Thursday, July 30, 2015

Geo Cast interview

Interview for Geographical magazine on the work I did with the Rufa' Sufi's in Kosovo. Presented by Chris Fitch. For more on this story, see the August 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

Monday, July 27, 2015

Geographical Magazine August 2015

My Sufi feature in the Royal Geographical Magazine feature August 2015.

The 22nd of March marks a special day of the year for Shejh Adrihusein Shehu and his sons. It’s the day they celebrate a remarkable tradition that has survived the dissolution of the Ottoman empire and the more recent wars of the Balkan region. They are Rufa’i Sufis and on this day the Shejh presides over their Sultan Nevrus celebrations at the Sufi house of worship in Prizren, Kosovo. During the celebrations they observe the Sufi ritual Ijra, during which the Shejh will pierce the cheeks of his sons and followers with traditional steel needles over a foot in length. 

 Sultan Nevrus marks the first day of Spring according to the old Persian calendar (the word Nevruz is of Persian origin and is a combination of the words ‘nev’ (new) and ‘ruz’ (day), meaning ‘new day’). The celebrations are held in honour of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was both the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and the first young male to accept Islam. They culminate in the ritual Ijra, during which Shejh Adrihusein Shehu pushes long spike-like needles called Zarfs through the cheeks of his sons and some of his followers, and devotees chant the Zikr: a mantra-like repetition of verses from the Quran. 

The rite of piercing, while an act of devotion, is also said to have its roots in the culture of the military men who made up the ranks of the Sufi order throughout the Ottoman Empire up to the present day. As Shejh Lulzim Shehu of the Union of Kosovo Tarikats explained to me, these men prepared for wounding in battle by giving themselves physical traumas and practising Zikr in order to cultivate an ability to remain calm under physical and mental stress. The origin of Sufism is a subject for much debate. For many, Sufism has multiple religious and cultural links, with pre-Islamic roots, but it is generally thought of as the mystical heart of Islam with its beginnings in the first centuries following the life of the Prophet Mohammad. 

The Rifa'i Order is widely accepted to have been founded in the 12th century in Basra, Iraq by Ahmad Ibn Ali al-Rifai, and arrived in the Balkans 400 years later, when Kosovo was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, though the current branch wasn't established until 1860. In 1974, Shehu's father Sheikh Xhemal founded an association of Dervish orders and Shehu's branch is now one of seven practising in Kosovo. Sufis believe that they can commune with God in a deeper way than achievable in orthodox Islam and use music and dance in their rituals - which are forbidden in most Muslim worship. For the Shejh and his sons the day of Sultan Nevrus has a festival atmosphere and this year they welcome to the proceedings esteemed guests Seyh Veysel Dalsaldi from Istanbul and Shiek Mohammad Ihmedan from Houston, Texas, as well as the Kosovan President, Atifete Jahjaga.  

When I first arrive to join them on the Friday before the celebrations I meet Shejh Adrihusein Shehu at his Tekke (the Sufi gathering place and house of worship) where he talks to me about Sufism. ‘Most people are here, on the surface of the ocean,’ he begins, holding a strong-looking hand horizontally in the air. 'But Sufis, Sufis go deep, go under,’ and he sweeps his hand down in a diving motion. His eldest son, Sejjid Rina Shehu takes me on a tour of the Tekke, listing the ages of the various ritual axes and weapons that hang on the wall. ‘This is 200 years old,’ he says, passing me an ornate Zarf. It is crowned with a large, heavy bulb from which short chains ending in tear-shaped disks cascade. The chains fan out wildly as Sejjid spins the Zarf between his palms. In the centre of the wall there is a semi-circular enclave called a Mihrab. It is bathed in green light and is filled with Zarfs ranging in sizes with the smaller ones intended for the younger boys to use and the heavier ones for the men. Sejjid is 25 and was first pierced when he was five years old. His brother Xhihan is 19 and experienced his first piercing at seven, and Emir, the youngest of the three at 12, began his piercings at the age of six. Sejjid explains what he takes from the practice of Zikr, how it makes him content and happy. He radiates a sense of calm as he talks. The piercing he explains, isn’t the focus of the day, it is only part of the ceremony. The focus is the Zikr, the devotion to God.

