The First Albanian American Bektashi Monastery: The “Teqe”
In October of 1953, a group of fifteen men, all from families with Bektashi backgrounds, met at a hall in Detroit to plan the opening of a tekke for Dervish Rexheb. They immediately launched a fundraising campaign and set up a board of directors, which included a president, a treasurer, a secretary and five council members. The plan had widespread support throughout Detroit’s Albanian community, for within the space of a few days approximately $8,000 dollars had been raised. With this money the board began to look for a site where a tekke could be established. In due course, a suitable location was found some 15 miles outside of the city, in the agricultural community of Taylor Township. The board purchased an already existing farm that sat on 18 acres of land, the cost of which totaled $25,000. Following renovations and state approval of its non profit status, The First Albanian American Bektashi Monastery opened on May 15, 1954 with a ceremony attended by some 200 people.
In conjunction with the establishment of the very first Bektashi tekke in the New World, came Dervish Rexheb’s promotion to the grade of baba. He had spent the last thirty years of his life faithfully carrying out his duties as a dervish, but a new tekke necessitated a new baba. Baba Selim had intended to promote Dervish Rexheb to baba and had even planned for him to be his successor in overseeing the Asım Baba Tekke, although this was barred by the unanticipated events of war. According to convention, for a dervish to be elevated to the rank of baba, the consent of a dede was needed. Approaching the Bektashi hierarchy in Albania for this was out of the question and it is unlikely that given Dervish Rexheb’s wartime activities that they would have been permitted to entertain such a request in any case. At this time the only individuals with the authority of dede outside of the communist world were Said Seyfi Baba of the Durbali Sultan Tekke in Greece and, of course, Ahmad Sırrı Baba of Cairo, who, as mentioned above, was recognized as the legitimate dedebaba by Bektashis outside of Albania. It was the latter who sent Dervish Rexheb an icâzetname raising him to the rank of baba along with a letter of recommendation to the Albanian Bektashi community in America bestowing his heartfelt backing to all their endeavors.
In the coming years, four Bektashi dervishes arrived in the United States and moved into the Teqe. The first to come were Dervish Arshi and Dervish Lutfi. Originally from the southern port city of Vlora, Dervish Arshi left Albania shortly after the war and went to live in the Durbali Sultan Tekke in Rímnio/Rini, Greece. Dervish Lutfi (originally from Gjirokastër) came from the Cairo tekke where he lived since 1929. A few years after these men entered the Teqe, an additional member of the Kaygusuz Tekke, Dervish Bajram (who was originally from Gjakova, Kosova) had arrived after being personally invited by Baba Rexheb. Finally, a Turk of Albanian descent, Dervish Bektaş Karamartin, arrived from Turkey after he had been made dervish during a visit to the country by Ahmad Sırrı Baba.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of expansion and promise for the Teqe. Not only were a baba and four dervishes residing in it, but they had turned the 18 acres of property into a prosperous farm. Baba Rexheb and his dervishes worked the farm full time, often with the help of occasional volunteers. The property included a large orchard of pear and apple trees (which partially exists today), an expansive vegetable garden, and wheat and barley fields. The yields of these provided food for the Teqe, and the surplus was sold in local farmers’ markets providing supplementary income. The Teqe also had several head of cattle and sheep as well as some two thousand chickens. Each year for the festival of Sultan Nevruz, a great picnic was organized and the community partook in the bounty of the sacred farm. During the festival, individuals purchased lambs from the Teqe to be sacrificed, as was the age-old custom. All of the property of the Teqe was a deemed a vakıf, and all income went solely to its upkeep and expansion.
The original farm house that was now the Teqe was comprised of two floors. It had a living room, a kitchen, a room for Baba Rexheb, four rooms for the dervishes, a social room for entertaining guests, along with a sizeable basement. However in it’s nearly ten years of service, this space grew to be inadequate. In 1963 a massive expansion was carried out, during which time a new structure was added on to the east wing of the house. This two storied building included on its top floor, a spacious room for the meydan, next to which was a sitting hall that also contained the library (which contained a great number of books on Sufism that were part of Baba’s collection) as well as additional guest rooms. Most of the lower floor was taken up by an enormous meeting hall with an attached kitchen, where, in the decades to come, hundreds would gather yearly for the holidays of Aşura and Sultan Nevruz. In addition a large metal Hüseyini tâc - painted in the traditional green and white colors of the Bektashis– was placed atop the new structure. This expansion was inaugurated on June 9, 1963, a day that also marked the commemoration of the Aşura.
