This is a story from Magharebia News by Hayam El Hadi published yesterday about the ritual of male circumcision in Algeria. The action taken is a surgical removal of the penis foreskin, essentially a mutilation of the body. And for this pain and humiliation the boy is surrounded by dancing and singing and partying adults who are so tightly indoctrinated with ‘tradition’ that they have forgotten the original meaning of the act (as if there was a valid one) and are blind to the modern barbarity of the procedure.
What is it the about the male genitalia that it cannot be left alone? Why this obsession with cutting off the ‘sleeve’ of pre-pubescent boys that produces blood and pain and serves no physical advantage or increased value? (Some modernists arguably think it lowers HIV infection possibility.)
In a culture where sex is frowned upon outside of hetero marriage (causing countless men to engage in homosex) why is there this ‘celebration’ of the penis? Women mark this passage with excited cheers and prepared foods. In the old days the women would even whitewash the courtyards before starting to make traditional cakes. The father would bring a barber to the house to give the boy his first haircut. During this ritual cutting (of another sort on another head), a troupe of musicians would play.
Millions of men in Europe and Asia keep their foreskins and live healthy and sexually satisfying lives. They are not trapped in mysterious traditions that undo the natural form of male genitalia. The dim intelligence of historical tradition that packs modern minds to enact painful and frightening consequences is one of the serious shortcomings of modern civilization and pulls it backward instead of forging new thoughtful ventures that stimulate personal health and international compassion.
This is a story about a rude, unnecessary and painful bodily violation that is masked over with cakes, song and dancing and religious fervor.
Many Algerian families trade old-fashioned experts for modern medical clinics when the time comes to circumcise their sons. The festive period around Eid al-Fitr (it marks the end of the fasting of Ramadan) remains a favoured time for many Algerian families to have their sons circumcised, but some traditions are changing as this ritual keeps pace with the modern world.
As Ramadan drew to a close last week, cries of joy rang out from households across the country, announcing to the neighbourhood that another circumcision had been completed.
The child at the centre of the ceremony is traditionally dressed in white from head to toe, and is surrounded by his parents and grandparents as he is taken to the doctor’s office. His mother, aunts and even some of the neighbourhood women mark this passage with excited cheers. Other women remain behind at the house to keep watch for the child’s return, and busy themselves with preparing the traditional meal. A few hours later, the boy is greeted with happy ululating. Carried by a grandfather or uncle, the young circumcised child is made comfortable. Everyone’s eyes are on him, and his family goes to great pains to satisfy his every whim to take his mind off the pain.
[Photo right by Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images: Modern clinics have replaced more traditional settings in Algerian families’ circumcision rituals.]
“We give the children presents, money and treats to keep them quiet,” said Baya, whose son Houcine was recently circumcised. “We do everything to stop them from thinking about the pain which, thanks to our grandmother’s recipes, soon fades.” Baya made no secret of how proud she is of her son.
Her mother-in-law, Houria, was less enthusiastic. She disapproves of the newer circumcision rituals, preferring instead the splendour of the old times. She recounted with nostalgia how circumcisions were celebrated in the old quarter of Algiers. “When a family had their son circumcised, all the women from the neighbouring houses would get to work,” said Houria. “They’d whitewash the courtyards before starting to make traditional cakes.”
The grandmother recalled how “on the actual day, the men would take over. The father would bring a barber to the house to give the boy his first haircut. While the barber was cutting the hair, a troupe of musicians would play. When the hadjam (the man responsible for the circumcision) arrived, they’d sit the boy down in a chair, the hadjam would go in under a curtain, and the men would try to distract the child while the circumcision took place,” said Houria. “Right after that, the women would ululate for joy. Then the celebrations could start. We would dance for days on end, and hundreds of people would come for dinner. It was grander than a wedding banquet.”
“Life was easier back then,” said Mohamed, Houcine’s father, to explain why the large celebrations no longer take place. “People relied on helping one another to get through life.” He said that neighbours would give each other a hand, “but most importantly, the cost of living was much lower. Who could afford to hold some grandiose celebration these days? It would really cost far too much for a humble public sector worker.”
“The approach of today’s parents is different,” explained Baya. “It’s an excellent thing for children to be circumcised in a doctor’s [office]. It lessens the risks, but you don’t have to sacrifice all the traditions. Today, parents don’t have any special ceremony for the occasion, and that’s a shame, because these are traditions which are being lost,” she said. Using the hadjam to perform a child’s circumcision is one of these lost traditions. Having once commanded great respect, the hadjam has finally disappeared, now that families turn to medical centres to perform the deed.<
“It’s a profession that was once very highly thought of in society,” said septuagenarian Ali, who mourns the loss of hadjams in circumcision customs. “In general, hadjams were quite old and known for their wisdom. They were very precise in their work, and as far as I can remember there were never any complications with the circumcisions they did,” added the senior. “But who can stand in the way of progress? Today’s parents prefer high-tech clinics.”