A Turkish Sunnet

in Ortaca, Turkey

A Turkish Sunnet

Words by Justen Ahren

Hussein's Grandfather drew a nine inch blade from his boot and pulling back the chin with one hand, made a quick, deep cut across the goat's throat. Blood spilled onto the dry olive leaves of the family orchard. Grandfather Erol thanked Allah, thanked the goat, he asked that his grandson Hussein be blessed. Then he flayed it, removed the hide and draped over the stone wall to dry. Hussein's mother, Beldon, his grandmother, and aunts came with platters and pots. They took the legs, liver, brains, stomach, everything to the kitchen and there began to prepare a feast of kebabs and stews, soups and delicacies that would feed the family and friends two days and nights until the afternoon of twelve-year-old Hussein's sunnet.

A sunnet in Turkey is the circumcision of a young boy. It is his passage from childhood into manhood; the equivalent of marriage for women. In the two weeks I spent with the Erols, Hussein still had time to be a boy. After watching his grandfather sacrifice the goat in the yard, Hussein grabbed the testicles from the ground and with his cousin, who had the goat's head by the horns, ran around the yard frightening his sister, Fulya, and their female cousins. Three musicians began to play in the garden. Day and night their horns and strings served as background to the constant eating and drinking, the gathering of people. They carried the frenzy of emotion, controlled it.

Each morning during the week leading up to the sunnet, when I got up for work, I'd have to step over more people asleep on the porch, on the living room floor, and patio chairs. Family and friends who had arrived during the night from all over Turkey and as far away as Germany. The growing number of distant relatives was further evidence for Hussein of the importance of this event. He bore the anxiety well at first. Early in the week, he showed the false bravado of a boy when confronted with the reality of what he was about to go through--he shrugged it off; he fought with his older sister. But as the sunnet drew nearer he tried to hide, to hold on to his childhood. He stuck close to his mother, burying his face in her apron when new guests were introduced, and on the last night, fell asleep on her lap while she sat under the lemon tree drinking retsina and reminiscing about what he was like as baby.

On the morning of his sunnet, Hussein came out of the house wearing a traditional outfit: black leather shoes, royal blue pants and shirt, a matching cape with a large swan of silver sequins. In his right hand he held a staff, which made him look like the leader of a marching band. His hat fell down over his eyes as he stood on the porch with his mother and father while in the courtyard family and friends applauded and took photos and video.

A few houses down the street, a smaller crowd began to clap and sing. Pilar, a girl the same age as Hussein, and a friend of his since they were infants, came out of her house in a white gown, tiara and silk gloves that went to her elbows. Her face was made up to look artificially mature--lipstick, eye shadow. Her parents escorted her down the street towards the Erols, followed by family and the same three musicians who'd provided rhythms in the Erols garden for the past two days. Hussein and Pilar met in the street surrounded by everyone they knew and some they didn't, and because it had never occurred to them before, awkwardly held hands. Hussein's Uncle helped them into the back of a red convertible. They sat sheepishly beside one another atop the back seat like a homecoming King and Queen. Mr. Erol took the passengers seat, while the rest of the family scrambled to their vehicles.

The procession made its way through the village of Ortaca. It seemed that everyone of the two thousand people who lived in this rural town on the south coast of Turkey hung out of windows and doors, waving and hollering. Some pitched coins at the car with Hussein and his escort, who waved back like royalty. The cars stretched the length of town, with people smiling and waving and singing to music splashing from radios. Horns honked. It was a parade, a traveling party that, was in full swing when it hit the restaurant on the outskirts of town.

I'd visited the roadside restaurant and bar where the sunnet was to take place a week earlier. Sukrol Erol, Hussein's father had asked me to accompany him. We met the owners and over a shot of retsina laid out the plans for the celebration. We talked about seating arrangements, shade for the elderly, controlling the dust from the road, where the circumcision would take place. Sukrol wiped his brow excessively with a white handkerchief, and rubbed his hands together like a father at a wedding. Sukrol worked at a paper plant outside of town. He told me after our visit that this sunnet would cost him a years salary. 'But my son', he said, 'becomes a man only once.'

Strands of white lights stretched between large trees under which long tables were set with crisp white linens. Foot lights and a disco ball hung in the branches over a plywood dance floor laid over bare ground. Off to one side of the floor, was a high, queen-sized bed with bronze bedstead and the softest, fullest, white ruffled pillows and comforter. The thing looked like it had been pumped full of whipped cream.

Dinner was sumptuous. Chicken and lamb stew, okra with tomatoes, bread, olives, figs, cheese, stuffed grape leaves and peppers, spicy potatoes. Between every three people there were bottles of red and white wine and retsina. I sat at a table for friends of the Erol's, distant relatives where the men told stories of their own circumcisions, and asked if I'd 'been done.' The details of everyone 'procedure' were proudly and freely shared as though proof of belonging.

Indeed, it was a rite of passage, and soon Hussein would belong to these men. Occasionally I'd look at the table where he sat with his family. He stirred his food with a fork, held his arms in close. I wondered when he'd be taken away, if the procedure had taken place. When dinner was finished a man grabbed the microphone and everyone got up and formed a circle around a table that had been set up in the center of the dance floor. Draped in coarse paper like in a doctors office, the table was a stark contrast to the bed under the grand Eucalyptus tree. Cameras and video recorders came out. Kids were lifted onto shoulders. Beldon's sister supported her.

Hussein, was now dressed in a white gauze night gown. His father and uncle escorted him to the table. He was crying softly while men whispered to him, 'Oldu da bitti Mas��allah', it is all over and done. I stood on my tip toes trying to see over the crowd. A man turned to me, smiling excitedly and said, 'this is the same doctor who performed my circumcision, but not at this restaurant.' No one thought it strange that this take place in a restaurant, no one thought it strange that everyone, men and women, boys and girls watched the whole procedure.

The operation was over in a few minutes. I watched through the LCD screen of a video recorder. The doctor stitched Hussein, and then wiping the perspiration from his forehead and removing his bifocals, he presented his Hussein to the crowd. Music burst forth, dancing, laughter and joyous conversation. Hussein was carried from the table to the bed and placed there like a prince wounded in battle. Hussein had been brave. The men discussed this openly as though analyzing a soccer match. They shook hands with one another. The doctor put the foreskin in a glass jar, screwed on the lid and presented it to Hussein's mother, who wept finally at the foot of her son's bed. Hussein raised his hand and gave a mild thumbs up to his family and friends. His sister sat down next to him and kissed him on the forehead. Even she accepted that now Hussein Erol was a man.

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