Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Michel Hayek: from butcher's boy to Middle East's 'Nostradamus'

Michel Hayek: from butcher's boy to Middle East's 'Nostradamus'
By Agence France Presse (AFP)
Haro Chakmakjian

BEIRUT: Michel Hayek, a butcher's boy who has risen to the status of an Arab media celebrity, has the knack of making accurate predictions in an anxious and uncertain Lebanon looking for answers and a touch of baraka. "I believe everyone has what I have. It's a sense like your eyes, or your ears. If I feel something strongly, I follow my instinct," says the man nicknamed the "Nostradamus of the Middle East" who hails from a Metn mountain village northeast of the capital. "I was born with it. If you call your eyes a gift, then it's a gift," he says, seated in a garden with Mediterranean views in front of his two-storey luxury apartment on the outskirts of Beirut.

Hayek, 40, says his lifestyle is financed by salaries, plus bonuses, paid by three companies overseas: firms of solicitors, accountants and stockbrokers. He has been on their payrolls for the past seven years. An investor in real estate, a profitable sector in Lebanon even as it struggles to recover from last year's war with Israel and political paralysis, Hayek also restores, converts and then sells old Lebanese houses. Among past - and documented - predictions, Hayek has foreseen the untimely deaths of Britain's Princess Diana and Lebanon's ex-Premier Rafik Hariri, as well as MP and media baron Gibran Tueni. He tried to warn the Americans of the Challenger space shuttle disaster before it blew up in 1985, but was not taken seriously. New predictions see "dangers" lurking at Lebanon's Baabda presidential palace, amid a lack of consensus on a candidate to be elected by Parliament with barely four months to go before President Emile Lahoud's term runs out. He also sees a new Hariri family tragedy in 2007, and the date 10/10/2007 has mysteriously appeared before his eyes.

Despite reservations, Hayek has a tradition of going on air on the LBC satellite television every New Year's Eve to make a long list of predictions, many of them vague. "Some people hate anything to do with the future," Hayek says of his critics who accuse him of being a phoney with a talent for lucrative self-publicity. He has also been seen at times as a "doer of evil, or even a devil." But "I am not a thief of the future," he protests. "I have no power to change the will of the Creator." Hayek puts much of his own popularity down to widespread disgust with Lebanese politicians and his strong track record. He is frustrated by rumors linked falsely to his name that swirl though Beirut to sow insecurity, often for political ends. "I'm someone who can feel things and see a bit of the future, a bit like children, something similar," he says, while admitting to being fascinated by magic from an early age, for which he often ran into trouble at school.

Hayek started from modest roots, helping out at the butcher's shop of his father after being stirred daily from bed in the middle of the night to collect meat in the family van from a local slaughterhouse. He happily switched to a grandfather's church bell-manufacturing business but was kept out of the loop on secrets of the trade, before finding his real vocation. With predictions aplenty ever since his youth, Hayek started making a name for himself on radio, traveled around the world for 13 years, drawing the attention of newspapers. But it was the launch of Arab satellite televisions that gave him celebrity status. "All I am doing is what I am feeling," he says. It has not been easy at times, especially at the end of 2004 when Lebanon was booming, its market-leading Solidere shares for downtown reconstruction riding high, and Gulf Arab visitors spending lavishly and snapping up real estate.

In hugely unpopular predictions for 2005, Hayek foresaw the massive seafront explosion in Beirut that killed Hariri, and he warned that Tueni was also in danger. "No one believed me. They were angry with me, they made fun of me on TV comedies," he says. "I said at the time I can see 12/12, when the rock of Beirut will cry for someone," he says. "I went to Tueni's funeral and got dirty looks. I had warned his wife not to allow him to buy that black four-wheel-drive" in which the MP was gunned down on December 12, 2005." Offering a peek into his private life, Hayek this year plans to marry Caroline, a student in children's psychology, after proposing on only their third date. "Something inside me told me to propose. She was very surprised, but I told her I have a feeling."

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