Mehves Lelic is a professional photographer and writer from Istanbul. She is traveling throughout Eastern Europe to shed light on the history and everyday life of the Bektashis, an Islamic religious order that has faced persecution and extreme challenges throughout the turmoil of the region’s last century.
This chilly afternoon, Dervish Muttalib, the only remaining dervish living and serving in the ancient and urban Harabati Baba Tekke (Lodge) in Tetovo, Macedonia, has welcomed a German consular officer from Tirana to a muhabbet. Muhabbet is a ritualistic conversation over a big meal and plum brandy, where participants engage in a discussion on Bektashi interpretations of faith and divinity and sing traditional Bektashi hymns. Dervish Muttalib first welcomes everyone to the muhabbet table with his easygoing trilingualism in Albanian, Turkish, and Macedonian. Before the less learned can make out what he means by letting go of one’s nefs (ego) and approaching the Beloved (God), the saki pours plum brandy in everyone’s glass. The Saki is the designated pourer of these muhabbet tables, and he covers the glasses with his palm as he pours, so no one may know how much the other is having. It is the saki’s great skill to make sure everyone has enough and no one has too much or too little.
Dervish Muttalib leads this particular muhabbet, singing Bektashi hymns (nefes), explaining the pillars of Bektashi faith, and telling everyone to help themselves to more of the delicious food. Near the end of the muhabbet, when a feeling of relaxed seclusion has come over everyone at the table, the last line from Dervish Muttalib’s nefes begins to resonate: Muhabbet baldan tatli olur, doyamazsin demedim mi? (Muhabbet is sweeter than honey, haven’t I told you you wouldn’t be sated?)
The very practice of muhabbet challenges more conservative and mainstream Islamic traditions and unleashes disapproving and forbidding attention upon the Bektashis. The latest manifestation of such attention has been the takeover of the Harabati Baba tekke by a large Salafi group. Dervish Muttalib says the Salafis were not happy with the singing, consumption of alcohol, and co-ed service, and so one day in 2003 about fifty of them showed up with Kalashnikoffs. The conflict has not wound down since and the Bektashis have been pushed into a corner of the tekke that can only be reached through a passageway. They are out of sight. Dervish Muttalib points out soberly that this is not the first time Bektashis have had to hide.
At 6’3’’, the low doorways of Bektashi tekkes seem to have been made for Dervish Muttalib. He is quite jolly and energetic, and tourists from everywhere trickle in to see the tekke and talk to him every day. He greets all of them with equal joy and offers coffee or tea before posing patiently for photographs. Tourists aren’t Dervish’s only visitors. It appears the Bektashi Sufi order has numerous meaningful lessons for various institutions, if not for Muslim fundamentalists: the walls of the dining room are covered with photographs of Dede Baba Mondi, the spiritual leader of the whole order, and other Bektashi babas and dervishes shaking the hands of European Union officials, army officials, government officials, NGO representatives, and several leaders of different religions, denominations, sects, and nations.
Later, when visitors are gone, Dervish Muttalib explains that many people try to remain close to the Bektashi world because it helps them connect to their own heritage. The past political and social calamities in the region have broken people away from their own family histories and has confiscated certain material connections they may have, such as houses, land and even books and photographs. The grandchildren of former trustees, dervishes, or ashiks (uninitiated followers) of Harabati Baba Tekke still come by to visit, and some try to help tend to its needs. Some of the other regular visitors have recovered from serious illnesses or personal troubles with the help of Bektashi babas or dervishes and have remained eternally grateful. Amongst such regulars there is even a cat, which arrived at Harabati Baba with its eyes crossed and dragging its hind legs after a car accident. Now that it has recovered, it never leaves Dervish’s feet.
The Harabati Baba Tekke has been standing at the foot of the very last hills of the mountains between Macedonia and Albania since the 1500s. One could say the fact that it has survived after being burned down by guerrillas in 1948, or being converted into a hotel, disco and restaurant for Party cadres in the 1960s, or bearing witness to the militia fights on the border is either mere luck, or a miracle. If it is a miracle, it is clear that it is not the only one in the Bektashi world.