Left, boys sitting down after their circumcision - plate 36 from The Marsh Arabs.
Right, 'A Fartus boy among the reed beds', plate 42 from The Marsh Arabs.
Thesiger's original 35mm negatives are now in the possession of the Pitt Rivers Museum
, University of Oxford. Copy prints may be ordered online
On my way north to the Fartus, I happened to stop at a raba in a large village in the Amaira country. The owner was not at home, but a tall, good-looking youth welcomed us. The men who had brought me returned to their village as soon as they had drunk tea. My host himself, whose name was Abid, short for 'the Slave of God', arrived at sunset. “What have you got in those boxes?” he asked after dinner. “Medicines.” “Are you a doctor?” “I know about medicine.” “Can you circumcise?”
I had never done this operation but had watched many in hospitals and among the tribes, so I took a chance and answered: “Yes.” “Will you circumcise my son Kharaibid? It is years since someone came here who knew how to circumcise and I want him done so that he can marry.” He pointed to the lad who had received me and who, at this moment, was busy pouring out coffee. Rather apprehensively, I agreed to operate in the morning.
Circumcision, although nowhere mentioned in the Koran, is generally regarded as obligatory for Muslims, following the example of the Prophet himself who was circumcised in accordance with Arab custom. No uncircumcised person may lawfully make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Among the tribes in southern Iraq, whether Madan or shepherds, the operation was often deferred till manhood, as in the present case, and was seldom performed before puberty. It was done by specialists who travelled round from village to village in the summer. Their traditional fee was a cock, but more often they charged five shillings.
The examples of their work which I saw later were terrifying. They used a dirty razor, a piece of string and no antiseptics. Having finished, they sprinkled the wound with a special powder, made from the dried foreskins of their previous victims, and then bound it up tight with a rag. People living under these conditions acquire a remarkable resistance to infection, but they could not resist this, and boys sometimes took two months to recover, suffering great pain in the meanwhile.
One young man came to me for treatment ten days after his circumcision, and although I am fairly inured to unpleasant sights and smells, the stench made me retch. His entire penis, his scrotum and the inside of his thighs were a suppurating mess from which the skin was sloughing away, the pus trickling down his legs. I cured him eventually with antibiotics. In spite of the social stigma of being uncircumcised, some boys not unnaturally refused. In other cases the fathers would not allow their sons to be operated on, because there was no one else to look after the buffaloes. A few maintained that they had been circumcised by an angel at birth, a superstition that is also current in Egypt. Later I visited villages, among the Suaid and Kaulaba in particular, where I heard that hardly anyone was circumcised - almost incredible among Muslims.
In the morning, Abid suggested I should do the operation out of doors, in order not to defile the house with blood. A small crowd waited among the buffaloes in the yard, which was not the ideal surgery. A number of Kharaibid’s contemporaries had turned up, to give him moral support as I presumed. I selected an intelligent-looking boy as my assistant. Kharaibid produced a large wooden mortar, turned it upside down and sat on it. I could have wished for a simpler first operation. Examination showed that he had an 'attached foreskin'. I prepared a syringe with local anaesthetic, but Kharaibid said immediately, “What is that for?” I explained that an injection would stop him feeling any pain. “No, no, I don’t want any needles stuck into me; just cut it off”, and nothing I could say would change his mind. By then I was wondering if he was as nervous as I was, though he showed no signs of it. While I operated, which in this case took some time, he sat absolutely motionless, and after I had finished said “Thank you”, and stood up. My assistant, who had been holding the various forceps, dropped them in the manure and pushed another boy aside, sat down on the mortar and said “Now it’s my turn.” I realised with a shock that Kharaibid’s nine friends had all come to be circumcised. The youngest was about fifteen, the eldest twenty-four, and I learnt later that they all recovered in a few days. Evidently sulphonamide powder and penicillin were more efficacious than powdered foreskins. The news had reached the next village by the time I got there and I found a score of boys waiting for me.
In time few of these people were prepared to let the local specialists circumcise them; they preferred to wait until I visited their village or to come and find me somewhere else. On one exhausting occasion, a hundred and fifteen turned up, and I was hard at work from dawn till midnight. They believed that, after circumcision, the smell of baking bread, or of scent, would inflame the wound. Consequently their custom was to stuff their nostrils with pieces of cloth and hang onions round their necks, if they could find any in the local shop. Nor might they eat fish, curds or water melons, or drink more than a few sips of water till they were healed. The local practitioners seized on these superstitions as a ready-made excuse for their incompetence. When some wretched youth hobbled past in agony with legs wide apart, they would explain sententiously, “Of course, the stupid fool hasn’t taken enough care to block his nostrils. He must have smelt baking bread, or perhaps has drunk too much water.”
