Amid fanfare and pain, Kosovar boys are trimmed into men

The industry surrounding the age-old custom of circumcision is flourishing in Kosovo. From custom-made outfits to lavish parties, ‘syneti’ has become more than a religious obligation although it continues to be an indelible rite of passage.

Fountains of fireworks sprout sparkles to intense applause. People are seated around tables covered by drinks and food in a lavish hall. A wedding ceremony – one would think – but the bride and groom are nowhere to be seen. Slowly, through the smoke of the fireworks, two tiny figures emerge, limping. Then they become four, almost unreal, silhouettes of children. Two little boys and two tiny girls parade hand in hand in odd, Ottoman-like garments.

The merriment is being thrown in the honor of two cousins who join the celebrating crowd as the band sings a song on the subject of losing one’s foreskin. This is one of the many YouTube circumcision fiesta videos shot in high definition, edited and uploaded by keen Kosovar families like those of the two cousins in question. Now they are considered “men”, although their age suggests this assertion is somewhat dubious.

Erion Krasniqi is another fortunate kid who has “become a man” at the age of nine. Shyly he recounts his experience as his mother sits beside him. “When they gave me the injection it was very painful, but when I was circumcised I felt no pain. I kept crying all the time,” he says. His mother, Flutura, says they waited for the school holidays to put him through the procedure. “We explained the whole process beforehand and it wasn’t difficult to make him understand. He was ready for that moment the whole time,” she says. Flutura and her husband agreed a plan on June 20th and, after consulting friends and relatives, picked a doctor with premium qualifications in the given medical subgenre.

According to the Kosovo Statistics Agency, more than 90 per cent of the male population is circumcised. The majority, 86 per cent, undergoes the procedure from the age of five to 14.

In Kosovo and Albania the act of removing the foreskin via surgical means is called syneti. The term was borrowed from the Ottomans, but derives from the Arabic word Sunnah, which stands for the transmitted words and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. While circumcision was one of those practices in some parts of the world, in Kosovo the entire prophetic tradition has been reduced to denote the surgical process alone.

In Kosovo, circumcision is not a mere procedure but an institution. Not only is the ritual celebrated like wedding ceremonies but most times boys will have their mattresses and pillows changed for new ones. This way, the metamorphosis from childhood to manhood is sealed, at least in theory.

More expensive than weddings

“In the last three to four years we sold less costumes because the Holy Month of Ramadan has coincided with the syneti season,” says Mahire Gjurgjeali. Her husband, Merton, owns the Mer-Sez workshop in Prizren, where they produce celebratory syneti costumes. During the Muslim month of fasting and prayer there should not be a lot of celebration, and consequently little boys endure the sacrifice, but no partying is enjoyed.

The workshop was started 105 years ago by her husband’s family, Gjurgjeali explains, initially producing and selling plises (white Albanian fezes). Later, they began producing folk costumes, and eventually circumcision ceremonial outfits.

With 54 mosques that serve thousands of Muslim believers, Prizren is arguably the most religious town in Kosovo. It also holds the national record for marriages, according to the Agency of Statistics. This typically results in swarms of children, roughly half of whom will have to be circumcised.

And what syneti is worthy of its name without the proper outfit? Prices range from 25 euros to 180 euros per costume, depending on the detail of work and quality of the material. “A long time ago it was about throwing a cloak around the child’s shoulders, whereas nowadays they go for a Sultan’s garment or the national costume, for both boys and girls,” she explains. Often families order two types, one for the boy and the other for the girl, as it is customary for the sister to accompany the fortunate brother to the ceremony.

This ritual may be an expensive endeavor. Abaz Sylejmani, owner of restaurant Fjala, says that people are more eager to pay for syneti than for wedding banquets. “It is more effective than a wedding,” he says. “You only become circumcised once, while as for weddings… one can get married once and twice, and even for the third time.”

Sylejmani says that he likes syneti over weddings because it involves children, and you can feel the real joy in the air. “Syneti [banquets] with more than 200 guests were held in our hall,” he says. After the 1999 war in Kosovo the number of wedding banquets went through the roof, he recalls. Now, he notes, there are even more syneti celebrations than weddings.

