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Post Hu-hak! Gary Moore Parties with the Bektashis
Created by John Eipper on 02/13/17 2:09 PM

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Hu-hak! Gary Moore Parties with the Bektashis (John Eipper, USA, 02/13/17 2:09 pm)

Gary Moore writes:

(Let's take a breath on Gorka.)

There was the drunken old sage--to respond to JE's query asking who are the Bektashi of the Balkans, and whether they are ecumenical...

and he cried, "HU-hak!"

The sage was wearing a skull cap and a threadbare beige sports jacket, while lifting high an odd little chemical beaker of moonshine-strength raki, before falling back in bliss into the shadows of the big round haystack spilling onto the edges of the outdoor dance floor. But that would come later in the wedding party.

I had heard about the Bektashi long before I met him, but the tales had sounded fantastic--one more fairy story in a fairytale kingdom with war ruins and massacres as the fairy dust. The rural wedding party, among outlaw crags in the nation then known as the most lawless in Europe, Albania, would be the ultimate confirmation of the scholar-traveler's creed: It all looks different on the ground. The location was in guerrilla borderland just off the "cow's hoof" southern panhandle of long-ago-gerrymandered Kosovo. My new friend Besim, racing his ancient car up mountainsides of bright red mud to get us there, had entered deep chestnut forests among the peaks--definitely fairytale stuff, gnarled giants right out of the Hobbit--when suddenly, as we crossed a flat spot among the great trunks, he whipped the car around, because Kalashnikov fire was spraying from somewhere up ahead. "Wrong road," he said tersely, among the confusing red-mud tracks, and we raced back to a crossroads seeking the right one, never answering the riddle of who was so touchy elsewhere.

At last we pulled up to an old-style fortress farmhouse, multi-storied for the extended family, where the wedding party was out back under a balcony. Things cranked up as night fell and a band played, sandwiched between backyard haystack and house, and there was festive circle-dancing, whose steps I was taught via the ageless right-brain dictum: "Don't think about your feet." The genial old sage, as it turned out, was related to the bride, perhaps her father. Things had blurred since there was lots of punch, even aside from the crystal-clear raki in the sage's private stock, which he had brought with him in the odd little beaker, handily tucked inside the breast pocket of the sport jacket.

At last I was getting a face-to-face interview, highly unguarded and frank, with a living remnant of the Bektashi.

The stories about the Bektashis sound like fairytales because they frame a classic Balkans paradox, blithely incorporating jumbled opposites in a single form, in this case a splinter religious sect. You could still see their ruin of a church in the capital city, locked but perhaps still used occasionally, with rows of what looked like caskets inside, said to represent (or actually contain?) the saints. This was key to the paradox, for the Bektashi, like many in the cultural Veg-o-Matic that is Kosovo, were/are Muslim. In the land around them were many ancient Turkish minarets, though few confining hijabs or burqas. Kosovo and Albania had moved into a kind of "street-Islam," as used to be imputed to the Shah's secularized Iran. But that was most of Kosovo. Outside this were the Bektashi. Though Muslim. and revering the Prophet, adherents to the Bektash sect also had the Catholic practice of adoring saints. That it was Catholic, plugged unapologetically into Islam, was further emphasized by other paradoxes: the Bektashi also took communion, and there were other signs. Moreover, thumbing their noses at both Catholicism and Islam, the Bektashi had some priests who were women. How all this might relate, somehow, to the free-thinking Sufis, is outside my wedding party.

The most spectacular of the Bektash paradoxes involves alcohol. It isn't just that Bektash allows you to drink it--in wild defiance of straight-laced Islam--but actually reveres it, seeing intoxicated bliss as a route to revelation. I had made only fumbling headway toward seeing how this fits into the mysteries of Kosovo as a whole, where any chance acquaintance on a bus could sing you snatches of the old folk song: "Sillu, Siliu bote e vjeter..." which also exalts alcohol as a road to redemption--a little easier than the dervish dances of the Sufis. The old gentleman at the wedding party didn't speak any English, and Besim's translations grew telegraphic, and then he offered me some of the raki, and there was more and more punch, so soon I was congratulating myself that living the experience was far more informative than dull old interview questions for real information. I still seek, somewhere in the AK-sprayed mountains of the mind, the meaning of the cry "HU-hak!"--which my new guru would shout joyfully each time he flapped open the breast pocket and lifted the flask.

