Candy from a Dervish

TIRANA | Baba Mondi foists one sweet after another upon me, as if this is his way of convincing me that Islam – or at least Sufism – is a religion of peace, and that we shouldn’t treat all Muslims as fanatics. The sweets are coffee-flavored, and after a short while I start to feel sick. But I don’t want to offend my host, the leader of 3 million believers and a man whom even Vatican diplomats have dubbed “the Bektashi Pope.” We are sitting in plush, blood-red armchairs, me to his right, underneath a painting of two men and a woman.

Kim bu adam?” I ask him in Turkish, the only language in which we are somewhat able to understand each other. Who is that?

Baba Mondi is the spiritual leader of the 3 million members of the Bektashi sect of Sufi Islam. Photo by Swiatek Wojtkowiak.

“The Prophet Mohammed. And that’s his daughter and son-in-law,” Baba Mondi replies. He watches with interest for my reaction. Despite his long white beard and flowing white robe, which give him a look of solemnity and eminence, and despite the fact he looks like one of Mohammed’s comrades from one of those old Ottoman prints, the curiosity etched on his face is almost boyish.

I look at Baba and Baba looks at me. We both know that hard-line Muslims will put to death anyone who depicts the Prophet. They believe that Islam forbids any publication of his image, and they are very sensitive about this. We both know exactly what happened in Europe in 2005 when a Danish newspaper printed a caricature of Mohammed. Thousands of people took to the streets in protest; an imam from Mecca called for a boycott of Danish goods; other imams went a step further and called for a war on Europe. In the Nigerian town of Maiduguri, 11 churches were burned down in protest, and dozens of people were killed in demonstrations in various parts of the world.

And yet the Bektashis in Tirana calmly entertain their guests beneath a hand-painted picture of the Prophet. How is this possible?

* * *

Named after Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg Square lies in the very center of Tirana, stretched between an Ottoman mosque and a Communist mosaic. From here I attempt to find a taxi that will take me to the world headquarters of the Bektashi Order.

“Bek-ta-shi!” I pronounce the word loudly, clearly, and slowly, but the first couple of drivers I approach merely shrug. Could I have stressed the word incorrectly? That’s possible. Just in case, I draw a beard in the air, the kind the holy dervishes have. This triggers a light bulb in one cabbie’s head.

“Kryegjyshata!” he says, and asks me to make myself comfortable on the leather seats in the back of his Mercedes. (Half the cars on the road in Albania are Mercs; owning one is something of a national sport.) He starts the engine and we set off, across the river, through a field, through a park, to a distant part of Tirana I’ve never seen before and probably never would have seen.

“Kryegjyshata it is then – as long as we make it there,” I say with a shrug. Meanwhile, the driver’s confidence is growing.

“Io Bektashi,” he says in Italian. Although I don’t know the language, I’ve had to use it almost every day since I arrived in Albania. A quarter of Albania’s approximately 4 million citizens live abroad, mainly in Greece or Italy. Which is why they make excellent pizza, and nearly everyone speaks that beautiful language to some extent.

“Voi Bektashi?” he asks.

“No, io Polacco catolico. Como il papa Giovanni Paolo.” If anyone is well-known in Albania, it’s the Polish Pope. In the very center of Tirana, the street which leads to the main stadium is named after him. Every other Albanian remembers John Paul II’s visit just prior to the fall of communism. Many credit it for the fact that Ramiz Alia – successor to the bloody tyrant Enver Hoxha – simply let the regime collapse in 1990 instead of using military power to defend his dictatorship.

The Polish Pope doesn’t make much of an impression on my driver. Instead he puts on a tape and introduces me to a potpourri of cheesy Albanian pop hits. We drive past two abandoned factories and a row of communist-era housing blocks which have since been turned into a sort of Romani ghetto.

“Zingaro! Zingaro!” the driver shouts and points towards a group of Romani children using a stick to roll an old bicycle wheel across the asphalt. Beyond them I can see an enormous wall with Arabic writing and a 12-pointed star carved into the stone arch of the gate. We have arrived at Kryegjyshata.

* * *

The world headquarters of the Bektashi community in Tirana, Albania. Photo by Albinfo/Wikimedia Commons.

Bathed in blinding light, three figures – two men and a small boy – were reading the Koran. Lokman Perende, little Hajji’s tutor, must have been astonished when he walked into the room and witnessed this scene. As he entered the men simply dissolved into thin air.

“Who were they?” he asked.

“The Prophet Mohammed and his brother-in-law, Ali,” the boy answered without hesitation.

