Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Circumcision Festival's Last Home

By Abdul Latif Sahak

I got the idea for this story after a colleague of mine mentioned a 2,000-year-old circumcision ritual still practiced in a village in Jawzjan province. The local people call it Bazi-e-Mashal (torch ceremony).

This seemed very interesting. So I contacted Gohar Khan Babori, the Faizabad district chief, a good friend and also a good source of information. He told me that he would let me know the next time such a ceremony was planned.

Visiting or working in Faizabad is not a simple matter, as the security situation is not stable there. Last year, five members of a demining team were killed by gunmen and several other attacks have been directed at the district chief and police forces in the past.

After a month or so, Babori told me that such a ceremony was about to be held, and I traveled to a school in the area where a lot of men had gathered, some preparing food for guests. The district chief told me that because of security fears he wanted the ceremony to be held in a school near the district administrative offices.

As it got darker, the number of guests increased and more than 30 armed policemen were deployed around the school. At 8 pm dinner was served, and then an announcement was made that the ceremony would start soon. I waited eagerly.

Four strong young men with flaming torches in their hands came forward and stood in the four corners of ceremony site to illuminate the scene. As I waited for the ritual to begin, an old man sitting beside me explained that the participants were getting dressed and made up. When I went to find out what was happening, I saw to my surprise that ten men were dressing up four teenage boys in girls’ clothes.

When the teenagers saw my camera – I was also filming the event for a television programme - they shouted, “Do not take our pictures! If you show us on television, the Taleban will accuse us of being dancing boys and hang us.”

It was not only the youngsters who were worried about me reporting on the ceremony. Naquibullah, the man who was organising it as part of the circumcision party for his son, also told me angrily, “Why are you making a report of this ceremony? You must not broadcast this on the TV.”

He said if people watched this film they might get the wrong idea of what was happening and that would disgrace him.

Leaning on his stick, an elderly man, Khan Mohammad, also became very angry and told me, “You want to broadcast these scenes in order to make the mullahs angry with us and have our tradition banned.”

I tried to calm them, saying that I wanted to publicise the custom, so that the ministry of culture and information would make efforts to preserve the tradition.

But the old man cried again, “We are afraid they may stop it instead.”

At last, I managed to reassure them that my report would not create problems for them.

Then the ceremony started and four teenage boys dressed in girls’ costumes entered the room and a man in a lion mask stood beside them. The boys started to dance and some young men tried to touch them but the “lion” prevented them.

Nobody could tell me about the origin of the ceremony.

The circumcision party lasted till midnight and I, along with my colleagues, spent the night at the district chief’s house, before we were escorted back to Mazar-e-Sharif the next day by Colonel Gholam Haidar Khan, Jawzjan’s chief of security.

Although I managed to watch the ceremony and take pictures, I was frustrated that I couldn’t find anybody to provide any information about the origins of the tradition.

I thought the Jawzjan information and culture directorate would be a good source, but when I contacted the director, to my disappointment, he told me that he knew nothing about the ritual.

“I have been asked this question twice before. But I could not find anything in the libraries that could describe the history of this ceremony or give any accurate information about its roots,” he said.

I was very unhappy and felt as if all my efforts were in vain, because without background my report would not have much meaning. So I kept trying.

I asked other journalists and writers, but either they did not know anything about the ceremony or I did not feel their knowledge was accurate.

Eventually, I went to Balkh University, where a professor gave me the address of a writer called Ismael Moshfeq who lived in Jawzjan.

After ten days I found him. He said the ritual was an ancient ceremony dating back to the Zoroastrian era, some 2,300 years ago. He spoke about other ceremonies related to that era, which are still celebrated by local people, including Nawrooz (New Year) and a tradition in which children jump across fires on dark nights.

He said he believed that those who played out the ceremony I had witnessed were originally girls, but when Islam was introduced to the Zoroastrians, girls were banned from taking part and were replaced by boys.

Although I was aware of people’s concerns of how the religious establishment would react if they found out that such ceremonies still took place in Afghanistan, I still asked a mullah about it – but without revealing that I had attended one recently.

He was aware of the fire worshippers’ traditions and spoke about them with anger. He said that some Zoroastrian customs had survived but insisted that they should be rooted out.

“All these superstitious practices are prohibited by Islam. People must follow the Koran. Those who practice non-Islamic traditions should be punished,” he said.

After publication of this report, I was very concerned that the religious establishment might campaign to ban the practice. But fortunately, nothing bad has happened.

Abdullatif Sahak is an IWPR trainee in Balkh province.

Link to original article by Abdul Latif Sahak. Published in ARR No. 356, 26-Mar-10.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.

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