Dedicated to Susanna ~
The tears of the Cherokee may not have flowed with such ferocity as did the blood spilt from those thousands of sheep upon the mighty peak of Mt. Tomorr. Blood ran from their jugulars down the trepid mountain pass, illuminating in bright-red its serpentine disposition. The smell of death inundated the air rendering our olfactory senses imperceptible to any alternative sent, save that of the nearby restrooms. In this way, blood and shit combined to fill our nostrils with the putrid stench of something, only comparable in causticity, to that of body odor and perfume. These were the sights and sounds which gave birth to our emotive senses and which framed the somewhat dark and mysterious mood of Festës i Tomorrit. This was Blood Fest.
The Bektashi Sufi order is an Islamic mystic tradition rooted in the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran. Their characteristically liberal and secular practices differentiate their creed from the Sunni community. Their women go unveiled and join with the men in the indulgence of alcohol. The headquarters of the Bektashi religion is in Tirana. As an international holy place, the pilgrimage to Mount Tomorr attracts Bektashis from all over the world, making the festival one of the most important gatherings of the faith. Its importance to believers the world over, and to Albania, was not lost.
Though, as a religious festival, the entire ordeal seemed to lack a certain sacrament that one might expect to accompany such ceremony. Trash littered the grounds. More than that, blood, guts, and human excrement polluted the outskirts of the festival quarters. Instead of solemn prayers or jubilant worshiping, there was overindulgence and drunken dancing. Not what I was expecting, but not a bad way to pass the time. There was; however, something more to discover. Something muted or artfully clandestine to uncover. As a non-believer, perhaps I could never understand. Although for a moment, I thought I did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My companion and I had come by way of Albania’s southernmost cities. In Kuçovë we parted ways, promising to reunite at the top of the mountain. With my thumb out I hailed the attention of a mischievous looking man, eager to spare the sweat of the hopeless-looking American and to withdrawal as much as possible from the oversized wallet that must surely accompany the oversized backpack. Quickly, I talked him down – first, from 2,000 lekë (about 20 dollars), then 1,000 (about 10 dollars), and finally 700 (about 7 dollars). That was the going rate, so I jumped in to greet my new and somewhat acquiescent friend, Genti.
Halfway up we stopped for coffee and a shot of raki each – Genti’s treat. By the time we reached the festival (a 15 ½ mile trip), it was as if we were old friends between whom money could not come. Gratefully, I shut the car door and went on my way, thankful as much for the free ride as I was to have now gained a solid footing. The drive up had been somewhat discombobulating. I arrived at the center square and caught sight of my erstwhile companion. Together we lay in the grassy field that would later become our home for the night. A nearby family offered us bread and meat. We ate to our hearts content and basked our full bellies in the warm sun. But we had come with a mission, and the day was growing older.
The mission was to find the rest of our group. There was no phone reception atop the 7,927 ft. mountain. Most of the group had probably returned to the warm sanctuary of the mountain base after a night spent in the icy, windblown exposure of the mountain valley. Some though, we expected had stayed. And we were determined to find them.
Our explorations took us to the killing grounds. There we found the remnants of the slain and their unwitting successors – caged-in, condemned to be slaughtered. There were two different terraces where men butchered their sheep. Once drained of their lives, the sheep were hung on large metal hooks and skinned. The men wore heavy boots as they trudged through the hundreds of pounds of blood and gore. Some men had been tasked with clean-up duty. Outfitted with a wheelbarrel and pitchfork, they took to the task of shoveling piles of stomachs, intestines, livers, and feet into their crude depositories, but at a rate well behind that of the steadily accumulating mountains of entrails. At once they dumped their loads down the backside of the mountain, only to return to a much greater chore than they had left. It was an insurmountable undertaking.
