He was proud and brave the whole day, smiling and dancing like he was supposed to do. But at the end, he cried and clung to his mother for comfort. All the tension of the day, all the excitement of what had just happened, it was just too much.
Cenker is seven, and he just got circumcised. In a totally overwhelming ceremony. He was in a group of eight boys, aged between 3 and 9, who had the circumcision done in a ‘Circumcision Palace’, a huge hall with room for a large number of family members. It was already overwhelming for me, as a spectator, and I can’t imagine how intense it must be for these little boys.
The process started weeks before the event, of course, when Cenker was being prepared for the ceremony. He went shopping with his parents to get the special circumcision clothes; it was explained to him what would happen and what the importance of it is. The circumcision is done for hygiene reasons, but mostly because it’s a tradition and it makes you a man, say both Cenker and his parents (even though it’s also seen as rite of passage on the way to manhood). Even at age seven.
So I imagine Cenker woke up in the morning, and he immediately knew: today is the Big Day. There was an atmosphere of celebration in the house, family came over to celebrate the day with him, he got all dressed up and he looked so proud. By then, he must have felt nervous already, but still happy. All the attention must be great.
Also at the Circumcision Palace the atmosphere is festive: loud music is playing, the tension is slowly rising. I’m sure that everything during the day is aimed at making it all as pleasant as possible for the boys, but I’m not sure if it’s not just too much. The boys are asked to come up to a stage, and there they have to say their names and tell the audience – at least a hundred people – which football club they are a fan of, Fenerbahce, Besiktas or Galatasaray. Then comes the part that touched me the most: all of the boys do a dance with their mother, on loud, but slow, music. The boys are on the way to becoming men, but by the way they hold their mothers, they look more like little toddlers, very sweet.
Then they are asked to come on stage again. Behind the stage is a small train, with seats in the colours of the three soccer teams. The kids sit in a seat with the colours of their favourite team, and the train does a lap around the hall to the sound of the three club songs, played very, very loud. Then there is another dance, this time with their fathers, on loud, up-tempo music. You see the boys slowly get a bit overwhelmed, a bit distracted, insecure. Then one by one they are asked to come over to the doctor, also on stage, for a local anaesthetic. They sit down again to wait for it to do its work.
Then a quiet period starts: a prayer of about ten minutes. The boys sit on a sofa on stage. The praying might have a calming effect, but I don’t know if it really works that way. Anyway, after that, one by one the boys go over to the doctor again, and the actual circumcision is done. I was watching from close by, and even though of course the boys don’t feel anything, it looks scary. But every one of the boys was brave: they had smirks on their faces, some of them made soft sounds of agony, but none of them cried. Only the youngest, but he was surely the wrong age for the ceremony: it’s advised to do it in the months right after birth, or between age seven and ten. At that age, the boys are old enough to understand what’s happening and not to panic, and yet young enough not to feel shame about their private parts. During the actual procedure, the loud music is still playing, and the family of the boy being helped is gathered around the boy. Most mothers cry.
And then when they think it’s over, the last part comes: they are taken to a separate room to get stitched up. That’s when the crying usually starts. It’s all just getting too much. They obey, they don’t resist because Turkish boys are well raised, but you can clearly see all the tension of the day is in those tears. Cenker clung to his mother, and she cried with him.
I went to the ceremony with a Dutch television crew. They were doing a programme on traditions in Turkey, and I arranged for them to film the ceremony and talk to Cenker and his family. It was broadcast almost two weeks ago, but you can still watch the programme here. In between, you also see a story about a festival in Ukrain, and an item about marriage in Turkey. It’s in Dutch and Turkish, and if you only know Turkish, you will understand a great deal too.
I hope Cenker didn’t suffer too much in the days or even weeks after the ceremony, and that he feels like a man now. And that he can also be the boy he of course still is.