal Nkrumah keeps an eye out for tasseomancers eager to read his coffee cup

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Just coffee. Black, like my soul” – Cassandra Clare, City of Bones
“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” – T S Eliot

While tasseomancy or tasseography, the practice of reading the grounds at the bottom of coffee cups, is inexplicable, and its logic unfathomable, many people, women in particular, remain obsessed by it in Egypt and the Levant.

As an adolescent growing up in Ghana, I remember watching middle-aged Lebanese women reading each other’s coffee cups. The ritual was alluring. After a meal, invariably lunch, the Lebanese of West Africa, in the region for generations, would indulge in this curious habit that they had brought with them from the Levant after drinking what they called Turkish coffee.

Tradition has it that coffee-cup reading began in Turkey in the 16th century and was a preoccupation of women in the harems of the Ottoman sultans and aristocracy. The practice then spread to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, at the time ruled by the Ottoman Turks. It is a custom that presupposes idleness and implies a life of leisure.

Reading a coffee cup after sunset is considered an ill omen, so mornings and early afternoons are the preferable times to unravel the secrets of the coffee cup. The trials and tribulations of the individual can be foretold this way, as can future joys and pieces of good luck.

As a youth I was intrigued by these women reading coffee cups, and they didn’t seem to mind my prying into their affairs. I suspect they even took a peculiar delight in my nosing about their business, love affairs, fears, expectations and aspirations. Eavesdropping as I was, I must have been something of a nuisance, but eventually I gathered enough courage to ask the women to teach me the tricks of the trade.

The art of tasseomancy starts with swirling the cup and turning it upside down over the saucer. The resulting sodden sediments are left for a few minutes to settle and dry. Intricate dark patterns are created, sharply contrasting with the whiteness of the cup. It is then that the coffee-cup reader peers into the cup and conjures up a picture of the future.

When perfect strangers discover secrets about the past, this is considered a mark of great insight and the person whose coffee cup is being read invariably becomes more accepting of predictions about the future.

“Coffee is a language in itself,” Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan is supposed to have said, and there are variations in interpretations of the various symbols in the coffee cup according to different cultural settings. For some it is an amusing pastime, while for others it is a more serious business, even an obsession.

The taste for tasseomancy is also pervasive, and its scale is difficult to estimate. In recent years, many devout Muslims have frowned on tasseomancy, considering it to contradict a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings even though it originally emanated from the Muslim heartlands. Needless to say, many Muslims discount the admonitions of the religious zealots. Tasseomancy is still practised across the Muslim world, rather like horoscopes or other such practices.

Why some women in Muslim countries seem to be crazed tasseomancers remains unclear. Sceptically minded men dismiss the practice as balderdash.

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