The person sitting in front of me is crushing all the stereotypes I had of a tarot card reader. I had expected him to show up dressed in all-black, with old stone rings around his fingers. But Hisyam A. Fachri, a Grand Master Tarot Reader, was wearing black cotton pants and a white shirt with polkadots when I met him in a hotel in Yogyakarta. He looks like any other man you see on the street.
“The long hair, the all-black outfit, flowers, incense, are all gimmicks," said the 53-year-old man. "But it’s exotic and original, that’s why people like it."
Hisyam had just given a talk called "Telepathic Marketing" to employees of a national bank in Indonesia. “You didn’t think professional workers would come out to a mind power exercise like this, did you?” he said.
Unlike many tarot readers who proclaim to possess the gift of telling fortunes, Hisyam told me he is first and foremost, a psychologist, and his practice is scientific. With his knowledge and ability to explain things scientifically, Hisyam's tarot practice has convinced people from all sorts of backgrounds, from psychology to academia. “It’s all in here,” he said, pointing to his head.
Hisyam is a Grand Master Tarot Reader, a title he received from the Tarot Certification Board of America in 2009. To earn the title, one needs to make their own set of cards, write a tarot book, run a community, and set up a legal tarot association. At the moment, in Indonesia, only Hisyam has checked all those boxes. Ani Sekarningsih, an anthropologist who founded and published Tarot Wayang back in 2002, was also a certified grand master. But she passed away in 2014.
In Indonesia, the practice of reading tarot cards is still often associated with mystical rituals involving unexplainable supernatural powers. People expect tarot to give them predictions or solutions of their problems, but that's not what he offers.
“You may speak tarot as something mystical, but my framework is purely psychology," he said. "So, please don’t make me look like some sort of a shaman."
Hisyam treats tarot cards like any tool a doctor would use to come up with a diagnosis. “First, I map out the problems of a person using tarot cards," he said. "But during this part, I also apply some psychological reading, so tarot readers ideally should be immersed in the art of therapy and psychology as well."
The key to read tarot is the interpretation of symbols, the ability to explain them, and sensitivity to the subject being read, he said. And a reader needs to not only read symbols but also the patterns during the session. “One card may be interpreted one thousand to two thousand times, depending on the reader,” he said.
After chatting for some time, we decided that it's time for him to read some cards to me. Hisyam’s tarot card is called Tarot Nusantara, which he created after a three-year-long research. He adopted the style of Raider-Waite cards, disassembled the patterns and instead, used tribe symbols of Java, Dayak, Toraja, Sentani and Bali.
“It wouldn’t make sense to read tarot of Indonesians using other cultures’ symbols," he said while shuffling his cards. "I mean you could, but you wouldn’t get the essence."
Hisyam collaborated with Sweta Kartika, an illustrator from Bandung to design Tarot Nusantara. The result is 78 cards dominated by wayang-like figures covered in symbols of various Indonesian tribes. The subdued colors of the cards are also a result of careful psychological considerations. Tarot Nusantara was released in Indonesia in 2009, in conjunction with the publishing of his book, The Real Art of Tarot. It's getting attention outside of the country, too.
“Last night, someone from Russia bought a pack,” he said full of pride.
I asked him what’s gonna happen with Indonesia in 2018. He took a deep breath, readjusted his sitting position, and took three cards in a row. They are “Sang Raja”, “Kereta Perang”, and “Ahli Tafsir Agama".
“The king card means there’ll be a lot of arrogance, power play, the masses, well… it’ll be a political year," he said. "Many ‘kings’ will be dethroned, as many new ones assume power. In the process, these two horses symbolizes rivalry and there might be a lot of conflicts caused by the interests of certain groups. The commentator shows that those with strong vision will survive. But be careful, these two characters right here might also turn out to be ass-lickers who stay close to the ‘king’. So it’s a bit frightening, I hope everything will be fine.”
I nodded while trying to connect that interpretation with what I’ve seen on national news lately. He added that what is called as "fortune-telling" is mostly a process of cause-and-effect inside someone’s subconscious mind, so what will actually happen is ultimately determined by that person.
“Tarot doesn’t spell out what you will be tomorrow, but the potential of what you can be tomorrow," Hisyam said. "It doesn’t give a specific practical enlightenment, and always stays within the area of probability. If you believe it, it might turn to reality. So it all comes back to your belief.”
This article originally appeared on VICE ID.