I am invited back on the eve of the Ijra. When I arrive I am politely ushered into the Tekke to sit with the lesser ranked Sufis and the young boys. An important dignitary is due to arrive and the Shejh and his guests will hold a private audience with her. Sejjid casually tells me the guest is the Kosovan President, Atifete Jahjaga. She stays for an hour with a TV crew while the Sufis sing. They continue long after she departs, completing the Zikr and retiring to Shejh Adrihusein’s lounge where we all drank sweet black tea and they sing Turkish Sufi songs late into the night. On the wall there are photographs of the Shejh as a young man, and of his teacher, and a depiction of Ahmed ar-Rifa’i (1118–1182), the founder of the Rufa’i Order. These pictures represent the Shejh’s Silsila or lineage and I am shown an ornate document of this Silsila depicting a family tree that traces the Shejh’s lineage right back to Ahmed ar-Rifa’i himself. This is the lineage of the Order, its teaching and the Ijra ritual. As I leave I am told by the Shejh, to come early tomorrow for the ceremony, it will be busy.  

By noon the next day, the day of the piercing, the courtyard of the Tekke is full to capacity. Men in suits and in Sufi robes stand around talking and smoking; elderly mustachioed men in traditional Kosovan white hats are greeted and given seats. By the door of the Tekke two Sufis stand guard, holding ceremonial poleaxes, crossed to bar the entrance. They move the poleaxes out of my path as I approach but their faces remain stern and solemn. Inside, the floor of the Tekke is filled with concentric circles - or Halkas - of kneeling Sufi devotees: both men and boys dressed in white and black robes and felt Fez hats. Their ages range from five to 85. The room is alive with expectation and the audience areas are full to capacity, with Kosovans of all backgrounds in attendance. Above us, viewing galleries of white-scarved women look on: they are the partners, mothers and daughters of the men and boys below. Shejh Adrihusein enters, wearing a green robe and a black and red turban. He is followed by Seyh Veysel Dalsaldi and Shiek Mohammad Ihmedan and flanked by senior Sufis. For several hours the Sufis sing and chant, the songs building up into fast, guttural breathing. It is loud, frantic and immersive and it is utterly impossible not to be drawn into the intensity and rhythmic noise in the room. The chant is addressed to God, starting slowly and gently: ‘There is no God but Allah’. The devotees raise and drop their shoulders to the pace as they chant louder and louder, accompanied by the rhythmic beating of the Kudum, a flat drum, not unlike a traditional Irish Bodhrán. The chanting draws to a crescendo and the Sufis relax and settle back to a gentle swaying with a soft and drawn out ‘Hu’ before it all begins again. The words are sures and ajets from the Quran. Hu means God is one, Hu in Arabic mean’s ‘He’ its symbolizes God and its seen as one of the names of God.

The time approaches for the piercings and the Shejh blesses the Zarf needles in preparation. Emir, the Shejh’s youngest son stands before him stoically as the chanting Shejh takes a small Zarf from the Mihrab, blesses it by slowly pressing his lips along the long sharp needle and easily passes it through his son’s cheek. Emir does not react and retakes his place in the core of the circle of swaying Sufis while several boys wait their turn. As the chanting crescendos, the Shejh chooses a larger Zarf and men stand forward who wish to be pierced. Sejjid is one of them and his father presses his fingers on the outside of his son’s cheek and pushes the point of the Zarf through the flesh in one well-practised movement. The pierced Sufis do not bleed as they sway back and forth, holding the large bulbs of the Zarfs in their left hands. An 85 year old man holds a Zarf that pierces through his cheek.

In the centre of the circle two senior Sufis dance, spinning the Zarfs between the flats of their palms, causing the chains that circle them to fan out and cut the air. They push the points deep into the hollow of their throats before piercing both cheeks. The only blood appearing is a small trickle after the Zarfs are removed. One of these men - Aliezgar Kabashi - wears a formidable moustache and has steely eyes but he is kind and humble and later thanks me for attending the days events. On his cheeks he wears small circular scars of many years practising Ijra. 

The Shehu's eldest son Sejjid, talks to me after his piercing. ‘I feel happy,’ he says, simply.  ‘See, there is little blood.’ He points to a thin line of congealed blood that has tracked a path through his beard. After the ceremony is completed I am invited to the Shejh's lounge where he has a media audience. Here the Shejh promotes a message of religious peace and open-mindedness. Having seen the devastation of war and ethnic atrocities - in an area that is still recovering from the 1998-99 war against neighbouring Serbia - he understands the need for Kosovo’s different cultures, ethnicities and religions to celebrate their similarities. ‘We are all believers in the same God, but take different paths,’ he tells us. Within the Order there is a true sense of community and brotherhood and it’s clear the celebrations are deeply important in the lives of both young and old practitioners alike. The rite and tradition of this, the first day of Spring, is an inherited responsibility that has run through generations of the Tekke and will continue through the family of Shejh Adrihusejn. At its core is a mysticism and belief in the divine that is compelling, and which provides a unifying cultural cornerstone in Kosovo that Kosovans from all backgrounds can celebrate.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Royal Navy photo shoot - the perks.

Not everyday you get to man the GPMG on a type 45 Royal Navy Destroyer...