“The Circumcision,” by Ali Kashkouli

Nov 2nd, 2016 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Shiraz, Iran: November 1, 1978. The day I was born. I’d like to say it was a Wednesday, but who the hell knows, I’m not Rainman. And even if I did have a talent for counting errant toothpicks, wrapping one’s mind around temporal exactitude once the International Date Line has been crossed is nearly impossible.

I was a child born into a time of revolution and flux. Iran had only recently deposed their Shah and the first day of the hostage crisis was almost exactly one year away. The world watched with concern as Iran’s 2500 year old monarchal tradition dissolved in a fantastic heap of religious fundamentalism.

My parents cared very little about most of this. Hossein and Khadijeh Kashkouli were about to have a boy. Their only child.

Amidst the political madness my mother was taken for a C-section given what was going to be a complex birth. The cocktail of drugs were administered and she coolly wandered off into the hazy dreamland of general anesthesia.  She never saw it happen, but my first introduction to the world was going to involve a set of pliers clamped to my head as a doctor strained to pull me out of a swollen uterus.  It seemed I was going to get off to a great start.

And then, suddenly, there I was. A cooing little bundle of adorable consciousness.


Now, I’ve heard this story no less than a million times.1 As my mother tells it, groggy though she was, there was a specific recollection of being wheeled into the recovery area as a nurse excitedly informed her that she had a healthy baby boy and that she should name him, of all things, Ruhallah. Apparently this nurse had no problem triggering a future rife with watch list memberships and “random” security screenings for the unwary newborn.

As the gurney made its way to the destination at hand, it seems that something strange and altogether wonderful happened. My mother, in a drug induced fog, swears that an angel descended in a luminous mist and tenderly whispered a beautiful name into her ear three times.

Ali, Ali, Ali…

The words were individually distinct with perfect elocution. The recitation’s cadence in a seamless iambic trimeter.

And then, nothing. Just like that, the voice was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. My name had been set in stone by God Almighty. Or barbiturates. Definitely one of the two.

I think my mom was about 37 years old when she had me. Medically speaking the chances of birth defects and mental retardation increase dramatically when the age of the mother exceeds 35, so she was understandably overprotective of her first, and subsequently only, born. The fact that I could attend regular schools and didn’t have people heap praise upon me for being able to tie my own shoes should have made me grateful. However, it wasn’t the healthy birth itself that was the issue here, it was the event that did not immediately follow.

I was a vigorous baby boy who weighed in at a hefty nine pounds five ounces as I entered the world… keeping in mind, of course, that I probably would have weighed an ounce less had I not been sent home with a little friend—my foreskin. You see, my mother’s penchant for overprotection started early and she simply couldn’t bear the idea of her infant son undergoing a procedure in which a small piece of unsuspecting tissue is viciously and unceremoniously ripped off a tiny body… well, at birth anyway.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I proceed, bear with me as I provide a little historical background. This one goes back to the ancient Israelites. When Abraham first got on the heaven hotline with God, there were promises made. Numbers were exchanged. The Lord’s first covenant with man was that a great nation would be made of Abraham’s seed. As a sign of the covenant, Abraham was to circumcise himself and all who followed him. That’s right, not only was he to going to mutilate his own genitals, but he was suggesting that his entire flock do the same. This begs the question, how exactly did Judaism catch on? Can you imagine someone running for office on that platform?

The era of big government and deficit spending is over. Under my administration I will eliminate the earmarks and pork that have plagued this great nation for decades. I will grease the wheels of bank lending and get this country moving in the right direction again! And as a sign of our faith and unity we will cut off the tips of penises with little to no anesthesia or analgesics! God bless you, and God bless America!

Hopefully any sane electorate would be keen enough to reject a political platform based on this. Incredibly, this did not happen to Abraham. Apparently people of the ancient Near East went absolutely bonkers for the idea.

Wait, I get to do this for free? I don’t have to pay you or anything? This is great! Do I get a free hat or t-shirt with this?

Whether the practice is right or wrong is irrelevant in this case. It is what it is, as grotesque as it may be. The one saving grace is that members of any Abrahamic religion, whether they be Jews, Christians, or Muslims, submit their infant children to the ancient ritual prior to their ability to be cognizant of the event. Jews and Muslims go so far as to throw a party. As it turns out some people will celebrate anything.

The only problem is that you’re not supposed to remember the party. You’re not really supposed to remember anything. One could say that this was pretty much the case with me… except the exact opposite.

If memory serves me right, I was living quite happily (foreskin and all) in suburban San Diego following my family’s immigration to the United States during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s. I was in the midst of the first grade and getting by in an outwardly satisfactory manner. The process of mastering the alphabet was well underway and I had already become a veritable virtuoso on the See ‘n Say. I had very little clue that I was in direct violation of a divine mandate. And as such, things were about to change substantially for me.

My parents packed up our little mustard yellow station wagon early one morning in 1985 as we embarked on a trip northward. At this time in my life, I was young enough to where I loved these little family excursions. It gave me a chance to watch other cars go by and try to read their license plates. I would try to sound out the state names.

Ok-la… Ok-la-home-ah. Oh! Oklahoma! Is it nice there?

It was exciting for a six year old. I naïve enough to think that a state best known for giving us the Dust Bowl may have been a nice place to visit, so I clearly had quite a bit to learn.

In my early years, as is the case with most small children, I had no real concept of speed or distance. The difference between feet and miles was a nominal one for me. I was basically a houseplant that required more food and slightly less sunlight. While it’s true that these concepts could potentially have been easier to learn, I was limited by the fact that the speedometer/odometer in our car was perpetually broken and my father made no actual effort to get it fixed. In order to avoid tickets his general rule of thumb was to go slower than the police cars, but faster than the street sweepers. Anything in that range was probably okay. We could have been going the speed of light and our dash would have still read “0 MPH” as we arrived at our destination the previous day.

