Collective Cuts: Circumcision-By-Bulk in the Balkans

In the southern Balkans, a small Muslim ethnic group maintains its collective identity by means of mass circumcision. Once every five years, villagers gather to ordain their boys. And to party for four straight days.

The southern Balkans region is notorious for its history of vicious ethnic bloodletting. But it's also home to one ethnic group that has traditionally preferred bloodletting of a rather more peaceful sort.

Indeed, when the former communist conglomerate of Yugoslavia crumbled over the course of the 1990s, the Gorani -- a small Muslim ethnic group scattered across present-day Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania -- weren't among the groups clamoring for a nation-state to call their own. They just wanted enough freedom to maintain their cultural traditions. For those living in the mountain villages of Donje and Gornje Ljubinje in southern Kosovo that meant, above all, the quinntenial celebration of Sunet, the festival of mass circumcision.

The modest circumstances of the Kosovar Gorani may not seem to justify celebration: the 3,000 residents are poor, even relative to their Albanian and Serb neighbors. But, the mass circumcision is a tradition that goes back centuries and locals feel it helps differentiate them from the myriad neighboring ethnic groups.

"This is why we are not the same as the others, even when it does not help us," Arif Kurtishi, a member of the Gorani diaspora who returned to Donje Ljubinje last year from Sweden for the festival, told the AFP.

At last year's Sunet, 130 boys from 10 months to five years -- some brought from abroad -- were circumcised by 70 year old Zylfikar Shishko, a barber from the nearby town of Prizren who has been performing the role for the last 45 years. "It has been so long, that I don't even know the number of boys I've circumcised in the Prizren area, maybe 15,000 or 20,000 or more," he said last year while making the rounds from home to home, likewise speaking to the AFP.

No one can recount the origins of the festival, but some speculate it was intended, centuries ago, to serve as a cost-saving measure: wholesale, rather than retail, circumcision. The rates are still reasonable. For his efforts, Shishko charges around €10 for each operation, and he works pro bono for the poorest families.

The procedure itself hasn't changed for centuries. To the sound of Muslim prayers, Shishko brandishes his instruments -- a scalpel, iodine and medical powder -- and applies them to each child. For the sake of tradition, the boys don't receive anesthetic -- Shishko is accompanied by two assistants who hold the boy down -- but they are compensated with presents and attention from the villagers.

The to-be-circumcised are also the guests of honor at the three full days of festivities that precede and follow the incisions. These include a parade through the neighboring villages, oil wrestling, tug-of-war, stone throwing and live music from traditional five-man brass bands. When the festival comes to a close, the villagers return to their day-to-day hardships while the emigrants make their way to their new homes.

In the coming five years, much is bound to change in Kosovo's political situation. But, the Goranis don't much involve themselves in the push-and-pull of governing outside their own villages. "Someone else, stronger and more powerful, will decide over the status of Kosovo," Shishko admits.

Instead, the villagers have already noted the dates of the coming Sunet in 2012, and hope that Shikso stays healthy enough to attend. He has yet to find a successor.

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