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Germany

Foreskin, The Play: Circumcision As Art For A Turkish Playwright

A Turkish immigrant playwright in Germany explores the meaning and theater of a religious rite that divides modern society.

Image in Istanbul of an 18th century circumcision ceremony of Sultan Ahmed III's sons.
Image in Istanbul of an 18th century circumcision ceremony of Sultan Ahmed III's sons.
Igal Avidan

BERLIN — A quiet New Year’s Eve in the maternity ward of a Berlin hospital. The doctor, a woman of Turkish descent, pours sparkling wine for herself and a blonde nurse. But the quiet ends when a fit, young, undershirt-clad macho man arrives pushing his pregnant wife Ela in a wheelchair. His name is Abraham B. Schneider. Pronounced in German, B. Schneider comes out as Beschneider, meaning "circumcisor."

His brother-in-law, an elegantly dressed real estate mogul named Mohammed Habibi Nassir, enters with them. Before the baby boy is even born, both men are vigorously insisting that he must be circumcised, after being pressured to do so by Ela’s domineering Turkish mother Elif. When the only German family member, Christian Eichelmann another pun, Eichel meaning "glans" arrives, the other men try to bribe him into a pro-circumcision stance. Eichel, though, feels he has to defend "Europe’s last firewall" and "the oppression of the German majority."

Is this comedy playing at a Berlin theater payback for the national debate that took place two years ago about forbidding circumcision? At the time, a German court ruled that when carried out for purely religious reasons, circumcision was an act of bodily harm. After further discussions and deliberations, the country's national parliament passed by a wide margin a regulation stating that parents had the right to have their sons circumcised shortly after birth, but only if certain standards are observed and if a religious circumcisor can carry out the procedure.

Lead dramatist Tunçay Kulaoglu claims the idea for the play, which is called Vorhaut ("Foreskin"), actually predated all that. It was the product, he says, of a barroom powwow among the actors, who, when the topic popped up "out of the blue," started swapping their own circumcision stories. "We were curious since this was hardly a daily subject of conversation. So we asked each other, "Hey, how was it with you?"" Bremen-based director Miraz Bezar recalls.

Kulaoglu will only say of his own circumcision that it took place at a circumcision "fest" in Izmir, Turkey, where he was raised by his grandparents. "It was a hot August day, and my parents were there on their annual summer visit. Fests like that take place during the summer so that the wounds have time to heal before school begins."

Did he want to be circumcised? "I was eight years old at the time," he says. "Working on the play, we had heated discussions about when a boy is fully able to decide that for himself."

As a 10-year-old, author Necati Öziri, who grew up in Recklinghausen, was dead set on getting circumcised. "I'd seen how all my friends were getting circumcised and begged my mom, telling her how cool they were, that they were men already. I talked about how Turkish dads had congratulated them by patting them on the back. I wanted this too." His mother eventually agreed, and Öziri was circumcised at a hospital, under general anesthetic. "When I woke up, I told myself "You’re a man now!"" he says grinning.

Talking "about us and beyond us"

Those personal experiences inspired certain aspects of the play. The character of the domineering Turkish matriarch who emotionally blackmails her son and sons-in-law was not, for example, one director Bezar had to invent. "I know a lot of mothers who insist on having boys circumcised, as a rite of manhood. My grandmother, for example."

Other elements of the work, however, were drawn from the 2012 national debate on circumcision, which occurred after the actors came up with the original idea, but ended up shaping their thoughts on the subject. Much of the content echoes things that were said in the media or social forums.

The excessively jocular, even vulgar, atmosphere on stage stands in stark contrast to the anger and vulnerability of the troupe, some of whom have not yet fully absorbed the pain of that debate. Kulaoglu, for example, still rails about "the unspeakable debate where suddenly they’re talking about "the others' just the way they do in the headscarf debate and the honor killing debate. Every time it’s the same thing: them versus us. Millions of people just relegated to categories. We thought that was so dramatic we decided to create an angry comedy about it."

"They weren’t talking to us but about us and beyond us," says Bezar. "Everybody from politicians to Salafists had an opinion. Up to that point I hadn't realized that I'd been circumcised and that just because of that I was automatically one of "the others." My parents weren't at all religious. I was circumcised because it was a tradition. But now the white, German majority had yet another reason to ask me if I felt oppressed at home."

Muslim culture has been in Germany 50 or 60 years. Jewish culture, in which circumcision is also important, has been around much longer, the director points out. "Why does German society know so little about circumcision?"

Bezar believes that what's at stake for critics is not the well-being of children, but general revenge for supposedly backward Muslims. "It took the Jews wagging their fingers on this subject for German society to start reexamining the issue," he says. "And circumcision was only allowed legally when it became clear that forbidding it would not only impact Muslims but also Jews."

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