Whether you support it or not, the touchy subject of circumcision, or sünnet as it’s called in Turkish, is one that can’t be avoided if you stay in the country for any period of time. On my first trip here in 1990 I listened with baited breath as a fellow traveller, an Englishman called Adrian who was bicycling to India, told me about a ceremony he’d attended. Apparently the boys usually have a kirve, the Turkish equivalent of a male ‘godparent’ to help them. The father of the boy decided that as the guest of honour Adrian should take on this role and more. He held out a rusty razor blade to the hapless foreigner, and repeatedly urged him to do the deed. Adrian somehow managed to get out of performing the task itself, but it was a close thing. Fast forward twenty odd years later to when I gave English lessons to the son of a woman who worked at my bank. The lessons always took place in their home and one day I arrived to learn her son had recently been circumcised. He was about eleven years old at the time and had no qualms about explaining the procedure to me in detail. Feeling weak I could only comment faintly that it must have hurt, a lot. He strongly denied this and to emphasise his point he proudly and firmly knocked on the protective box he was wearing. I felt extremely uncomfortable talking about it but I was the only one embarrassed by the subject.
Turks usually defer male circumcision until after the age of seven, and rather than being a private undertaking it is a very public coming-of-age ritual. The celebration is normally held after school closes for the summer holidays or in the autumn, just before school goes back. A boy who is to be circumcised is called sünnet çocuğu, child of the circumcision, and he is treated like a prince. Traditionally his father would buy him an elaborate circumcision outfit as well as clothes for their relatives to wear. The boy’s costume consists of a satin cloak, often edged with feather boa finery in the same colour, a natty bow tie, an elaborate cummerbund, a sünnet sceptre and a matching hat. Some even get to wear an ornamental dagger tucked into their belt. A sash with the inscription Maşallah, meaning “May God protect the wearer from the evil eye”, is worn across the body. The belief in the power of the evil eye, a curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare known as nazar in Turkish, remains strong throughout the country. These days the boy’s costume can also be rented. Every town and city has at least one store specialising in sünnet clothing and accessories, although the market has also moved online with numerous companies investing in websites offering a richly seductive selection of outfits with exotic names like ‘The Taj Mahal” or the ‘Istanbul Silver White’.
Traditionally, a few days before the circumcision ceremony the boy visits his relatives and neighbors in his circumcision outfit and kisses the back of their hand before touching it to his forehead as a sign of respect. Every person whose hand is kissed customarily gives him money. In villages in Anatolia, the young boy, before being circumcised, travels on horseback or in a procession consisting of cars in and around the village. The boy is brought into the circumcision hall just before noon and won’t dismount from his horse or get out of the car until he receives money from his father. Common to both rural and urban ceremonies is that all the guests come together and chant a mevlit, a special series of prayers, and eat a meal while waiting for the arrival of the little prince. When I lived in Kayseri in central Turkey local television stations would broadcast these events live. My husband and I liked to watch and comment on the proceedings while eating our dinner on freezing cold winter nights.
Much of these televised events consisted of watching people sitting around doing nothing more than eating and chatting. The camera would pan achingly slowly around the room, lingering on each and every table of guests in turn, before finally focussing on the guest of honour. Resplendent in his sünnet suit, the boy reclined on a double bed that was equally splendid. Positioned on a stage to give maximum exposure, the bed was dressed in special satin sheets with matching sünnet pillows. There might be towel beside him with his name and the date embroidered on it in gold or silver thread, commemorating the event. As he lay there smiling bravely his family and then all the relatives and other guests would come up one by one to give him a gift. It’s usual to give a Cumhuriyet Altını, a gold coin of particular value, or a watch as a gift to the boy, in accordance to one’s relationship with him or his parents. The handing over of presents would be is accompanied by the uttering of phrases such as “Oldu da bitti Maşallah”. “Well, it’s all over and done” or “Allahü ekber”, “God is the greatest”, to signal the end of the procedure and mark its importance.
You’ll find the full version of this story in the 2nd edition of my book of essays
Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.