Over the next two decades a small block of apartments was added to the Teqe grounds; two of which were initially intended for use by any future baba and his family and the other for “women”. These apartments were slowly rented out to private individuals, the income from which went to the Teqe. In the summer of 1989, the portion of the Teqe that was the original farmhouse was completely replaced by a massive new structure composed of a splendid and open sitting room where Baba Rexheb received visitors, an expanded bedroom for him, several guestrooms on the second floor, and a kitchen/dinning hall in the basement where meals were served daily. Another significant structure was added to the property at this time: the large türbe where Baba Rexheb would be interred following his departure from this life. By this time the rural setting of the Teqe had completely disappeared. Except for a row of fruit trees, all of the original farm, the livestock and all the fields had been discarded. This was partially in response to Taylor’s rapid urbanization over the years and partially due to the advanced ages of both Baba Rexheb and Dervish Arshiu.
By the time these latest renovations were in place, Baba Rexheb and Dervish Arshiu were the only members of the original group of five permanent residents living. Dervish Lutfi passed away in the early 1960s and Dervish Bektaş had long since returned to Turkey. It was intended that Dervish Bajram succeed Baba Rexheb as head of the Teqe and he was even raised to the rank of baba for this purpose. However Baba Bajram passed away in 1973.
Despite this depletion in the number of dervishes, the quantity of mühibs continued to steadily increase. Trix noted that in the 1950s there were some seventeen initiates and by the 1980s that number had increased to forty-three. Many of these affiliates lived outside of the Detroit area (notably New York and New Jersey) and visited the Teqe only during major holidays. Those mühibs who did live within driving distance came to the Teqe Thursday nights for muhabet and the ayın-i cem ceremony.
Outside of religious services, mühibs, aşıks, and other visitors could be found calling on the Teqe every day to sit with Baba Rexheb in the grand new sitting room or, on sunny days, outside underneath an expansive shade tree. Nor was this place exclusively for Bektashis or even for Muslims. As a center of Albanian-American life, Catholic and Orthodox individuals frequently visited and the representatives of their respective churches were always invited as guests of honor at yearly gatherings. The fact that he was greatly appreciated and loved by those within and without the community certainly says much about the strength of Baba Rexheb’s character and personality. Even as his health began to fail in the last two years of his life and he was repeatedly hospitalized, Baba Rexheb continued to receive visits by the admirers and well-wishers.
Two significant events occurred during the final years of Baba Rexheb’s life that are worth mentioning. Baba Rexheb had always maintained cordial relations with the Bektashi community of Turkey throughout his forty years at the Teqe and he often received them as guests. In June of 1990, Prof. Bedri Noyan, the only recognized dedebaba since 1967, visited the Teqe and bestowed Baba Rexheb with the rank of dede (halife-baba) and this icâzetname was hung with pride in the main sitting room of the Teqe.
Baba Rexheb also lived to see Bektashism re-established in his native Albania. Between 1967 and 1990 Albanians had to endure the most stringent anti-religion policies ever enacted by a government in modern times. In 1967 all religious institutions in Albania were ordered shut down and all clergy were directed to remove their garb and assume conventional lives. Those who refused were sent to forced-labor camps or simply executed. The destruction this caused to the Bektashi Order was dreadful. When religious freedom was restored 1991, there were only five babas and one dervish out of the hundred or so that were living in 1967. In 1994, Baba Bajram Mahmutaj and Baba Reshat Bardhi made an extended visit to the Teqe and ties to the motherland were reestablished. And when Baba Rexheb finally “walked to the Truth” on the 10th of August 1995, these two men, along with Baba Selim Kalicani, Dervish Flamur Shkalla and 600 other people, were present at his cenaze prayer and interment in the türbe.