Behind the Scenes: The Rufa’i Sufis of Kosovo
Documentary photographer Darragh Mason Field travels to Kosovo for an assignment to document an old tradition
The 15th century stone bridge in the city of Prizren, images by Darragh Mason Field
This project was to document Rufa’i Sufis Shejh Adrihusein Shehu and his sons as they celebrated Sultan Nevrus, which according to the Old Persian calendar is the first day of the year and regarded as the start of spring.
The celebrations 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’. I was working with Geographical Magazine who ran the work and an accompanying feature. The brief was to document the Ijra ritual but also to document the lives and interactions of the family, to capture the people and not just the event.
The first thing to do: I needed to locate them. I used desktop research and social media to find leads. As it turned out, a friend of mine from school was based in Sarajevo University in Bosnia, and he put me in touch with the Balkans department, who in turn put me in turn in contact with the Adrihusein family.
I would advise a lot of research and preparation is necessary with any documentary photography, particularly around subjects that are core to people’s beliefs and values. Kit-wise, I packed for photography and film work and travelling light:
Darragh’s kit list:
- Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.8 G
- Tamron SP 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD (the stabilisation on this lens is invaluable for film work!)
- Nikon D610
- Sennheiser MKE 400 microphone
- Opteka CXS-400 Video Shoulder Stabilizer Support System
- iPhone with Powertraveller Powermonkey portable charger (invaluable!)
- Gitzo GT1542T Traveler + Markins Q3-TRQ + Markins Camera P52N Plate
- Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes (compression sacs to save packing volume – essential!)
A Sufi stands guard at the entrance of the Tekke.
The Tekke wall covered in pole arms and weaponry.
Once I was there and introduced myself over a coffee, I was invited back that evening to attend a Zikr – a form of devotional practice specific to Sufis. But first, I needed to shoot what I’d come there for:
Ali Esghar, faces his Sufi brothers after removing the Zarf piercing from his cheek.
Shejh Adrihusein Shehu, leader of the Prizren Sufi Order.
Emir and his friend hang out outside the Tekke while the elders sing inside.
The Zikr ended up being the most memorable part of the shoot for me, even more so than the Ijra ceremony. The music was hugely moving and spiritual, and I was lucky enough to be invited with other guests to an impromptu music session with the Sufis after the Zikr where they sang traditional Turkish songs.
An elderly sufi in a traditional Albanian hat after the ritual.
One major surprise was when the then Kosovan president Atifete Jahjaga turned up with a national news film crew, and I ended up being on Kosovan TV that weekend!
Elderly women watch Saturday evening’s Zikr
The final feature was published multiple times, and I was interviewed by the Royal Geographical Society magazine and I made a documentary film out of the final footage, which you can watch here.
Sufis sit in audience with the Shejh. Above their heads are portraits of Sufi saints and current and previous Shejh.
Darragh Mason Field is a photographer and writer with experience in documentary, editorial and commercial work. His website is darraghmasonfield.com. He was speaking to Jon Stapley