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Kahve Falı: The Turkish Tasseography

by Benjamin Irvine, DAI-ANAMED Joint Environmental Archaeology Fellow 2021–2022

Despite being a scientist, whose research is, more often than not, grounded in the analysis and interpretation of quantifiable data from quantitative methodical techniques, I have always had a curiosity in things such as the supernatural, mysterious, mystical, and magical.

Despite remaining a sceptic regarding most things occultic, I enjoy the stories, myths, and oral histories around them. There’s also the pleasure of having belief suspended for a short while and just embracing it and maybe, even furthermore, wanting to believe. In the same way that whilst I know modern magic (in terms of “rabbit in a hat” magic) is simply a series of sleight of hand, misdirection, and occasionally elaborate set-ups and gadgets, there’s the child in me that still wants to believe that it’s real. That the person making the coin disappear before my eyes before making it re-appear by pulling it out from behind someone’s ear is really a magician with magical powers. At the very least, as an adult of logic, I can enjoy the artistry and spectacle of it, the warm fuzzy feeling of being bamboozled, and that almost primal adrenaline rush of being faced with the unknown and mystifying. Standard anthropological discourse has assigned stories of the occult and supernatural such as witchcraft, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, jinns and other paranormal beings, and mythological tales and legends (whether they be Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, etc.) to humans trying to make sense of the world around them and provide meaning and sense to the unknown. Things such as the sunrise and sunset, the seasons, the tides, the stars, planets, moons, and cosmos, physical and mental illnesses, aspects of the natural world, physiology, anatomy, and biology, medicine, and different human and cultural behaviors have all been features at one time or another of mythical, mythological, and supernatural and paranormal accounts. Throughout history, humans have been curious beings, wanting to know more about the world they inhabit and the environments around them. Inherently, we want to know more and explain things that we do not have, or hadn’t, the knowledge or experience to understand and explain. We also want to know more, and comprehend more about our place in the world, as well as our individual lives and futures. One particular aspect of this desire for knowing the unknown has come in the form of fortune telling. Fortune telling has been around for millennia, and both the common people and more “elite” individuals such as kings, queens, generals, emperors, and empresses across time, space, regions, and cultures have consulted soothsayers employing a variety of methods to provide guidance and advise and direct them; to tell them more about what has been, what is, and what is to come. In Turkey, probably the most famous and popular way of doing this is through kahve falı, the assessment of a person’s future through reading and interpreting the symbols and shapes in the leftover dregs of their Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee).

It is thought that the practice of kahve falı likely began shortly after coffee was first introduced to Turkey in the mid-15th century CE when it (coffee) was brought to the attention of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul by Özdemir Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of Yemen—so the most common telling of the coffee to Turkey story goes. Istanbul, dating back even to its original Constantinople days, has been a cosmopolitan melting pot of different groups of people, cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs. At the center of this melting point, particularly from the 19th century onwards, is Beyoğlu. Here, in one of Istanbul’s arterial and vibrant beating hearts, all manner and creed of people congregate to watch, admire, and perform in music, art, and culture, to eat and drink in the many bars, restaurants, and meyhaneler, to work, learn, shop, and generally hang out, flirt, and socialize: including drinking coffee. Whilst an eclectic mix of people can be found in the neighborhood, each group would, of course, have their favorite and regular haunts, their own discrete corners of this tangled nest of activity and hubbub. However, there are a group of places where all of these people coexist and can be found sharing tables and spaces concurrently: the old, the young, the beatniks, the artists, the musicians, the hippies, the hipsters, the metalheads, the academics, the working people, the goths, men, women, gay, straight, rich, and poor. These were the fal kafeler. These started to become especially popular and visible as distinct entities in the mid-2000s. There was no intention for these cafes to become such particular and iconic meeting points for these varied groups of people; the truth is a little less benevolent and interesting, as their creation was initially driven by financial ideals, to monetize the ancient practice of kahve falı. However, they soon entered themselves into the very hearts and psyche of Istanbulline culture.

A typical fal kafe is often small and cozy, kitschy in appearance but with a simple and stripped-down menu: reminding you of the true purpose to your visit. For, whilst a visit to a fal kafe may be one done with friends, colleagues, lovers, and be a chance to socialize, Turks take them seriously. And much like the hermit focuses his mind on theological matters with a diet of bread and water, a menu of varied drinks and snacks at a fal kafe are nothing but potential frivolous distractions. First you order your Turkish coffee, then you drink it—all very corporeal so far. Once finishing your coffee, you turn the cup upside down onto the saucer, remembering to turn the opening of the cup away from you—so that you can reflect your inner feelings, wishes, and desires to the outside world. Next, you have to place something on the upturned base of the cup and wait for it to cool down. Traditionally, although depending on who you speak to, this should usually be a ring or a coin. Once this object, and the cup, has cooled, you take your cup and go to the fortune teller’s table. There they look at the patterns left by the remnants of your caffeinated beverage on the inside of the cup and saucer and commence with probing into your life, your secrets, desires, wishes, hopes, and dreams.

Kahve falı is more than just a method of fortune telling. It’s a way of opening up in ways that may be repressed or forbidden by cultural and social barriers; it’s a way of liberating your inner feelings and desires; it’s a cheap and taboo-free alternative to therapy. From the broken-hearted young girl who wants to know if she will ever find love to the middle-aged man who has just set out on a new business venture and wants to know if it will succeed to the old woman worried about the successes and fortunes of her children, all come to the fal kafe looking for answers, guidance, reassurance—a light in the dark. One of the appealing things about a kahve falı session is that they are often a chance for people to visualize their hopes, aims, and dreams, analyze relationships, and express their doubts and fears. The sessions are mutual, consisting of a flow of back-and-forth conversation, with the fortune teller guiding you through your inner world, rather than just dictating and directing. You are the master of your own ship after all, but sometimes everyone needs a lookout in the rigging with a telescope.

There’s an English saying that “you’ll never find the solutions to your problems in the bottom of a glass [of alcohol].” The Turks flip this over (pun intended), and claim that not only may you find the solutions to your problems at the bottom of a cup, you may also find answers to questions that you hadn’t even realized you were considering asking yet. Neyse halim çıksın falım.