As in weddings, live music is key in many circumcision celebrations. The cost of enjoying a band that sings and plays songs about syneti, along with nationalist and pop tunes, starts at 300 euros.

“The vibes are just great at a syneti event, it is a wedding of its own, it is actually… better than a wedding,” says Sahide Mustafa, one of the six members of the Mustafa Sisters band.

The sisters are well known in the Kosovar folk music scene. Their tunes are a mix of traditional and pop music, with a light dose of turbo-folk in the background. She is reluctant to reveal how much they get paid to get people to rejoice in these events, providing a vague, “varies”, as an answer.

“Listen here,” she urges, starting an impromptu song on the subject. “Lucky to have waited, to circumcise you…” goes the verse of a song in which a happy mother describes her feeling of love and happiness at her son becoming a man.

Other families opt for a more modest music selection, going for a DJ instead, whereas some others decide on having both the band and the DJ. A DJ usually costs around 50 euros. This way, guests are duly entertained, but they still have to pay in voluntary, but morally mandatory, contributions.

Decades ago, gifts from friends and relatives were a traditional offering in the ritual. Now it is all about cash. Envelopes with sums from a few dozen euros to thousands are bestowed on behalf of the boy. The sum does not depend so much on the wealth of the giver as on the family constellation of the circumcised boy. For instance, if the firstborn is getting circumcised, the contributions are usually noteworthy. If the boy is the first male after several sisters, well, that kid just hit the motherload.

A very delicate matter

The other most obvious cost is that of the circumcision procedure. In private clinics it costs an average of 50 euros. In public hospitals and clinics it is free, but it doesn’t mean that it is the service of choice for the syneti crowd. Official statistics say that only 8 per cent of the procedures are carried out in the public healthcare sector, while in more than 36 per cent of cases, private clinics are favored. Some 40 per cent submit to going under the knife of the xherah.

An age-old institution, xherahs are circumcision specialists who usually inherit their craft from their ancestors or by serving as apprentices to masters of this art. They are not real doctors, and the term officially stands for “alternative surgeons that attend to minor wounds, usually having learned some basic medicine from real doctors”. It may not sound very reliable, and real doctors have serious concerns about the practice.

In late July this year, around 200 boys from Podujeva, a region in northeastern Kosovo, were left with their foreskins intact, after a mass circumcision planned by six Turkish doctors failed to take place. Although the doctors had volunteered and made preparations for this service, the procedure was halted by the Ministry of Health because the doctors lacked the necessary permits to exercise such interventions in Kosovo. On the other hand, xherahs who have no formal degrees in medicine or any kind of medical training or permit, are usually allowed to practice.

“You should never allow uneducated and unlicensed persons to lay a hand on your child,” says Dëfrim Koçinaj, a pediatric surgeon in the public hospital of Prishtina. Among the many risks associated with circumcision by xherahs, he mentions hemorrhage and infections as the most common problems. “In some cases there is damage to the male genitalia, such as severing a part of the head of the penis or damage to the urethra,” notes Koçinaj.

He is in favor of circumcision if done by the right hands, though, recounting the many benefits. “Urinary infections are 10 times higher in uncircumcised men,” claims the doctor, adding that there is bigger chance of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as cancroid, syphilis, and gonorrhea if one is not circumcised. He says that removing the foreskin also results in lower chances of getting HIV/AIDS and various types of penis cancer. He fails to mention that circumcision is not a substitute for using a condom.

Koçinaj also explains that parents should prepare their child psychologically, by explaining that circumcision is a routine, simple procedure during which he will feel no pain. “If the child has excessive fear or becomes too aggressive, sedatives may be used, but that does not occur very often,” he says. Apparently, the child doesn’t have much say in the matter.

Koçinaj also claims that one of the downsides of calling a xherah to do a doctor’s job is the traumatization of the child and his parents. Nonetheless, in 2010 two cousins died after being circumcised not by a xherah, but by doctors in a private clinic in the city of Peja. The doctors were arrested and a criminal investigation was initiated, but five years later the case remains unsolved.

A xherah’s call of duty

Zylfikar Shishko has devoted 50 years of his life to the craft of circumcision. In his hometown of Prizren, he is a renowned master of his trade. No problems or incidents have been reported on Shishko.

