Rite of Passage

A dispatch from a circumcision party in Turkey

By / December 2012

I should have asked more questions on the front end. I knew only that I was headed to a party in Batman (pronounced Bot-mon), a rural village turned oil boomtown of 300,000 in southeastern Turkey. Mehmet, a retired security guard and the host of the party, said only that I was in for an experience. I envisioned a feast. I pictured music. And to be sure, there was plenty of both.

But there was also an eight-year-old boy named Mustafaşe. He gimped in pain across Mehmet’s crowded living room. Hours earlier, in a rite that many Muslims believe marks the passage into adulthood, Mustafaşe had been circumcised. The soiree, come to find out, was the boy’s sünnet, or circumcision party.

Male circumcision is common practice in Islam, but the sünnet is sui generis to Turkey’s Kurdish population. For a gathering preempted by the sawing off of foreskin, the vibe in Mehmet’s living room was remarkably jocund. The men laughed and exchanged ebullient smiles. They remembered. They had been in Mustafaşe’s shoes and seemed delighted to welcome him into their ranks.

Mustafaşe wore snow-white slacks, vest, and button-up shirt. On his head teetered a silver and white diadem, outfitted with a flyaway white feather. He held a sparkling scepter crowned with a blue and yellow amulet. A large banner fell across his chest, bearing a one-word platitude of praise: Maşallah. The amulet and the banner were there to ward off the evil eye, to which young Mustafaşe, the indisputable center of attention, was believed to be particularly vulnerable.

Mehmet was Mustafaşe’s kirve, a godfather-like figure who had been tasked by Mustafaşe’s parents to provide wise counsel to the boy over the course of his lifetime and moral support, specifically, on the day of the circumcision. Mehmet had held Mustafaşe while the “cutter,” a local man wielding a curved blade the size of a butter knife, performed the procedure. He had attended to him afterwards.

Straining to conceal his discomfort behind an appreciative smile, Mustafaşe took a seat on an ornamented pillow to listen to a local holy man chant the Mevlit, a song reserved for important events, weddings, births, the purchase of a new home:

Your love is enough
Your strength is enough
The days are yours
You will not be passed

As the men in the room lent their voices to the music, Mustafaşe grew pensive. The deep stare, the fixed posture, perhaps he was imagining future days of glory. From here on out he would be expected to pull more weight in his home. He would now be accountable to Allah for his actions.

When the chant concluded, a large tray of spices – sugar, salt, paprika, saffron – circulated around the room. People were taking their middle fingers, touching the tip to each spice and then touching the spices to the tips of their tongues. They did it nine times, until all the spices were sampled.

“Each spice represents a corresponding blessing for the boy,” Mehmet explained to me, “and each person who partakes in this ritual is praying a blessing over the boy granting him much in life.”

The whole thing looked highly unsanitary, like a breeding ground for ecoli or worse, but I took my finger and tasted each spice, beginning to feel as if this portion of the sünnet were my own cultural coming of age in Turkey.

As the prayerful spice-tasting wrapped up, Mehmet helped Mustafaşe, now dawning a red sash, toward the middle of the room where partygoers, in pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey fashion, lined up to tack wads of cash on Mustafaşe’s red sash. When the last of the money was in place, we filed one by one through the door to the sound of Mustafaşe’s shouts of joy.

“The boy thinks he can do whatever he wants with the money, but really it’s for schooling or starting a family one day,” Mehmet quipped.
“When will you tell him?” I asked.
“I won’t,” he said. “I’m only the kirve. I’m making his own father do that.”


Kenny Houston is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.