I had an incredible Sunday.
My alarm (Rebecca) woke me up around 5:30 in order to make it on time to our 6:00 volunteer shift at the Turkish Festival, an annual event happening in DC since 2003. After four hours of dragging tables and chairs around Pennsylvania Avenue, the festival was finally ready to begin.
Somehow, I was assigned to the Coffee Tent, where I was to read customers’ coffee grounds for the day. My experience with this is limited – in Turkey, I sometimes read friends’ fortunes by creating elaborate stories from the fuzzy images left on the glass by the thick grinds of Türk kahvesi. In actuality, coffee cup reading is a widespread activity in Turkey that reveals the past and the future. Divining the future from coffee grounds leaves a lot to interpretation, but there are several ground rules to the ritual. I ran through a mental list of the process: leaving a coin on top of an overturned coffee cup to make the grounds cool faster, spinning the cup and saucer three times, flipping the cup toward the reader, watching for drips on the saucer – but when it came time for me to actually read someone’s fortune, most of my knowledge escaped me. Quickly, though, I got into a groove and the day, while exhausting, turned out to be a fantastic experience.
Overall, I read thirteen peoples’ coffee grounds. I did not expect much by way of interaction – I anticipated a factory-like process, in which people would approach with their coffee cup ready, listen to my wisdom, and depart. Instead, I talked at length with people as they drank their coffee (many for the first time), while we waited for the grounds to cool, and after I had pulled as much information as possible from the designs on the cup. People shared incredibly intimate details about their life – fear about work, hopes for love, anger at family. Each exchange carried a different vibe, as some people were quite interactive with the fortune telling, prompting me to look for specific people or time periods, while others sat quietly with a blank expression on their face.
One Taiwanese woman comes to the Turkish Festival every year solely to have her fortune read. She told me how the worst year of her life followed the first reading, during which the fortune teller foretold a difficult year with many obstacles. A young woman, sitting with a friend and her mother, looked shocked when I said I saw the letter E – “It’s got to be Elif,” she told me. There was the couple from New Zealand, who ended up telling me about their world travels at length, and the newlyweds who, when I asked their names, told me that I ought to be able to divine that information from the coffee. A rowdy crowd of Istanbullular laughed loudly when I found a pregnant woman in one man’s grounds, and asked me to double- and triple-check whether a “woman with eyes like you” was in their future.
One of the more jarring readings of the day was for a young Indian woman who initially explained she was here as a joke, but in the middle of my reading told me that she was actually struggling to make a decision about her next move in life. “I’m at a crossroad. I don’t know where to go.” I’m a bit haunted by the possibility that what I saw in her coffee cup might actually shape decisions that could shape her life in a huge way.
Although I began the morning unsure of my ability to actually predict the future, by the end I realized that actually discovering events that would follow is not the point of reading coffee cups. A Turkish poet wrote: “Not the coffee, nor the coffeehouse is the longing of the soul / A friend is what the soul longs for, coffee is just the excuse” – people who chose to have their fortunes read were not, I think, looking for definitive explanations, but rather for a person, a third party to divulge their concerns and confusions.
Photo credit: jodigreen