A Bektashi Baba of Two Millenia: Baba Arshiu
Baba Arshi Bazaj is now 104 years old. He was born in the year 1906 in the small Albanian town of Sëvastër, a place some ten miles from the important port city of Vlora. At the end of one century and the start of another, Baba Arshi’s life moves forward. He possesses a set of piercing green eyes and a physical energy quite beyond belief for a centenarian. He sits back in his comfortable Chesterfield chair in the spacious coffee-room (kafe-oxhak) of the Bektashi Sufi lodge (Teqe) near Detroit, Michigan. Whenever someone comes into the room he rises up out of his chair like an 18 year-old. “Have a seat. Eyvallah! Don’t stand up for me,” he’s accustomed to saying. And he adds:
“There are rules here in the Teqe, please”.
There are few people that know about Baba Arshi’s life. Many secrets he entrusted only to his lifelong companion, the late Baba Rexheb (1901-1995). To this stoic Bektashi cleric, an almost impassable miasma hovers over memories of his childhood and youth of nearly a hundred years back. During the three times I was with him I always carried a notebook in order to take notes while he was speaking. During those three times he said nothing of his own life. Rather, with the pride of a “Labëri” (a southern Albanian) he wanted to talk about the city of Vlora and her sons, for Baba Arshi personally knew the great Albanian partiots Skënder Muço and Qazim Koculi, both native Vlorans.
During the Second World War Baba Arshi fought (as did Baba Rexheb) together with Hysein Lepenica, commander of the anti-communist Balli Kombëtar militia, of whom Baba Arshi spoke much. From the Albanian patriot Midhat Frashëri he had obtained a valuable book, The Bektashi Pages, but when the communists were pursuing him in the mountains above the city of Kukës in 1945 Baba Arshi was forced to burn it along with other books in his possession. Then, together with few companions, passed over the border and out of Albania.
I understood while we were together, walking one afternoon across the expansive parking lot of the Detroit Teqe that I should not ask too much. After having been with him regularly, I could discern one of his secret traits. Always, when I or someone else asks Baba Arshi, “May we visit the Turbé?” – the tomb where the saint Baba Rexheb rests - he never refuses. On our walk to the Turbé, we strolled unhurriedly, while sometimes I, and sometimes Baba Arshi, sang nostalgic southern Albanian songs that were popular some 70 years before. This created an atmosphere of amusement for us, since the words of these old songs are mixed, almost half being Turkish in origin. Baba Arshi does not let anyone speak while we are inside the Turbé. He communicates inside by moving his hands, believing, perhaps, that Baba Rexheb is sleeping and doesn’t want anyone to wake him up.
On walking back to the Teqe, happy that I kissed the sacred tomb, I started again to ask Baba Arshi about his life. Having fled Albanian on the eve of the communist takeover, he suffered 6 years living in refugee camps in both Greece and Italy. He faced many incidents while there - especially evading communist agents - but the saintly grace of Hajji Veli Bektash saw him through it all. Like the talisman (halmaili) Baba Arshi keeps tied around his neck, the words of Salih Nijazi Dedebaba, leader of the Order from 1913-1942, are kept safe in his memory. During one cold night in 1940, as Baba Arshi was staying at the foremost teqe of the Bektashi Order in Tirana, Salih Nijazi Dede said to him: “Listen my son (evlat)! It might be that in your life you go from one misfortune to another, from sadness to sadness, and from one sacrifice to the next. Keep Hajji Bektash Veli in your heart and mind and you will get around it all.”
To be in front of Baba Arshi is like being in front of a great labyrinth full of stories, songs, and spiritual advice. To see a little bit of that labyrinth you have to say some pleasant words to Baba Arshi about his hometown of Vlora. I did this, and it was like a key opening up a locked door. He told me how, with the help of Baba Rexheb and the American government, he came from the refugee camps of Italy to the Teqe in Detroit. But arriving at the Teqe did not mean ease. He immediately went to work. He and three other Bektashi dervishes (and Baba Rexheb) raised some 5,000 chickens on the Teqe’s property. Baba Arshi sold the Teqe’s eggs and fresh vegetables at local markets, but that was many, many years in the past.
It’s quite obvious to anyone that this one hundred year-old man carries within his heart a devoted and immeasurable love for Baba Rexheb. Everything that goes on in the Teqe Baba Arshi sees through the eyes his venerable spiritual guide. When he sees that something is not going quite right he says with a murmur: “No, no. Baba Rexheb does not like this.” Many times a day Baba Arshi goes to the Turbé to visit his master of nearly fifty years. At sunset every day he performs the ancient Bektashi Sufi tradition of lighting candles in the tomb.
The Bektashi faithful in America come and with great pleasure kiss the hand of this revered man, Baba Arshi. History and legends, songs and spiritual teachings are told by him to the many guests that visit as they sit in the Kafe-oxhak bathed in an atmosphere of affection and love. Baba Arshi sits in his big chair, listening carefully, always ready to answer the phone, yet silent when asked about his own past. The only regret he seems to have carried in the 100 years of his life is that he never saw his beloved city of Vlora again nor his family home in the village of Sëvastër. This home was bombed during an Italian offensive in 1942, but some walls of it remained. Later, the communists completely demolished his family home since it was the home of an anti-communist who fled Albania.
Still, I have safe in my memory the morning of that day in March when I was getting ready to take a plane to New York and then return, from there, back to Albania. That morning Baba Arshi came to my room and opened the door as quietly as a mouse. With a whisper said to me: “I boiled 10 eggs for you to have with you on your trip. This is how Baba Rexheb always did things…” At that moment, I realized a transcendent truth: that by living with infinite love for God in your heart, you can live, even to a hundred years, with infinite love for your fellow human beings.
The World Bektashi Community
(translated from the Albanian by Shpëtim Mahmudi)