I really had no idea how long our trips would take, nor did I care. My idea of time basically boiled down to how many questions I could get out within any particular stretch. During this trip, as was almost always the case, the air with thick with the mist of my aimless chatter. Asking questions and getting answers. Life was good.

And then we arrived in Los Angeles…

We left our car and headed into a medical complex which would look imposing to anyone, let alone a first grader who still legitimately felt that coodies was a communicable disease. We walked up to the front desk where we checked in and sat down on one of those couches shaped like a woman’s puckered lips. Clearly we were in a place of some repute. A fountain made the relaxing sounds of trickling water in the background. I found a Highlights magazine. I was all set.

A heavy set woman in a nurse’s uniform peeked her head out from inside the office. “Mr. and Mrs. Kashkouli? We’re ready for you now.”

It was time. My parents grabbed my hand and led me into the back of the suite. I began to have some notion of what was going on, but still didn’t quite understand. None of it really made sense, but when you’re six you just sort of do what your parents tell you to do. “And besides,” I was told, “If it’s good enough God, it’s good enough for you, right?”

I was assured there would be a party for me after this was all done so that’s pretty much all it took to get me onboard. I can’t help but think I should have held out for something more than cake and cheap gifts. But, predictably, I didn’t. At that age I would have sold myself into slavery for cake.

I undressed and got into one of those standard gowns that allowed for a cool central air induced breeze to blow gently up my unencumbered backside. As we waited in the surgical suite I was given two pills which were unidentified. I would love to tell you they put me into some sort of stupor, but if I did I would be lying. If their purpose was sedation I hope they weren’t added to our bill since, let’s be honest, if you’re trying to knock out a 50 pound child it’s really not that hard. Apparently a family friend had recently undergone emergent surgery and had died as a result of an unforeseen reaction to the anesthesia. So whatever it was that was I was about to do, I was going to do it wide awake.

As we neared the operating room I could sense my life was going to change dramatically. My ability to figure this out was in no way related to my natural intuition. No. I could sense this because one of the nurses had shoved a leather strap in my mouth with instructions to bite down if I was in pain. Had I been a bit older I would have recognized that rawhide as something similar to what Civil War soldiers used when they hacked their gangrenous legs off with Bowie knives. The only difference was that they used whiskey as an anesthetic. Unfortunately I was fifteen years shy of the legal drinking age so this could only have ended badly for me.

The gurney entered through double doors with nurses holding my hands. The taste of grain leather flooded my mouth. The time had come.

Now, I can’t really give too much detail about the procedure itself since I was on my back focused mainly on trying to avoid swallowing my tongue. What I do remember, however, was the searing pain followed by the rhythmic surgical motion of wound suturing.

Shockingly the leather strap did not dull the pain as well as I was led to believe it would.

I have no idea how long the whole procedure took since my perception of time was fairly cloudy in those moments of nearly implausible agony and, being a first grader with a limited attention span, I still didn’t quite know the deal with the minute hand.  Given the size of my penis, however, I can’t imagine it took too long.

Delirious with physical and existential hurt once the whole ordeal had run its ghastly course, I awaited the people who had done this to me, my mother and father. I briefly considered a lawsuit, but then remembered that I was fucking six and couldn’t afford a lawyer.

Suffice it to say the drive home was a sullen one. I was quiet for much of the ride save an agonized groan or two as I shifted my weight in the backseat. I was not interested in license plates. I was only interested in how I was going to explain this to people. I had no idea if this was normal or not, but the fact that I had ten stitches girding my genitals gave me feeling that this may have been a hair on the peculiar side. Unless I went to school and saw a rash of pink blood stains on the other kid’s shorts, I was going to keep this one to myself.

The thought of asking classmates or teachers about this occurred to me, but for anyone who is familiar with being a child, it is fairly easy to surmise that both options were quickly dismissed. I didn’t know how common a practice this was so asking peers could potentially have sparked mockery that I was not prepared to handle. And as for the teacher idea, I think everyone can agree that bringing up your penis and your parents in the same sentence with another adult hasn’t gone over well in the past.

Was I the only one in my school or was this one of those unspoken things that everyone does but no one talks about? Not having the social sense to know whether you’re in the minority or the majority is truly an odd feeling. I felt a surge of uneasy alienation and there was very little I was capable of doing about it. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that I was always going to be an outsider in my adopted home despite my most earnest efforts at assimilation. One would think that my dissimilar skin tone and sack lunches filled with stuffed grape leaves and chicken kabobs would have made me realize this earlier, but it hadn’t. It took a gruesome ancient ritual of human genital mutilation to make me understand how truly foreign I was. It was something I wouldn’t fully reconcile for years.

And as an aside, the party and the cake? Totally not worth it.


defenestration-ali-kashkouliAli was raised in suburban San Diego and, over time, realized that he had no discernible skills outside of memorizing lists and thumb wrestling so clearly the pursuit of medicine was the obvious choice. He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and is a physician by day and a 90’s alt rock connoisseur by night (he’s never met a Weezer song he didn’t like). He writes in his spare time would like to thank his parents since, without them, he would be far too well adjusted to write anything remotely interesting. He currently lives with an undersized cat named Stevens and a fish named Sugar who live together in an increasingly shaky truce.


1 I realize that usage of this phrase tends toward hyperbole. And I also recognize that hearing a story “a million times” would be nearly impossible under normal circumstances. But in doing the math, I would have had to hear this story about eighty times per day, every day, for the entirety of my life to reach that milestone… so that sounds just about right.


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