Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that is fairly unpopular throughout the Muslim world. Sufis have an unorthodox approach that focuses more on esoteric aspects of religious life, and strive for direct, personal experiences with God.
When Islam arrived in Kazakhstan, Sufism combined with the animistic beliefs of the regional nomadic cultures and shamanic traditions already in place. Baksy, traditional healers and seers, converted and continued their practices as Sufi dervishes, taking vows of extreme poverty and austerity in order to guide others down ascetic paths to god.
Many believe Bifatima Dualetova to be one of the last Sufi dervishes in Kazakhstan. I first met her in September 2010 while traveling in Central Asia. The locals that I was staying with in Almaty told me about a shaman woman living on the outskirts of the small village Ungurtas, close to Kyrgyzstan's border. "The last house in the village, at the foot of the 'Sacred Hill,'" they said.
When I arrived, she wasn't home. But her devotees and patients, who had come there from all over the former Soviet Union, told me Bifatima had left for a pilgrimage to sacred Sufi sites in southern Kazakhstan. From listening to these people, I could almost see how legends and rumours surround baksy culture—they seemed to both believe in and fear Bifatima'a alleged powers. They offered me a bed in an underground mosque, where I could stay while waiting for her return. One week later, Bifatima came back. But my visa had nearly expired, so I could only speak to her briefly.
Two months later, I was traveling in my van from Lithuania to India, hoping to get farther south before it started snowing. I underestimated the weather, though, and got stuck in Tajikistan, unable to cross over the mountains. The van was constantly breaking down, and the temperature at night was dropping as low as negative 22 degrees. If I turned the engine off for more than an hour, the diesel would freeze in the tank. A couple of times, some truck drivers literally saved me from freezing to death. Unable to continue the trip, I decided to change my plans. I went to Kazakhstan, to visit Bifatima once more.
I ended up staying with her for more than two months, from January to March 2011, documenting her rituals and practices, herding sheep, and working on my van.
Bifatima claims that she first had prophetic visions at the age of 11, and they led her, after thousands of miles on foot, to the Sacred Hill in Ungurtas. According to her, it's a place of powerful cosmic energy, one that allows her to fix people's karmic issues.
She often performs qurban, an Islamic offering ritual where she slaughters sheep above her followers to allegedly free them of evil spirits by giving God an animal's soul in exchange. A follower must bring two sheep, one male and one female. Then he or she crawls under the animal while Bifatima performs the qurban, slaughtering the male sheep. (The female later joins her flock.) Finally, the person goes into a freezing cold creek where Bifatima washes away their sins. It's a process, she explains, that parallels being born: going through a birth canal, covered in blood, and cleansed with water afterward.
Of course, seeing all of this is definitely a trip—but it's also a trip being with all of these radically different people, living a metaphysically rural life on what's essentially a commune. Some just come for a few days; others, seeing Bifatima as a guru, will stay for years. Most who participate, however, fall into three distinct categories: They hope to cure a fatal illness, they wish to beat a drug addiction, or they want to become pregnant. New Agers from Russia, seeking new spiritual heights, are also common.
During the day, the whole community works around a farm, every daily task loaded with symbolic meaning. Bifatima never explains much, and you clean barns, herd sheep, or chase geese because she says that's what the ancestor spirits instruct.
As a photographer and a traveler, I'm always fascinated with communities on the peripheries of mainstream cultures. Most of my work comes from the direct experiences that I encounter on my travels, which allows me to intimately tell stories from the inside out. I'm not a passive observer.
Making this series was truly spellbinding. Traditional Kazakh culture might seem shocking to Westerners, but in this part of world, it's treated with great respect.
Staying with Bifatima, I felt lost in her supposed miracles. I was almost forced to turn my mind off to comprehend everything that was happening around me.