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 Husni shows up in a dark-green 4×4. The roaring is faint at first, then it grows closer, until everyone in the only coffee shop of Krasta, an industrial ghost town in Albania’s interior, is looking out to see who it is. Communist-era housing blocks, now falling apart, line the other side of the town square. The decay is grim but Baba’s arrival is a scene from a movie: he turns off the engine, jumps out, fixes his ceremonial hat and starts shaking hands. Children come by, too. Now there is a circle of people around him.
An hour, two mountains and a river later we are back at the Martanesh tekke (sufi lodge). Now it is clear why he drives the 4×4—there is no road from Krasta. The tekke is relatively old, and Baba Husni is relatively young; his face has a reddish hue and his beard is not quite gray. He does not talk much; he only casually describes the two families that live downhill on the mountain as we pass their two- or three-household communes. The remoteness of the tekke has helped it remain in place, he says. “No one could find it, so no one could tear it down.” When the tekke finally emerges amongst the hills, it is an uncanny sight from another time: a white dot on the wild mountain. As we get closer, details begin to emerge: old, white stonework, an ancient cemetery, inscriptions in Ottoman Turkish, and fruit trees, barren in the winter. The seclusion of the tekke is not accidental. Many Bektashi tekkes were built in mountains or remote areas, both to foster a life of monastic worship, and to protect members of the order from disapproving eyes.
Baba Husni has two helpers at the tekke who set a table for coffee and a late lunch with plum brandy when we arrived. Bektashis never let a guest go without humbling them with their hospitality first, and a conversation about Bektashism is the best companion to any meal. A Sufi warrior-saint who is thought to have lived in the latter half of the 13th century, Sari Saltik, has been on Baba Husni’s mind, he says, and our conversation begins. Sari Saltik is a fascinating figure—so much folk legend and reverence surrounds the story of his life that the Bektashi community could fill three conference days with talks devoted entirely to his legacy. The lack of historical sources documenting his life is remedied by the very rich Bektashi oral tradition that has passed on tales of his bravery and supernatural gifts. Amongst all the stories of Sari Saltik’s trials and victories, Baba Husni has a particular favorite, in which Sari Saltik slays the seven-headed dragon. Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi and Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta have recorded stories of Sari Saltik’s life and adventures in the past. Today, however, one may start searching for Sari Saltik on the side of a mountain cave in Kruje where he has left a giant footprint, or in one of seven graves—prior to his death he asked his men to send seven coffins bearing his name to seven kingdoms across the Balkans and Anatolia.
Before darkness falls, a family arrives to see Baba Husni, with gifts for the tekke and a rooster to sacrifice. It is unclear how anyone could find or reach this tekke, least of all in the two-door Uno they have driven up with, but they have. Perhaps the car shares the world-famous Albanian stubbornness. Baba Husni listens to the family and prays for them, and of course, insists that they stay for dinner. All four members of the family have to participate in declining his invitation just to convince him; it takes several moments for Baba Husni to finally give in. There are no lights on the mountain, and everyone must get to where they are going before nightfall, but next time they will come earlier.
The tekke falls into silence as they drive away, now alone save for the memory of generations of babas and dervishes who have served here. Even for those who have rarely been off the grid in their lifetime, it becomes easy to imagine passing each day on the mountain, surrounded by the spirit and the story. Then again, here on the mountain, it even becomes easy to imagine Sari Saltik slaying the dragon.