Cutting Edge of Manhood

The Independent (London, England), January 15, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Cutting Edge of Manhood


Following a recent Channel 4 programme on childhood circumcision (It's a Boy!, 21 September) the anguished cry of an unanaesthetised male infant undergoing ritual Jewish circumcision lives painfully in the memory. After his foreskin was removed, the baby, Joshua, endured further suffering as the rabbi, with bare fingernails, freed the skin around the glans, according to Jewish custom. Three days later, Joshua was in intensive carewith severe septicaemia.

"Man must suffer in silence" was the rule for the African ritual of circumcision described by Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, (Abacus Press). At 16, Mandela was considered ready to be incorporated as a male into his traditional tribal society. Having bathed in the river at dawn on the chosen day as a symbol of purification, the boys, clad only in blankets, sat in front of excited parents, counsellors and chiefs while an elderly man, the circumcision expert, prepared to administer the cut. He pulled Mandela's foreskin forward and swiftly sliced it off with a single blow of his assegai (a tribal sword). Crying out was regarded as a sign of weakness, and Mandela bore the intense pain in silence before saying: "Ndiyindoda" - "I am a man".

It was with the memory of Channel 4's screaming infant and Mandela's experience still fresh in my mind that I presented myself nervously last week for an NHS circumcision. Neither religion nor tribe had demanded this ritual but recently my foreskin had become progressively tighter, and retraction impossible. It alsofelt extremely sore. A circumcision, said the surgeon I was referred to, was unavoidable. With regret, I consented: my member had, after all, been intact for 45 years, the instrument for fathering three boys and source of much carnal and loving pleasure.

Like Mandela, I had been ordered to bathe in preparation for the event. Arriving thus purified at the NHS trust hospital by 7.45am, I found myself at 8 o'clock donning the surgical gown which awaited me in Bay 2 of the day-case ward. One trolley remained unoccupied because the sixth patient failed to show up - perhaps he was also due for a circumcision, I mused.

The anaesthetist arrived to check me over, followed by the surgeon, who gave me a cheerful smile. It was at that point that I fell into despair: it wasn't the consultant I had met at Out-patients - he was on holiday - but his young registrar.

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