One answer to the riddle, however, is Theodosius. In those mountains, people talk of Constantine and Sultan Murad I as if they were yesterday: Theodosius was emperor of the Roman empire in A.D. 379-395--in fact the last emperor to rule both the eastern and western empires, because of his Line. The Line of Theodosius was his way of demarcating the little-noticed boundary between East and West. This fateful line, generally north-south, would also generally designate, for whatever star-crossed reasons, the interface area between Catholic and Orthodox, and between Christian and Muslim. Following in part along the Drina River, the old Line goes down through the Kosovo area. On its cusp, people have seemed to grow creative--or confused, or eclectic, or perhaps (per JE's query) ecumenical. There were not only the syncretizing Bektashi, but, still more flamboyant, and not so far away in Bosnia, the notorious Bogomils--soon to give to Europe, in southern France, its most forward-thinking and mercilessly eradicated heresy, the Cathars or Albigensians, not to mention buzzwords like "boogeyman." And there was an even deeper and more stunningly cryptic revelation at the wedding party. But now suddenly the big farmhouse, like the drunken old world in the folk song, is beginning to spin wonderfully round and round, as the band is blaring, and the delighted old man in the skull cap is somehow not exactly perpendicular any more. And then there he is, blissfully sound asleep on the haystack.


JE comments:  Wikipedia calls the Bektashi a "dervish order," fond of their wine and raki, but also of telling jokes.  To secular tastes they sound like a lot of fun.  (Perhaps, Gary, HU-hak translates as "we're a hoot"?)

Raki turns white when mixed with water, hence the Turkish term "lion's milk" (aslan sütü).  I think I got this right.  See Mike Bonnie's comment from 2014:


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  • Hu-hak and Huwa al-Haqq (Edward Jajko, USA 02/14/17 5:22 AM)

    "Hu-hak": I would suggest that this is a Turkish rendition of Arabic "huwa al-haqq," He is the truth--i.e., God is truth. It's an exclamation, like "halleluiah."

    JE comments:  Hallelujah indeed!  I knew that WAISworld's #1 Philologist Ed Jajko would know.  A question for Ed (and Gary Moore):  what language do the Bektashi speak?

    For colleagues who missed Gary's amusing experience with the Bektashi, here's the link.  Don't miss it this time:


    When WAIS returns later today, it's Gorka time!

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  • The Horror and Glory of Raki (Robert Gibbs, USA 02/14/17 2:33 PM)

    With all deference to our friend Yusuf Kanli, Raki is a good cleaner for your carburetor and when drunk--as a novice in the TGS mess--count on either being down for two days or pray for death. I still have one unopened bottle from a case sent to me "for service" or because the TGS was trying to kill me. Raki is not for the faint of heart, or for anybody. But it can be good--for a few seconds.

    JE comments:  Ah, milking the lion.  TGS:  I think that's the Turkish General Staff.  "Mess" refers to dining room, not a dysfunctional situation.  Did I get that right, Bob?

    More questions.  Is there a long tradition of strong drink in the Turkish military?  Has this changed under Erdogan's Islamic regime?  As I recall from my Atatürk trivia, wasn't he something of a tippler?

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  • Hu-Hak 2! More on the Bektashi; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 02/15/17 1:21 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    Regarding Ed Jajko's possible translation (14 February) of the Balkans Bektash exclamation "HU-hak!"--at least as rendered
    in my wedding experience: By Gawd, I think he's got it!

    Ed suggests it might be "a Turkish rendition of Arabic
    'huwa al-haqq,'" meaning "He is the truth"--i.e., "God is truth." This would be consonant with the general
    impressions of the Bektashi I imbibed, so to speak, including vague impressions about what my mountain guide
    may have mumbled at the party through the raki haze. The Albanian language is heavily influenced by a half millennium of
    Ottoman rule, though there's a deeper and prominent substrait of Latin influence from the Roman empire, and
    still deeper are the ancient mysteries of the Illyrian riddles.

    To answer John E's question, everyone in the scene
    I described was speaking Albanian, and I don't know if the Bektash sect may extend to other language areas.
    I think their luster may shine brightest in the free-fall borderland vacuum area of Theodosius's Line, the old
    Roman State-Line-Gang hinterland, whose revelations, being farthest from power centers, await the strayed traveler--like the other one below:

    In the post, I mentioned a riddle at the wedding party that went still deeper than the Bektashi. After a rest
    for the other threads of WAIS discussion, I may tackle that hangover. Ed has eased a part of my soul by shedding light on my lifetime riddle of "HU-hak!" Maybe WAIS can crack the even
    bigger one...

    JE comments:  Gary, you gave us several riddles.  Do you mean the female imams?  Taking communion?  Bibulous Bektashi?  Come to think of it, that sounds kind of like Bible-reading Muslims.

    I'll add some more.  Do the Bektashi do the hajj?  Are they even welcome in Mecca?  Their raki, I presume, is not.

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