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The Rifai Sufis of Kosovo

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The 22nd of March marks a special day in the year for Shejh Adrihusein Shehu and his sons. They will celebrate the Sufi ritual 'Ijra’ during which Shejh Adrihusein Shehu will pierce the cheeks of his sons and followers. The Shejh and his family are Rufa’i Sufis and on this day they celebrate Sultan Nevrus, according to the old Persian calendar, the first day of the year and regarded as the start of Spring. They culminate in a ritual called 'Ijra’ in which Shejh Adrihusein Shehu pierces the cheeks of his sons and some of his followers with long needles called ‘Zarfs’. Devotees chant the Zikr - a devotional mantra-like repetition of verses from the Quran. I met Shejh Adrihusein Shehu at his Tekke (Sufi gathering place) where he talked to me about Sufism. ‘Most people are here, on the surface of the ocean,’ he began, with his hand gestured horizontally in the air. 'But Sufis, Sufis go deep, go under,’ and he swept his hand down in a diving arc. His eldest son Sejjid Rina Shehu took me on a tour of the Tekke. In the centre of the wall was a semi-circular enclave called a Mihrab. It was bathed in green light and housed many Zarfs, ranging in size from the small for the boys to the large and heavy 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 six. Sejjid explained what he took from the practice of Zikr: how it made him content and happy. He radiated a sense of calm as he talked. The piercing he explained, wasn’t the focus of the day, it was only part of the ceremony. The focus was the Zikr, the devotion to God. The Tekke is full to capacity the day of the piercing. The floor is filled with kneeling Sufi devotees, both men and boys dressed in white and black robes and felt Fez. For several hours the Sufi’s sing and chant, the songs building up into a guttural, repetitive and immersive crescendo. The day reaches its zenith and Emir, the Shejh’s youngest son stands before him stoically as the chanting Shejh passes a small Zarf through his cheek. Emir does not react and retakes his place in the core of the circle of swaying Sufi’s while several boys wait their turn. Men stand forth who wish to be pierced, including Sejjid, his father presses his fingers on the outside of his son’s cheek and presses the point of the zarf through the flesh in a well practiced movement. The pierced Sufis do not bleed as they sway back and forth holding the large bulb of the zarf in their left hands. The only blood appearing was a small trickle after the zarf was removed. The Shejh promotes a message of religious peace stating ‘We all believers in the same God, but take different paths.' The tradition is a responsibility and inheritance running through the generations of the family of Shejh Adrihusejn and at its core a mysticism and belief in the divine that is at once compelling and beautiful.

Photography and editing by Darragh Mason Field
Audio editing and interview by Chris Fitch
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