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.
Bektashi spirituality may appear most crystallized in the remote mountaintops and valley floors of Albania, but the grand conference room of one of Tirana’s best hotels will do, too. The approximate three-hundred guests of a conference that the Bektashi order has organized mingle outside the conference room, forming a tight crowd dotted occasionally with tajjs (Bektashi ceremonial hats) and long robes. The conference unfolds in easy versatility for the Bektashis as they unite their guests for an unspoken lesson in history: the Bektashi network has survived every single trial with banishment and exile, and is now becoming a cosmopolitan force in politics and social affairs.
The conference is not the only time of the year when the order’s spiritual faculties take a visibly accumulative form. Meeting local and foreign leaders, traveling for conferences, openings, speeches and functions, and making arrangements for expanding the activities of the order in one way or another is daily digest for Dede Baba (literally “grand father”) Edmond Brahimaj, the order’s top spiritual leader. A former military official who became a dervish as soon as the ban on the order was lifted in Albania, the Dede Baba at once displays the kindness and humility of an elected leader and the imposing determination of someone with a lot of responsibility. He moves in quick steps across the Bektashi headquarters in Tirana, where he lives, works, and receives guests. On a regular work day, his several aides only know bits and pieces of his schedule, as he is so busy. One moment he is meeting officials to tell them about some of the great teachings of the order—tolerance, love, and capacity for co-existence—and the next, he is walking over to the end of the yard to oversee the construction of their new building, all marble and glass. As he returns to the main building for more engagements he sees a few people who have lined up by the door for his prayers or advice, and he stops for them. It is unclear whether he eats or rests, and when a visitor tells him he feels humbled that Dede Baba Mondi (as he calls him) had to leave his home upstairs and get dressed to receive him, he replies: “These are small things.” His car has an embassy flag up front with the Bektashi tajj on it, and its doors are usually open, waiting to take him to one engagement or the other.
History tells us that Bektashis have most likely been a tightly knit, industrious community all along. Their close ranks were one of the reasons why they were perceived as threats to the various forms of rule they were under. A great majority of the Ottoman Janissary army were members of the order and had little trouble uniting to make demands or to protest the devaluation of their pay. Many stories and folktales on the life of Haji Bektash Veli, the mystic poet on whose teachings the order was built, usually feature power clashes between him and oppressive local rulers, who are sometimes his former pupils. Haji Bektash Veli always outsmarts them in the end, even when he is seemingly condemned or punished.
The order no longer faces existential threats, and in fact, its message and ideological contributions to modern iterations of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue are vital to various institutions. Baba Mondi often comes together with the leaders of other religious communities across Albania, other Balkan nations, and Europe; in fact, back at the Tirana conference hall, he is sitting next to a Greek Orthodox bishop on the podium, exchanging a few words and laughs on a backdrop of plastic irises and greens before an aide in a gray, shiny suit runs over and whispers in his ear that it is time for his opening address. House lights are dimmed and the audience, made up of followers and friends of Bektashis from all walks of life (who are within easy reach of each other should they be needed), quiets down, and Baba Mondi puts on the headphones the interpreter gave him and clears his throat.