The Facebook Dervish

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Here is a fabulous blog post written by my Peace Corps friend and colleague Miles. It’s the story of his adventurous pilgrimage to the Bektashi “bloodfest” that took place on Mount Tomori a few weeks ago. Miles is a great writer and photographer and I am grateful to him for allowing me to share his words and images. You’ll have to read all the way to the end to find out why he’s entitled the piece “The Facebook Dervish”!

“Last weekend, I went on a solo three-day hike to the Festival of Tomori…..

……a yearly pilgrimage for Bektashi adherents held on the mountain known fondly by locals as “Father Tomori.” The yearly festival, also known as the “bloodfest” includes the ritual slaughter and roasting of thousands of sheep, high on the mountain slopes. Participants include several thousand Bektashi, an ancient Sufi order that makes up about 15% of Albania. The Bektashi faith emphasizes tolerance, moderation, personal spiritual development and humor. Also, apparently, a yearly saturnalia with dancing, drinking, and ritual slaughter.

The original plan was that [my wife] Michelle and I would go together, but we scrapped this notion due to bad roads and Michelle’s carsickness. One of the most frustrating aspects of life here is the lack of direct routes from one place to another. Even roads between major cities often take a painfully circuitous route–in the case of Korca to Mount Tomori, 30 miles as-the-crow-flies becomes an eight-hour journey with four or more buses.

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The road route from Korça to Tomori: 4 mini-buses and 8+ hours.
After studying topo maps, I decided it would be feasible to hike to the mountain from a village due west of Korca. Climbing up over something marked “Snake Pass,” I would spend the night close to the headwaters of the Devoll river before hiking up to the festival on the second day, and returning by bus on the third.

My Albanian friends all thought this sounded crazy. Ignoring their concern, I set up a GPS tracker on my phone so Michelle could follow my progress, and headed out into the beyond.

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Just below Greva, a village with a 4-desk schoolhouse, accessed almost exclusively on foot.
The hike was incredible. For the most part, my route followed an unpaved road that skirted several tiny villages (in some cases, really just clusters of buildings). I spoke with a few shepherds along the way, who nodded approvingly at my plan: what was crazy to my friends in the city was daily life for these wiry old men.

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Moonset over Mount Tomori on the second morning of my hike. The Teqe shrine — my destination — sits on top of the peak to the right.
I camped that night in a small clearing, packing up early the next morning to avoid any awkward encounters with goat herds.

Climbing up the slopes of Tomori, I made it to the festival center just after midday. Tucked on the slopes of the mountain a few thousand feet below the peak, the camp was lifted from the set of Mad Max: a main street lined with makeshift vendors, choked with people and trucks and an overpowering amalgam of dust, blasting folk music and campfire smoke. Live sheep were everywhere: in crates on top of cars, enclosed in pens, being tugged along by children. Also scattered throughout the camp were smoking fire pits, with arrays of skewered and roasting sheep slowly spinning over hot coals.

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The camp was fairly clean, but sheep parts and dust were everywhere, creating a macabre atmosphere.
I made camp with some other Peace Corps Volunteers who had traveled to the festival. Together we picked out a live sheep for slaughter (at $3/kg, $60 for a small sheep), and waited in line at the crowded slaughtering station. The station consisted a long series of 30 or so pairs of hooks, each attended by a professional who would string up the dead sheep, clean and skin it for about $5.

The whole process was oddly quiet; the sheep didn’t scream, or show much distress. Ours just waited there for its turn, held upside down by its hindquarters — resigned, I suppose, to its fate. When it finally came, it was over in seconds. Afterward, the butcher proffered us a knife covered in bright red blood, which we dabbed on our foreheads in accordance with Bektashi custom.

Our sheep
Our sheep
We left our sheep over a fire and settled into our camp for the evening, drinking clear brandy made from thane (Cornelian Cherry). Over my shoulder, a group of old men were sitting in a circle, singing in the ancient polyphonic style typical of Southern Albania (see/hear example here).

After several hours of roasting, the sheep was delicious, smoky and salty — I split the head with a friend (careful to avoid the brain – PSA: don’t eat mammal brains!)  As night fell, the loudspeakers from cars and makeshift dance halls were cranked to 11, testing the treble with ear-shattering clarinet solos from Albanian pop-folk classics (see/hear example here)

The pelts are offered to the poor for charity.
The pelts are offered to the poor for charity.
Suffice it to say, I slept poorly that night, finally giving up at 4:30 AM to begin the final ascent to the peak. By that time, the sun was just beginning to show, and most people had gone to bed –bodies strewn everywhere, on tarps, blankets, even bare ground. The music, of course, was still playing; passing by one of the dance halls I found a group of several dozen young Albanians energetically dancing round and round in a traditional circle dance. I wondered how they never seem to get dizzy (let alone tired).

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Circle dancing at 5 AM.
Following the road that switched back to the mountaintop shrine, I was soon looking down at the lights of the camp far below. The air was clear and cold, and I paused to watch the sun rise out over my home in Korca. A number of cars passed me along the way, many offering me a ride that I would decline (much to their bemusement). Out of the hundreds of people on the mountain that morning, I was the only one on foot. This felt particularly strange given how new cars are in Albania, with few people owning them until 10 to 20 years ago.

How could a centuries-old walking pilgrimage change overnight into a morning drive?  Didn’t anybody notice that something had changed, that something was left behind?  In their eagerness to embrace the luxury of driving, it seems that the luxury of walking has been forgotten entirely.

The Teqe shrine at the top of Mount Tomori
The Teqe shrine at the top of Mount Tomori
I made the peak after two hours of climbing, the light still slanting low across miles and miles of rugged river valleys below. The peak was busy with a small crowd milling around a sheep cleaning rack. The very top was capped with a small octagonal structure with a turquoise dome, the “teqe” entombing the body of Bektashi leader Abas Ali.

As I rested at the peak, I struck up conversation with a friendly Albanian named Pepi. His eyes widened when I told him where I walked from. “Do you want to meet the Dervish?” he asked. He gestured to the man perched along the wall in flowing white robes and beard.

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Scene from the top.
Pepi introduced us, telling the Dervish that I was American. With a smile and a flourish, the Dervish patted the empty stone beside him, telling me to sit. So I sat, and watched for several minutes as Dervish Mikeli greeted devotees:  a family with a sick daughter, two old brothers, a young couple with an infant. To each he listened attentively, bestowed blessings, and accepted kisses on his hand or face. The young mother, eyes shining, could barely speak through her emotion.

After some time, he turned to me with a direct and unflinching gaze.  His head was framed by the morning sun, the rough fringe of his beard caught in golden light. And then he was speaking to me, telling me that he knew what I was looking for, that it is as the Prophet said, that true meaning can only be found in the spiritual world, that I must find spiritual balance to achieve harmony in my life, that I must expand my heart and open my soul.

Honestly, as far as “wisdom” goes, it was run of the mill — nothing I hadn’t heard before; Hallmark wisdom, basically. But, with the weight of his eyes and the long walk behind it, his words cut like certain truth, seared into my memory.

I thanked him, got up, lightheaded, and shouldered my bag to head down. “Young man,” the Dervish called after me, when I was several steps away.  I turned around.

“Young man!  Friend me on Facebook!”

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Dervish Mikeli (photo from Facebook).

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