Inside Europe’s Mystical Sufi Lodges, Part III: Kosovo

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. 

Forty years ago, while being a member of the Bektashi order was still outlawed in Yugoslavia, Baba Mumin was a diligent claims processor for the state insurance body. “I gave everyone whatever they asked for,” he now says about those years. “There were fires, floods, theft… But I was not cruel to anyone.” We can only go as far as a block on the streets of Gjakove, Kosovo as he says these words. Everyone we pass by stops and shakes Baba Mumin’s hand and wants to exchange a few words of greeting.

It was midnight in Gjakove when we arrived. Passing an uncannily large number of wedding-banquet halls, clubs, and a hay fire on a narrow stretch of highway off of the much larger new road built between the heart of Kosovo and the heart of Albania, we had finally reached the narrow cobblestone streets of Gjakove’s old town. The Gjakove tekke’s lights were still on and the door unlocked. Baba Mumin had other company and a stack of documents in front of him. After inquiring as to why I had come, he said quickly, “We can talk over dinner.” We left the tekke, and as we walked he began to recall his time first as a claims processor, and later as a dervish and a baba. We entered an old caravanserai now used as a restaurant, where patrons and employees alike seemed excited to see him. He had not had time to order when two waiters brought dinner and rakija for the table. This was clearly not the first time he was met with such gestures, yet he still seemed humbled and pleased. In typical Bektashi fashion, he put his hand over his heart and tapped twice, softly.

The Gjakove tekke looks remarkably new for an Ottoman-era tekke, with white plaster walls, a pristine courtyard, marble floors and chandeliers. This is because the original tekke, dating back to 1790, was burnt down in the Kosovo War of 1999, along with all of its books, writings, archives, drawings, and the cemetery where the tekke’s late babas and dervishes were buried. Hostility was high within the ethnically divided Kosovo, says Baba Mumin. After Kosovo’s independence, the new government helped rebuild the tekke—not in its original place but on the land a former baba had donated.

Baba Mumin is soft-spoken, very calm, and ceremoniously respectful. The narrow cobblestone streets prove no frustration to him as he patiently gives way to fellow drivers, pedestrians, and farm animals. When he mentions the name of someone he really respects in conversation, he likes to stand up. Talking about the fate of Kosovo and its independence, he often mentions Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller. He believes she single-handedly prevented a bigger catastrophe from befalling Kosovo during the 1994 and 1999 conflicts. Every time he speaks her name, he stands up, and puts his hand over his heart, pauses for two seconds, sits down and continues talking. Seeing this, everyone in his company stands up too—caught somewhat abruptly, but very cautious not to disrespect someone Baba Mumin would hold in such high esteem. The conversation continues, Tansu Ciller keeps coming up, and by the third time this happens, everyone has learned the choreography; they push their chair back softly and stand up in coordinated reverence.

Baba Mumin’s warm and kind demeanor belies his stark perception of the present turmoil Kosovo and the small Bektashi community in Gjakove are facing. Caught in the midst of the international tug-of-war over which countries shall influence Kosovo (and having experienced attacks, arson, exile and banishment for lesser things in the past), Bektashis here know better and make their endorsements subtly. However, Baba Mumin’s study, like many other Bektashi meeting rooms in other tekkes, is full of photos of him arm in arm with the very same government and military leaders who helped legitimize Kosovar independence in their respective nations, as well as in assorted legislative and administrative bodies of NATO, the UN and the EU. Baba Mumin says that Kosovar people suffered, and as they suffered, nobody in the world believed they could one day be independent. But now the tide has turned, and even when Kosovar Bektashis are subtle in their relatively stable life, signs that Kosovar and Albanian national interests are slowly overlapping are not so subtle. Of all things, the least subtle sign is a four-lane highway connecting Tirana and Prizren. While many would wonder how a road could possibly mean so much, in a geography where four lanes, dividers, lighting and no holes are not just a rarity but visibly non-existent anywhere else, this highway speaks volumes.

But these things matter less to Baba Mumin now. Bektashi faith has never discriminated by nationality, ethnic ties, or language. He does take pride in Kosovo’s independence, and that Bektashis (and other Muslim groups) can now practice much more freely in Gjakove. However, for now a road could not help his immediate concerns: unemployment, environmental decay, homelessness, lack of welfare and population increase—all in this town. There are families of ten, fifteen, he says, and he prays every day that the children in those families may have what they need. He is lost deep in thought when the phone rings. He returns to his jolly self, and greets the baba on the other end. “Babaaa!!” he exclaims. He lights his cigarette as he listens, leans back, and makes a circling motion with his index finger to his helper—meaning, bring coffee to everyone.

Read More by Mehves Lelic

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Meet the Author
Mehves is a documentary photographer from Istanbul, Turkey. She got her B.A in Political Science from the University of Chicago in 2013 and has worked in the U.S, Turkey, China, Rwanda, and the Balkans. She is documenting life at Sufi lodges in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo for her Young Explorers project.