(Longmans, Green: London, 347pp, 1959) was Thesiger's earlier book. and is also still available in Penguin. It details his travels in the Arabian desert, frequently crossing borders (often without authority). He describes (page 105) witnessing an extreme form of circumcision in which all loose penile skin is removed, exposing Buck's fascia:
".. these young men, looking like girls with their flowing hair
and delicate features, stepped forwards in front of their tribe.
Each of them stood, with legs apart and his hands gripping
his long hair, staring motionless and unflinching at a dagger
stuck in the ground in front of him, while a slave handled his
penis until it was erect and then flayed the entire organ.
When the slave stepped aside, his work at last completed,
the lad stepped forward and, to the compelling rhythm of the
drums, danced frenzedly before the eager, craning crowd,
leaping and capering while the blood splashed down his legs.
.............. On this particular occasion one of them had already
been circumcised as a child, but he insisted on undergoing
this econd operation. Even after it was over, their sufferings
were not ended. Each morning they were held down over a
small hole in the ground, so that their mutilated parts dangled
down, to kipper in the heat and smoke that came from a fire
below. Lads who had stood unmoved while they were circumcised
screamed with the agony of this barbarous treatment."
This practice is almost certainly now extinct.
Circumcision in the city of Tantra, Egypt
I have witnessed many circumcision operations in small booths close to the wall of the great Tanta mosque during the autumn mawlid or birthday celebration of the saint, Sidi Ahmad al-Badawi. There, peasant parents simply bring their little boys, from infancy up to ages seven or eight, and the circumciser and usually an assistant hold the boy down while his foreskin is removed. Sometime a man plays a flute or beats a drum. Afterwards the child will be given sweets or ice cream, and paraded off in honor and triumph as if he were a little prince. Whether the celebration is makeshift and humble or ceremonious and lavish, it is a significant moment in the life of a boy and his parents and siblings. Afterwards, if the circumcision takes place around puberty, the boy will enter into full participation in Islamic ritual life, although he may have performed prayers and fasting before, either regularly or occasionally.
The Ahmad Al-Badawi Mosque.
© 2008, Egypt Travel Search
Circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but Muslims everywhere regard it as essential, and the Hadith record it as a practice enjoined by all past prophets. Significantly, it is also known by a euphemism: tahara, meaning purification. The age at which it is performed varies from region to region and even from family to family, but most often age seven is preferred, although it is known from as early as the seventh day following birth all the way up to puberty. Adult converts to Islam have traditionally been required to undergo the operation, but this practice is not universally considered to be essential, especially if there is a health risk.[The Ahmad Al-Badawi Mosque is the largest mosque in the northern city of Tanta, Egypt. It is a Sufi mosque and contains the tomb of Ahmad al-Badawi - Ed.]
Circumcision in the muslim northern part of Sudan
Recently I met a young man from Sudan who is a university student here in Europe. Eventually our conversation came to the topic of male circumcision in Sudan, and with pride and real enthusiasm he gave me detailed information about traditional circumcision rites in his country.
Sudan is divided in two parts, the Christian south and the Muslim north. In the north, each boy has to be circumcised before starting school at the age of eight. Wealthier parents, who mostly live in the cities, have their sons’ foreskins cut in hospital right after birth. In the provinces outside of larger cities, boys get circumcised when they are between four and six years of age.
All circumcisions in rural areas are performed by an old and experienced man, the circumciser of the village. Before a boy gets his circumcision, his parents arrange an appointment with the circumciser, who examines the little boy’s penis thoroughly. The old man retracts the foreskin from the glans in order to break any adhesions. Then he cleans the glans and inner foreskin with sesame or olive oil, which also allows the foreskin to be moved smoothly back and forth. This procedure “may be more painful for the boy than the circumcision itself” (my raconteur said) and is repeated on the following days if necessary. During these examinations, the circumciser gets a good idea of the amount of skin that needs to be removed. Some days later, the boy’s circumcision is celebrated with all family members gathered, giving lots of presents to the boy. This is an important day on his way to becoming a man – “no man ever forgets his circumcision”. The boy’s father or an uncle has the honour of holding the boy during the procedure and presents his bared genitalia to the circumciser. The boy’s attention is then distracted by flute players and the other adults, while the circumciser does his work. First, the old man moves the foreskin back and forth to make sure it easily slides over the oiled glans and the whole area is clean. Then he inserts a special straw (cut from a savannah grass) under the foreskin. The width of the straw must be about the same as the glans; the circumciser chooses the right straw from a set that he brings along. Using this straw, he pushes back the glans whilst the foreskin gets pulled forward over the straw as far as possible. The circumciser then ties a thin cord around the foreskin directly where the tip of the glans is, so that the elastic foreskin is firmly attached to the straw and the glans is marked by the cord. With one quick motion of his sharp knife, the circumciser cuts just in front of the cord, through the foreskin and the straw. After the knot has been untied, the elastic outer foreskin retracts behind the glans and the inner layer would be pushed back manually so that the cuts are aligned, but not stitched. The circumciser the applies a powder to the wound in order to stop bleeding and to release pain, then the freshly circumcised penis gets bandaged. The bandages are changed every day and new powder is applied until the cut has healed. According to the Sudanese student, the cut itself is less painful than the healing process and repeated change of the bandage during the following days.