“He has practically circumcised the whole city,” notes Alfred Kinolli, a much younger fellow citizen of Shishko and a beneficiary of his artistry. The number of boys that he has introduced to manhood, as tradition implies, is a matter of mystery.

“I have no clue how many people I have circumcised,” admits Shishko, who is now 74. He still practices his craft and also works as a barber. While it may sound odd, xherahs are also often barbers, although the two professions do not have a lot in common – apart from the razorblade of course.

The xherah pays a visit to clients in their homes when his services are requested. He says that he never asks for money but people give him what they see fit. “I only take what is given to me,” he says. In addition to the city, he also attends to the villages near Prizren. However, travelling is no longer very convenient for the old xherah. “Now time has taken its toll, I cannot perform as I used to,” he admits.

“There is less work nowadays, almost none,” he explains. “Ten years ago it used to be better, but the majority get circumcised by a doctor [now].” Shishko’s son has inherited the barber profession, but the xherah has no successor in the craft he is most famous for.

Religious dilemmas about parties

In Kosovo, circumcision is directly linked to the practice of Islam. Circumcision is a tradition that dates back to the times of Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim for Muslims), and is practiced by both Jews and Muslims, explains Resul Rexhepi, general secretary at the Islamic Community of Kosovo.

Practitioners disagree on which accompanying celebrations are haram (sinful) and halal (good). “It is important not to commit any forbidden act which is considered haram according to Sharia [Islamic law], as is the case with organizing merriments with alcohol and other wrongful deeds in restaurants,” says Rexhepi.

Abaz Sylejmani, a restaurant owner, claims that alcohol is practically unavoidable. “Well, they [the guests] tend to be somewhat restrained, but there is no party without alcohol. There’s drink in syneti as well,” he says, smiling.

Alcohol may not be the only problem as far as Islamic interpretation is concerned. Rexhepi notes that it is not forbidden to have modest celebrations with relatives in order to “share the joy”, but is bitterly opposed to the conventional syneti celebration. “This should not be about pompous expense to show self-importance, with some people even borrowing money for that purpose,” he says.

Lumnije Shala-Bahtiri is an Islamic practitioner who recites verses from the Koran and from other liturgies in circumcision events. Bands and DJs are not welcome in her interpretation of syneti. “Angels come where the Koran is recited, and they pray for that family, whereas music is from the Shejtan [Satan],” she declares, recalling occasions when she refused to provide her services because music was on the program as well.

She also condemns the monetized system of many syneti celebrations and says she does not ask for money but accepts what people give her. “The word of God is not for sale,” she says, echoing the stance of Shishko, the xherah of Prizren.

Becoming a ‘little man’

Gëzim Behrami, a student in his twenties, recalls his own a circumcision in 2000, the beginning of the new millennium. Smiling knowingly, he recounts a memory both vivid and filmic. “That particular summer morning was so sunny and bright but to me it felt a bit different. Unable to understand as I was only 10, I could still perceive that something was about to happen,” Behrami recalls, adding that his house was full of relatives.

“There was joy in the air. I stared at them and they would stare back at me, but with tears in their eyes,” he says, describing bittersweet memories of his rite of passage.

His anxiety began only after the doctor arrived. “He took me to a room and started to caress me, but I couldn’t even look at him. I knew something was going to happen to me,” he says.

“But he kept caressing me slowly and the fear was gone, so I lay down. Father was holding my hand, and he whispered, ‘My son, you will become a little man.’ I was anesthetized and all fear was gone. The procedure was very quick and gunshots of joy in the air were celebrating my circumcision,” he continues.

After a few hours, Behrami began feeling the pain and in anguish shouted at his father: “Pa, why did you tell me that I will become a man when I am wearing a dress?” Neither this nor other pleas could stop the family from partying. Pampered with attention and gifts, Behrami concludes that it was all worth it.

“I quickly forgot everything after it all was behind me because I had so much money to spend that my relatives gave me. I was free to buy whatever I wanted. It was somewhat painful, but with a happy ending,” he chuckles.

Florina Ujupi also contributed to this story.

, and 01/12/2015 - 14:00


of the male population are circumcised

01 December 2015 - 14:00

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