Perhaps Lokman Perende wasn’t so astonished after all. Hajji Bektash, whose father ruled one of the kingdoms into which Turkey was divided in the 13th century, was reciting surasfrom the Koran and performing greater or lesser miracles while still a baby in the crib. For example, his tutor once wished to perform ritual ablutions before prayer.

“I need to go to the stream,” he said.

“No, you don’t,” replied his charge, who closed his eyes and prayed. Clean water gushed up around the boy’s feet; later, irises sprang up in that spot.

All this we know from legend, because there are no hard facts concerning the life of Hajji Bektash. No one knows when he was born or when he died, although it was probably sometime around the turn of the 13th century.

At that time, the Sufi brotherhoods – the Islamic equivalent of the mendicant orders – were enjoying record popularity in Persia and Anatolia. Their charismatic leaders attempted to extract the pure essence of Allah from the somewhat rigid teachings of the imams and caliphs – an Allah who loves mankind and wants it simply to be happy rather than getting bogged down with the study of his teachings. Sufis worship him in song and dance, they do not refuse alcohol and other substances, and they do not count fruit as part of the Ramadan fast. (Bektashis, in fact, only observe the fast for the first 10 days of that month.)

“Even today we still have problems explaining what exactly we believe in,” Alert Nausufi, one of the Bektashis I meet in Tirana, says with a laugh. “Most likely everyone’s beliefs differ a little.”

“And are there any common beliefs?”

“Yes. That there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet. That charity is important, giving to the poor. But all the other typically Muslim beliefs aren’t as obvious to us. We don’t pray five times a day like other Muslims. Sharia – Islamic law, that is – is only for those lesser initiates; the initiated listen to their own spiritual masters.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Bektashis are considered apostates by Sunnis and Shiites. They were most popular among the Janissaries – brave warriors whom the Ottoman sultan chose from among the children of his Christian subjects. “Which is why Bektashism was very flexible – it adopted many Christian rituals,” explains Elian Erabara, an Albanian journalist with a keen interest in the beliefs of the Muslim brotherhoods.

“They have a communal meal called muhabbet, the principles of which are akin to those of Holy Communion. They also have magfirat-i-zunub, a yearly talk with a spiritual master to whom they confide their sins and weaknesses. A dead ringer for Catholic confession! For boys who were taken from their Christian homes during adolescence, this religion was far easier to accept than the entirely foreign culture of Islam.

The Baba – the spiritual father of Bektashism – was with the Janissaries at their most important battles, including when the sultan’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Vienna. Dressed in a green coat, he was to the Janissaries what military chaplains are to the armies of today. Indeed, the Janissaries would shout out the names of Allah, Mohammed, and Hajji Bektash as they marched into battle.

This idyll lasted for several centuries until the Janissaries grew too powerful. Successive sultans could do nothing without their approval, and when the Janissaries did agree to any changes, it was only for their own betterment. Sultan Selim III attempted to put an end to this and was murdered by the Janissaries in 1807. Two decades later, his successor, Mahmud II, abolished the Janissary corps. Rebels were shown no mercy; they were put to the sword. This was a painful blow not only for the Janissaries but for the entire Bektashi community.

The next blow came in 1925, when the great reformer of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, abolished all the Sufi brotherhoods. It was at this point that the Bektashis moved their headquarters to Albania, to the outskirts of Tirana.

* * *

The world headquarters of the Bektashi community doesn’t look like the world headquarters of anything. A small hotel, a home for the Sufis, a house of prayer, and Baba Mondi’s residential halls. It resembles the abode of a rather well-off parish priest.

“Would you like me to show you around?” I am asked as I wait to be received by Baba Mondi. Eldi is one of the students there; his father works as Baba’s chauffeur.

“I’d like that very much!” I reply, and Eldi leads me through the rooms.

“This is where we pray,” he says, and takes me into a hall in which hang paintings of Hajji Bektash and Balım Sultan, the great 16th-century reformer of Bektashism. The Sufis’ stories about Balım Sultan are similar to the Christians’ about St. Francis (he told everyone to live in harmony; tamed wild animals and even rode upon a tiger).

“This is where the dervishes have meetings,” Eldi continues, showing me a room on the first floor which is a lot shabbier than the rest, with damp patches and peeling paint on the walls – distinctive marks of more troubled times. “Enver Hoxha forbade us to profess any religious faith whatsoever, and under his rule the previous Baba, Reshat Bardhi, was sent to a forced-labor camp. Our headquarters were used as an old people’s home. If you made a pilgrimage to a sacred site, a tekke, you could go to prison.” At this, Eldi takes me to see the tomb of Baba Reshat, who met John Paul II at the Vatican and was deeply respected by all Albanians.

