Fieldwork Report: Albania and Kosovo, November 2021, by Gianfranco Bria
From 15 to 20 November 2022, I went to Albania and Kosovo to conduct a fieldwork research mission as part of the ‘Red Golden Legend’ ANR Project. My main objective was to conduct bibliographical research in the State Archives of Tirana, Shkodra and Prishtina. In these places, I searched for the hagiographic productions concerning two of the saints on whom I am concentrating my research: Dervishe Hatixhe, one of the most important and famous Islamic saints in Albania, and Zonja e Shpirtit, the ‘Spirit Lady’ – Eleonorë Bregu (1953–2015), the founder and leader of a Muslim missionary movement. In addition, I conducted semi-structured interviews with believers who visited the grave of Dervishe Hatixhe in Tirana. This research has allowed me to collect hagiographic materials on these women of God who, in different ways, personify modern Muslim sainthood in the Albanian world.
Dervishe Hatixhe (1726–1798) was a woman originally from Tirana linked to the Qadiri Sufi order. According to her hagiography, Hatixhe served as the shaykh of the tekke (Sufi lodge) she founded, hence her epithet of Dervishe. She suffered under her husband’s tyranny and is particularly remembered for her benevolent assistance to Tirana’s people during a malarial epidemic. Her tekke and türbe (grave) are in Rruga e Dervishe Hatixheve, in the heart of Tirana, the Albanian capital. At their common entrance, there is a room on the right where visitors light candles to earn blessing and healing. On the left, there is the sema’-hane (lit. ‘audition room’) where the dhikr (invocation ceremony) is celebrated. The room is usually forbidden to visitors and open once a year, on Hatixhe’s anniversary. In the room towards the back, there are four tombs (including that of Hatixhe). The four tombs are covered with a green cloth, without any special inscription, only on Hatixhe’s there is a white cloth with her name. At the foot of her tomb, there is a Qur’an, which is usually read quickly during visits.
The tekke of Dervishe Hatixhe was inaugurated on 26 October 1992, in the presence of political, religious and civil authorities. Sufi authorities labelled the holy woman ‘a healing saint and Tirana’s holy protector’ (comparing her, sometimes, to Mother Teresa). The Islamic authorities too, as well as the tomb’s curators, call Hatixhe ‘mother of the nation’, beyond her denomination: she belongs to all Albanians, without distinction. For many Albanians, religion is a private matter, secondary to national belonging, which prevails over any other identity. An attitude that, while stemming from the nationalist discourse born in the period of the national independence movement (Rilindja) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was amply elaborated and even sublimated, during the socialist era (1946–91), by the antireligious policies and atheistic propaganda of the socialist regime which succeeded in rooting national ideology in societies. These discourses are embedded and reproduced by state-recognised religious denominations as well. Visitors refer sometimes to Islamic graves with the ambivalent terms wakëf (Arabic waqf) and vend i shenjtë (‘holy place’), more rarely teqe (tekke), türbe or xhamia (‘mosque’). This indecision, according to De Rapper, results from the marginalisation of the confessional institutions under communist rule: having lost references to the categories produced by religious authorities, the believers recuperate them by themselves, applying them to all sorts of places associated with religion.
The ‘Spirit Lady’, Eleonorë Bregu (1953-2015), founded in 1987 and further led the Misioni Shenjtëror Eleonorë (‘Eleonora’s Holy Mission’), a Sufi-grounded movement. In that year, Eleonorë initiated her first communication with the ‘Entities of the Divine League’ (Entitetet e Lidhjes Hyjnore) to restore, upon Divine order, ‘Balance on Earth’ (Ekuilibrimin e Tokës), damaged by communist rule. In 1988, she began her activity in her family home in Tirana, where she began to operate as a Bektashi tekke. (She belonged to a family of Bektashi Sufis.) This activity remained clandestine until 1990, because of the ban imposed on religion by the communist regime. After the latter’s collapse, Eleonorë began to preach openly, involving believers of various social and religious backgrounds: Christians and Muslims met her in search of blessings and healing. Some became members of the Mission, i.e. initiates into ‘the process of assimilating Cosmic Energy (Energjia Kozmike) from the psychic energy of the person, which is crucial in his or her biological function’. Various publications developed Eleonorë’s doctrine by mixing Bektashi Sufism, parapsychology, astrology and astronomy.
Through donations from the faithful, the Misioni expanded their properties, establishing headquarters in Tirana and other missions throughout Albania in the form of vakëf. The Misioni Shenjtëror Eleonorë revealed a strongly anti-communist orientation, the past regime being accused of having ruined the cosmic balance established on earth because of its corruption, militant atheism and excessive passion for materiality. In fact, the movement marked a sharp break with the communist past, which was labelled blasphemous and evil, and with the subsequent, post-socialist period. In fact, Eleonorë aspired to remedy these problems, reconnecting the Albanian people with the higher entity. For this, she sought to heal the psychological and biological problems of a society unbalanced by the absence of religion. Eleonorë was the only Sufi-trained woman to lead a religious community in a society in which religious activity remains patriarchal. While never directly addressing gender issues, she proposed a Universalist model of authority and doctrine, elaborated mainly from Bektashi Sufism, which aimed to transcend any distinction of gender, sex, religion or race. However, this model was never recognised by other Sufi authorities because of its syncretic nature and the fact that its author was a woman.
Both cases reveal certain tendencies embedded in hagiographic reconstructions in post-socialist Albania. Dervish Hatixhe, for example, is considered a mother of the nation, according to the nationalist rhetoric that informs public discourses, including the religious discourse. In Eleonorë’s case, there is a strong anti-communist orientation and a double dichotomy between blasphemous/communism and spiritual/post-communism. Both cases reveal a certain sainthood demand put forward by the Albanians in the post-socialist period, albeit in different ways: Dervish Hatixhe refers to the more traditional model of Islamic sainthood; Eleonorë expresses a more universalistic and new-age sainthood. In both cases, however, it is important to note that they are women, whose gender implications are relevant and important within a strongly patriarchal society such as the Albanian one. I hope to analyse these latter aspects in further ethnographic surveys. However, due to the limited time available and the problems related to the Covid-19 pandemic in South-Eastern Europe, I did not conduct ethnographic surveys in Luzha and Martanesh, where I plan future fieldworks on the hagiographic representations of modern Muslim men of God such as Baba Martanesh and Dervish Luzha.