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Circumcision Festival's Last Home

Mysterious 2,300-year-old rite of passage survives in one remote Afghan village. By Abdul Latif Sahak in Jawzjan
By Abdul Latif Sahak

A “lion” wards off a pack of young men who feint and lunge in an effort to touch two girls as they dance to torchlight and the jubilation of onlookers.

It’s a curious scene in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative Islamic society, and, unsurprisingly, is not what it seems.

The lion is a man in a decorative mask, and the girls are in fact boys dressed for a ritual that is thought to have been practiced by Zoroastrian fire-worshippers 2,300 years ago and now survives only in Charbagh, a village in the northern Jawzjan Province.

“Tomorrow, my son here will be circumcised,” said Naqibollah, the organiser of the so-called torch party, who sat watching the spectacle with an excited four-year-old boy perched on his knee.

“We inherited the custom from our forefathers. Anyone who circumcises his son should hold such a party the night before, and if he fails to do so the village will ridicule and shame him for the rest of his days.”

But the ancient ceremony is also tethered to the economic realities of life in the modern age, and the lavishness of the party depends on the father’s income.

“The organiser has to feed all the villagers, then he should pay the boys who dance as girls, the man who plays the lion, and the judge,” said Allah Berdi, a 75-year-old who was leaning happily on his walking stick as he egged on the players.

In Naqibollah’s case, the festivities had already set him back 1,500 US dollars, a huge sum in Afghanistan, and the outlay was still unfinished. “If the men succeed in touching the girls, there must be prizes for them too,” he told IWPR.

The judge today is a local man called Morad, who will award marks for the performance.

After the end of the custom, the torches and the clothes of the dancers and the lion are all burned in a field outside the village.

“I don’t know why we do this, it’s just the custom,” Morad said.

There is plenty more that is still unknown about the ritual.

Although male circumcision is standard practice in Islam, it is not known how it came to be so inextricably linked with the festivities in Charbagh, or even where the torch custom originated.

“I did a lot of research into the subject but I couldn’t find any documents which showed the relation of the custom to religions before Islam,” Azimollah Rahmanyar, the director of Jawzjan’s information and culture department, said.

What he did establish, however, is that the ritual has no exact analogy in other parts of Afghanistan.

Sayed Ismail Moshfeq, a local writer and researcher, says the practice was common among the adherents of Avestan Zoroastrianism, a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster in eastern Iran in the 6th century BC.

The Zoroastrians worshipped fire and light as part of their faith, and, according to Moshfeq, whose research showed the torch custom to be 2,300 years old, there is a tradition of comparable events during festivals like Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year.

“Like this ritual, there are other customs and traditions that belong to the past such as the Nowruz festival and the practice of children leaping through fire, which these days is customary in most parts of the country,” he said.

“But in my opinion, the boys who wear women’s clothes today and dance were real girls in olden times.”

Although it is not uncommon for girls and boys to dance in closed parties, this is banned under Shariah and civil laws. An exception exists for the torch dance - providing the dancers are males - but this tradition may now be under threat.

In neighbouring Balkh province, Mawlawi Sayed Zakaria, a member of the provincial council, demands the prohibition of the ritual in Jawzjan.

“Lighting torches and dancing are superstitious actions. The people should follow their Islamic traditions and those who celebrate non-Islamic traditions should be punished,” Zakaria told IWPR.

But Gawhar Babori, the governor of Faizabad district where Charbagh is located, has now arranged police protection for the people as they enjoy the time-honoured ritual.

Everyone knows that these are not real girls and that this is pure show, he stressed during a visit to the village.

“It doesn’t offend anyone here. It’s the local culture and should be protected,” he said.

Abdul Latif Sahak is an IWPR-trained reporter.

Also see Story Behind the Story, published in ARR Issue 365, 23-Jun-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.

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