Eldi says a short prayer by the tomb, during which he strokes the tombstone three times. “He died last year,” he says. “People come from all over the world to ask him for good health and success. If someone can’t make it here, he sends a towel. You can see several lying there on his tomb. Then we send them back to the faithful. Many have been healed by Baba Reshat already; recently one man’s infertility was cured. He and his wife couldn’t have children; they came and prayed and a week later she fell pregnant. Oh, don’t turn around as you’re leaving the mausoleum. You need to leave sideways. Yes, like that.”

The time for my audience with Baba Mondi is drawing near, so we head back towards his house, where I politely join the queue between a delegation of local government officials from the city of Vlore, representatives of the Bektashi Students’ Association, and worshipers from Tetovo in Macedonia who have come with their own Baba, Abdulmutallab.

“We are here to complain about the authorities in Macedonia,” Baba Abdulmutallab tells me. “They are persecuting us. Macedonian Islamists took over our main tekke a few years ago and are refusing to leave, and the government is doing nothing about it.”

Abdulmutallab explains the complexities of Macedonian religious politics to me, while the faithful listen to his words with solemn reverence. He’s another of those Bektashis with whom I converse a little in Turkish, a little in German, and a little in hand gestures – living proof that when someone wants to talk, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I say this to him.

“Ours is a religion of dialogue,” he replies, but I can see that he really appreciates the compliment.

“And how exactly did you become a dervish?”

Abdulmutallab grins and points to his heart. “You feel it here. Your entire life,” he says. “I used to work in an office in Macedonia, as an accountant. I wasn’t earning much, so I went to Germany. I worked there for 12 years, at a petrol station in Dusseldorf. I was a pump attendant until one day I went to Berlin and saw Bektashis in traditional dress. I remembered that I used to go to the tekke to pray when I was a child. When I saw those men, something finally stirred in my heart. A few days later I returned to Macedonia and found my master.”

“Who is he?” I ask.

“That’s him,” Abdulmutallab says with a smile, and he points out the boss of all Bektashi bosses, Baba Mondi, who has just entered to greet us.

* * *

Baba Mondi is wearing a white hat – the same kind the Janissaries wore centuries ago – and around his neck hangs a stone with 12 corners, known as a palihenk. His entourage – Eldi’s father and a one-eyed major domo – start handing out the coffee-flavored sweets. As a foreign visitor, I am given the place of honor, right beside Baba.

I’ve heard that Baba was an officer in the Albanian army during the communist years. After the regime change, many former officers turned to religion to find meaning in their lives – today some are Jehovah’s Witnesses, some staunch Catholics. But none has reached the heights Mondi has. (His loose connection to the Janissary tradition probably did not hurt when it came time for the Bektashis to select a new leader.)

I also know that, like all dervishes, he enjoys earthly pleasures. (Recently photos circulated on the Albanian internet of Baba holding a glass of rakia.) This causes fits of apoplexy among Muslims of other sects, which Baba ignores.

I would like to ask him about his path from belief in communism to belief in Allah, and about the difficulty Bektashis face being people in the middle – the sort who want to communicate with both Muslims and Christians. He even met recently with a delegation of Orthodox Jews.

But I have no time to ask my questions, despite spending half a day by Baba’s side. We welcome the delegation from Macedonia, then the government officials, then the students. Baba has warm words for each of them. Moved, the believers kiss his hands, hug him, and ask for a prayer.

Then I am invited to go with Baba to the tomb of his predecessor, where, just like Eldi, he strokes the tombstone three times. Then it’s back to welcoming visitors: a group from the city of Durres, one from another district of Tirana, some businessmen, a delegation of Albanian emigrants from Greece.

As evening approaches, Baba tells me it was nice meeting me and that soon he has to leave the city. “I have a meeting tomorrow in Shkodra, on the border with Montenegro,” he explains.

“But I have a lot of questions to ask you!” I protest.

“Sufis learn by example, and not by talking. Which is why we showed you exactly how we live. Won’t that do?” But Baba relents, stops in the doorway. “Fine, you may ask me two questions.”

So I do. “How is it possible that you, a Muslim, have a picture of the Prophet Mohammed in your house?”

“Well, we Bektashis are … a little different.” Baba Mondi smiles provocatively.

“And what’s the most important thing in life?”

“What do you mean? Love!”

With this, Baba pats me on the shoulder, smooths his beard, bundles himself into a car, and drives off in the direction of the border town.

Witold Szablowski is a reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, co-funded by the European Union, and originally appeared in Kontynenty magazine. Translated by Garry Malloy.