Despite its wanton appearance, the melee between men and sheep was pure at heart. For the men holding the knives, it was a sacrificial act. The blood they spilt, they spilt for God. Some had traveled with their sheep from thousands of miles away, some as close as the nearest village. In a way, they remained shepherds up to the minute they became butchers. On a trip from the festival grounds to the tekke shrine at the peak of the mountain, we rode with such a man. There, in the back of a pick-up truck, we rode together with him and his sheep. The animal’s legs were bound together so that it could not move except to wriggle around on its back. With an empty seat in the cab of the truck, he sat with his sheep at great expense to his own comfort, if only to ensure that, at least for its final moments of life, the sheep would be comforted by its once ardent protector. On the ride up, he stroked the head of his dwindled flock. On the ride down, he lay its carcass in a bag with the knife safely wedged between its ribs. At least this one had died with a view.
On a clearer day, it is said that the view from the peak of Mt. Tomorr lays witness to the Adriatic Sea and its adjacent earthen neighbor – Italy. We had no such perspective, but the surrounding mountains and deep, plummeting cliff faces were awe inspiring enough. There the tekke stood – an insurgent to nature’s most scathing elements. There the men drenched in guilt and blood entered to wash their hands of the life they had taken. A single drop of blood smeared on their foreheads. Their candles lit at the alter. Their prayers drifting from their lips through the frozen, cloudy air.
Back at the festival, we soon realized we had missed the crowd. No other volunteers remained. So, my companion and I settled in with a beer or two each, some raki, and the company of some new friends. I had never spoken so much Albanian. The raki kept my lips loose and my pride fettered. We drank and danced. Holding hands with drunken strangers, we danced in a giant circle to the ever quickening music pumping through the speakers. Hours of sweating and noise induced deafness brought me to my limit, so I traversed down the rocky hill from the makeshift bar turned night club, away from the now unsettling music. I soon found I could not escape it. The desire to dance drunkenly into the early morning like the cocaine-brazened, rave-craved youth of Europe’s most black-lit clubs, had managed to manifest, even in those isolated mountain valleys, like mushrooms in a damp forest. I looked out onto what should have been an eerily quiet night and covered my ears to block out all sound.
In my brief deaf respite, I saw the blinking lights of the tiki-shack nightclubs as fireflies in the night. It must surely have looked quite different one-hundred years ago. In fact, it must surely look different at any other time of the year. Then I realized my disconcertment. I was in a solemn place, but solemnity was ostensibly absent. In this place I could speak Albanian for hours and pretend I was experiencing a uniquely Peace Corps moment, but with the ability to escape effortlessly into disquieted and out-of-place familiarity – the latest pop music, Amstel, and strobe lights.
As I walked back to the tent, I realized that this spectacle meant more to its partakers than mere gluttony and consumption would reveal. I couldn’t grasp it. I did, however; realize what it meant to me. I realized that Mt. Tomorr was a microcosm of the country. There, history and tradition united in battle against the encroaching forces of modernity. The babas (spiritual leaders or fathers) wore thin white robes with green jackets and a variegated sash around their waists. Upon their heads adorned green, fez-like caps. Their faces – long, straggly grey beards. Adjacent to them, punk kids emulating Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” wore fake leather jackets and knock-off aviators to boot. But it wasn’t the babas and the punk kids at war. It was a subtle confusion of old and new. Two worlds colliding like a giant ship against an iceberg.
In Albania, these two worlds mix in such a way that neither way of life is completely autonomous from the other. Living here, it can be frustrating to be in neither place. It’s a contentious limbo with opposing forces constantly reshaping its undulating form. Some things are almost the same as in America, but not quite. Hot showers are a possibility, but only within an hour and a half block from 6:30 to 8:00 o’clock in the morning. Women are free to go where they please, as long as they can bear being stared at like a roast of meat over a fire. Beggars pull at your sleeve for money, but they are not supposedly competent adults, they are filthy Roma children tugging at your pant legs who live under scraps of refuse.
If you wanted, you could choose the life you want to live and live it; staying within the realm of modern life, frequenting the swanky coffee shops, and dining in the air conditioned restaurants. But you could never block out the rest of it. Surely, it would be more of a hassle to pretend you could. Instead you balance on the tight rope, taking care to respect local customs while also honing your texting skills and spending way more time on Facebook than you thought you ever could. My time on the great mountain granted passage into the old way of life, though still contaminated by present day’s unwashed hand. Of course, with all the blood and shit, sanitation was kind of an afterthought.
Here’s some pictures: