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Rite of spring: in the Kosovan city of Prizren, close to the borders of Albania and Macedonia, the Shehu family keep Europe's centuries-old Sufi tradition of piercing alive.

March 22 is a special day of the year for Shejh Adrihusein Shehu and his sons. It's the day they celebrate a remarkable tradition, one 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 use traditional steel needles, over a foot in length, to pierce the cheeks of followers, including his own three sons.


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. 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--forbidden in most Muslim worship.

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). 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 followers, and devotees chant the Zikr. a mantra-like repetition of verses from the Qur'an.

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 pre-sent 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.


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.

When I 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 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, while 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 and 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 and they continue long after she departs, completing the Zikr and retiring to Shejh Adrihusein's lounge to drink sweet black tea and sing Turkish Sufi songs late into the night.

On the wall there are photographs of the Shejh as a young man, 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 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.


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 moustachioed 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.

Inside, the floor of the tekke is filled with concentric circles--or halkas--occupied by 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 bodhran. 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 from the Qu'ran: Hu in Arabic is 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 by pressing his lips along the long sharp needle and easily passes it through his son's cheek. Emir doesn't 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.

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 hollows 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. 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, the Shejh holds a media audience in his lounge. Here he 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 sense of 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.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE: Kosovan dervishes
Comment:Rite of spring: in the Kosovan city of Prizren, close to the borders of Albania and Macedonia, the Shehu family keep Europe's centuries-old Sufi tradition of piercing alive.(CULTURE: Kosovan dervishes)
Author:Field, Darragh Mason
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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