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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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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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