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.
Baba Iskenderu is busy these days. Behind the walk-up apartment that currently also functions as his Sufi lodge rises the columns and cement outlines of a brand new lodge, which he is developing. Energy drink in hand, he goes around the piles of stones to the end of the site. Beyond the construction lies the plain and the first range of mountains. Looking out into the view, Baba Iskenderu remembers that he was going to call Dervish Murteza, who served and studied under him, to check on how things were going. Dervish Murteza is at the Melanit lodge, tucked deep inside the next mountain in sight. After the two speak, Baba Iskenderu is not entirely convinced that Dervish Murteza is well and has everything he needs, so he decides to send him several bottles of brandy. Baba Iskenderu’s lodge-brewed brandy is famous even among the Bektashis in America who have traveled to Albania, as it has a specific smoky and woody undertone.
Baba Iskenderu’s lodge is one of many in Gjirokaster, an intriguing region in the south of Albania. A narrow plain of towns, fields and a road divide two ranges of mountains. Almost every town has a Bektashi lodge; some are old, some are new, but all of them are well-known by the locals. Similar to Central Asian and Middle Eastern traditions of visiting shrines to pray and make wishes, locals uphold the tradition of visiting the babas of these lodges, asking them for advice, and listening to them speak about Bektashi philosophy, sometimes for hours on end.
The Melanit lodge gets its share of visitors, too—young people from the towns drive up to sit with Dervish Murteza and help him around the lodge. Some of them are considering joining the order formally. Some are already ashiks (lit. lovers) of the order, who follow the guidance and teachings of the Bektashis but have not been initiated as dervishes. Every evening, when work is done, they make a circle around Dervish Murteza in the guest room of the 18th century lodge, taking alternating sips of coffee, brandy and water, and talking and asking questions into the night.