Dial-a-fortune comforts the wealthy but nervous WAR IN THE GULF


PARIS -- When the bombs started falling over Baghdad, the nerves began jangling, the phones jumped and profits climbed at Divinitel.

"Should I stock up on essentials?" callers asked.

"Is this World War III?"

"Will my husband come home safely? When?"

Divinitel is fortune-telling by phone, at $2.80 a minute.

Even at that rate, noted Claude Naisse, the owner of Divinitel, "an hour passes very quickly."

With the invasion of Kuwait in August and the outbreak of war, Divinitel has been deluged with both video and direct phone calls. The lonely, the frightened, the suspicious and the curious seek reassurance and comfort. Mostly, they want to know that the people they love are out of danger.

"Each Scud that falls on Israel means 500 calls for us," Mr. Naisse said.

Divinitel is one of the thousands of services telephone owners in France can contact through their minitel, a small video screen and keyboard available free to phone users. The minitel is most often used for pseudonymous flirting, but it also offers airline schedules, train reservations, today's papers and -- if Mr. Naisse is to be believed -- a peek into the future.

"Our clairvoyants predicted last June there would be a war, and they predicted it would start on Jan. 17 as well," said Mr. Naisse.

The seven astrologists, numerologists, card readers and mind readers here had another tipoff on the war. About 48 hours before the attack, they received calls from women throughout France who said their husbands worked in intelligence.

They all said their men had just left on assignment without saying where they were going or how long they would be gone. "They asked us to protect their husbands," Mr. Naisse said.

The sudden onslaught of calls comes in addition to Mr. Naisse's already lucrative business. He estimated last year's revenues at $2 million.

Divinitel charges $50 for a general telephone consultation and 14 francs a minute ($2.80) for a minitel conversation, with another 25 cents a minute going to the phone company. A visit to its offices is $70.

"We get calls from all over -- the Middle East, Canada, even the United States. The farthest anyone ever came to actually see us was from St. Bartholomew [in the Caribbean]. It's all possible with this," Mr. Naisse said, waving a credit card. "Every time they call, it's pop, 250 francs [$50]."

For 8 percent of a job's wages, Divinitel screens the applicants for employers, using astrology, numerology and the vibes off the photos.

"The worse the economy gets, the more businessmen want as many guarantees about their hires as possible," said Mr. Naisse. The 8 percent fee, however, does not guarantee satisfaction. The company accepts no liability for bad picks but said it has had no complaints so far.

To prove his point, Mr. Naisse displayed a spiral book of letters and photos from clients. "Look, they're all letters to the clairvoyants, and they're all signed, 'Je t'embrasse' [hugs and kisses]," Mr. Naisse said, as if not quite believing it himself.

After all, he is a businessman, not a mystic. An overweight, rumpled fellow who favors crewneck sweaters, Mr. Naisse appears as astonished as anybody at his venture's success and at the trust absolute strangers place in Divinitel.

"We have a guy who is really good, about 20 years old. There are 50-year-old businessmen who come in here, wearing ties and ZTC carrying briefcases, who ask him for advice," Mr. Naisse said. Sometimes, they ask the spirits to crush their competition.

"They actually get on their knees and recite these incantations in there," he said, indicating a dark room with a flashing red light.

It is here that people try whispering to the dead, seek the return of a wandering lover, pray that death and illness will overcome an enemy. In short, it is here the powerless come to seek cosmic redress for the low blows of life.

In the center of the room is a raised platform with Hebrew letters, from which people try to contact the spirits. Face masks hang on the walls, used by some to hide their identities during the rites. Stuffed cow and other animal heads, to which believers offer sacrifices, are gathered in a section of one wall.

Along the far wall sits an open coffin, with a blanket and pillow inside. Photos and letters are impaled on hatpins stuck into a pincushion.

The clairvoyants here have run down President Saddam Hussein's birth charts and have not come away with a very high opinion of the Iraqi leader. "He has no regard for human life," said Luce Grenier, an astrologist.

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