It is deemed very important that the glans is completely uncovered after the circumcision, otherwise the boy would not be regarded as circumcised and would need to be cut again.
Traditional Turkish circumcision museum exhibit in Istanbul
I recommend a visit to the Sadberk Hanim Müzesi. It is a museum created by a private foundation, opened in 1980 and primarily dedicated to showing one person’s domestic collection – domestic the sense that it consists mainly of household objects assembled by a woman of means whose occupation was running a household and bringing up four children. I have been trying to get there for almost ten years; I am a carpet collector and this place is noted for its collection of embroidery.
The most spectacular set piece is the famous Sünnet bed, decorated for the circumcision ceremony that marked a boy’s formal entrance into adult membership of the Muslim faith. This impressive bed alone makes the visit to the museum worthwhile. The tradition it represents is virtually dead and even where still observed of an extremely private nature. These beds were made by the women in the family or their friends/relatives. Its preparation is always described as the women’s part of the Sünnet Düğünü (circumcision feast) taking place with the ladies in the house dressed in traditional costumes, as for wedding ceremonies.
The bed is decorated with rich counterpanes and valences and the tester (canopy) is then draped with embroidered napkins and hand towels joined together to make curtains and flounces. The front of these curtains is in turn decorated with KESE, small hand-knitted decorative purses. These held gifts of money or jewelry for the boy to be circumcised. Few families would have had enough grand napkins to make the curtains, so the traditions was that pieces were lent by relatives for the display, all carefully marked to ensure that they were later returned to the right owners. There were also exquisite linen towels made specially for one use only. These had a slit for the penis to be pulled through; they protected the fine clothes of the day from blood or cuts. So rare is the tradition today that the museum had to bring an elderly lady from Ankara to set up the display correctly.
If you go to Istanbul I urge you to take the time for a visit to this beautiful old Ottoman house in the Azaryan Yalisi on the Eastern shore at Büyükdere. All good hotel concierges can direct you there.
The Muslim Turkish community in Germany
Translated by a CIRCLIST Member from the original German text published in Berliner Zeitung, 16.8.1995.
How Turks in Berlin Celebrate the Traditional Circumcision Ceremony
It’s Saturday evening in the inner-city suburb of Berlin-Kreuzberg. In a former factory building you will find a newly established festival hall, filled with 300 guests. On long tables covered with white table cloths are Coca-Cola and wine bottles. A music group plays the popular Turkish song Hepsi Seninmi
and well-dressed young women and men are dancing. Normally Turkish weddings are celebrated here. But this evening there is a special event, a ‘Sünnet Düğünü’, a circumcision ceremony.
The most important person of this evening is the seven year old Serdar Baladin. With his white dress and his turban-like cap he sits like a Sultan on a bed. Curious, he observes the goings-on in the hall. Serdar is one of over a thousand Turkish boys who are circumcised in Berlin each year. This tradition is still done among the Turkish families in Germany – the boy’s foreskin is cut off. “A man becomes a real man if he is circumcised and has done his national service,” the Turkish adults are saying.
, the circumciser, is yet in sight. The guests are busy with eating and listening to the music. Serdar is not scared of the procedure. He is pleased about his circumcision, “I become a man and later I’ll get married", he says. Serdar’s wishes are still those of a little boy: A remote-controlled car, a spider, a snake and a playhouse are on his list. It’s a tradition that the boys get money and gold coins at this event. Serdar knows exactly what he’s doing with the money: “I’ll put it into the bank, where nobody can take it. When I’m a grown up I will buy a car.”
Turkish circumcision in Berlin. © 1995, Berliner Zeitung
At about 10pm Akif Özcan enters the hall. The only traditional Turkish circumciser living in Germany goes about his job quickly. After injecting a local anaesthetic he puts a thermocauter (an electrically-heated knife) on the boy’s foreskin and makes a quick cut. Afterwards Serdar gets a special dressing. A week later he can go to the playground again. After the ceremony Serdar gets his presents and the guests go back dancing. Özcan packs his things away. He’s an experienced circumciser. Neverless the 56 year old is every time very careful: “It's a little operation on an important organ; you have to be very careful,” he says to me in a quite voice, “I can do it almost without looking, but it’s better to be a little bit afraid. You need to be careful”.
Akif Özcan has done about 3000 circumcisions in his career. To this day he can’t forget his first circumcision. He was scared, he shook, he says. “Perhaps because it was my own circumcision it didn’t go well. I was 11 years old. It hurt a lot and I was ill for two months”, Özcan says. His face gets serious. “It hurt a lot and bled constantly. A relative was a doctor, he treated me afterwards.
“There were not enough qualified personnel in Turkey. Sometimes even barbers did the job with a sharp razor blade. Often the knowledge was passed down from father to son. Today, medical schools for circumcisers are in almost every big town in Turkey. After the exam they collect experience working alongside an older colleague before they circumcise by themselves.”
This was the way the career of Akif Özcan started. After eleven years as a circumciser in different Turkish cities, in 1971 he came to Berlin were he worked as a male nurse in the Urban Hospital of Kreuzberg. Eight years ago he stopped and began to work as a Sünnetçi as a full time job. After long negotiations his Turkish diploma got accepted by the authorities in Berlin. Since then he has been driving throughout the whole republic, circumcising about 200 boys per year. He has a lot of German customers too – German men, who marry muslim women or convert to Islam, are circumcised by him. This little procedure can be done on adults as well. There’s only one difficulty – some men get erections during the healing process. “Because of this there is a tension on the wound and it doesn’t heal as quickly as it does on little boys”, Özcan says, “but after ten days the men are doing fine again. With the benefits of modern medicine, the circumcision takes place without lots of pain and bleeding and the patient can walk again after a short time.”
Circumcision has an important position in Turkish society and accordingly the circumciser has an important role. Akif Özcan likes his special position in Germany, but nevertheless he wants to go back to Turkey and open a practice south of Antalya.
Turkey’s Circumcision King Savors Boom
A female viewpoint, by Ayşe Sarıoğlu, a Turkish citizen and a reporter of the Turkish daily newspaper Taraf
. This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times on August 19, 1990 and apparently exaggerates Kemal Özkan’s age by two years. Kemal Özkan’s website
(which is in Turkish) was last refreshed in January 2012.
|Turkish boy awaiting ceremonial circumcision
ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey’s school summer vacations are boom time for Circumcision King Kemal Özkan. “Each year about 1 million boys come of circumcision age in Turkey,” 58-year-old paramedic Özkan said. Up to 20 boys a day will pass through his private Istanbul clinic with proud parents paying as much as $200 for the privilege. “Few of them are taken to hospitals because the hospitals are full and mostly equipped for major surgeries,” he said.
Circumcision is one of the most strictly observed religious practices in secular, though predominantly Muslim, Turkey. Muslim families, 99% of Turkey’s 55 million population, regard circumcision as the first step to manhood. Turkish doctors consider circumcision a hygienic and prophylactic practice. Dr. Demokan Erol, chief urologist in an Ankara hospital, said: “Research shows that in communities where early-age circumcision is widely practiced, cancers of the male genitalia have a very low incidence. I say the best age is from 5 to 9.” Why is the operation not done on babies at birth? “The boys must be able to remember the occasion,” said Özkan, with 58,000 circumcisions to his credit in his 26-year career.
And what an occasion it is for Turkish boys as families indulge their every whim and shower them with presents before the painful but blessedly brief surgery. However poor the family, all Turkish boys preparing for circumcision wear an embroidered satin pillbox hat and sash. Though painkillers are rarely part of the ritual, each boy is accompanied by an adult male to give him courage as he faces the knife. The male companion or kirve assumes lifelong obligations to the boy, much like a Christian godfather.
The skills of Özkan and the hygienic conditions under which he performs are not mirrored in much of rural Turkey. In the villages paramedics have rarely had special training in circumcision. Often the operation is performed by handymen whose sole claim to proficiency is inherited from their fathers. Though the Ministry of Health has no exact figures of deaths or mutilations caused by amateur practitioners, complaints from around the country have spurred the government to launch a free, nationwide circumcision service. The ministry will provide surgeons, paramedics and nurses to offer supervised health are in each of Turkey’s 73 provinces during the main circumcision season. “Unfortunately some of the government-appointed medics are not properly taught to circumcise, but a brief training can make them proficient in modern methods,” Özkan said. Will the free government circumcision service be bad for business? Özkan doesn’t think so.