Dread of Circumcision, Dreams of Cabbage

(First published in the Story-Quilt, March 2022)

By Cemil Otar


If you search the dictionary for the meaning of “cabbage,” you’ll find three answers:

#1. The plant we eat, scientifically known as Brassica oleracea capitata,

#2. Paper money (slang),

#3. A stupid person (British informal). 

I am probably the only person in the world who had hoped that #1 would give me a lot of #2, ending up as an absolute #3, all before I was fifteen.

Where I grew up, Istanbul, circumcision is a big event. Picture a wedding: a couple of hundred guests, live music, a sit-down dinner. The only difference is that on the dance floor close to the bandstand, there is a bed for the boy to lie down. In the summer of 1956, my parents decided that it was time for my older brother and me to be circumcised. I was five and I was terrified.

A few weeks before my circumcision, my mom explained to me that I needed a piggy bank for cash gifts. She took out her ancient Singer sewing machine, found a few large pieces of beige burlap and sewed a bag complete with drawstring. This was my mom’s first signal to me that I was expected to save money. The memory of this burlap bag was the key to my prudent financial behavior for the rest of my life.

The big day arrived sooner than I wanted. I looked around me and wondered why so many people had showed up. The band played a loud music, kids ran around screaming. I felt like I was the main attraction. This made me even more scared. It seemed no one cared about me except my mom. She kept giving me her comforting glance while she was talking to guests at a distance.

Terrified, I hid under the bed on the dance floor. When the noise became unbearable, I snuck out from under the bed. I tiptoed toward the exit. A man asked me where I was going. I answered, “Need to pee”. I slipped away before he could ask more questions. The entrance way to outside was in sight. I tried hard to make myself invisible for the last few steps. Then out of nowhere, my aunt and my sister caught me. My sister had a taunting "Na-na na-na-na, we got you!" look on her face. My protests did not help. They dragged me back from my short-lived freedom.

My brother, the brave one, was the first to face the scalpel guy. The band stopped playing. My uncle held him. Immediately after his bloody trim, he turned towards me and screamed in great pain, “Cemil! It did not hurt at all. Do you hear me? Don’t worry, DON’T worry!” Even at five, I understood that he was screaming these words to comfort me. Yes, he is my best friend still to this day; a life-long blessing for me.

My uncle walked my brother to bed and came back. After the scalpel man washed away my brother’s blood from his instruments using raki - a national drink with a high alcohol content and a stench of anise - it was my turn.

My uncle bent down in my face. “Did you hear what your brother said? It did not hurt.” He then grabbed my little hand and towed me towards the scalpel guy. I was right at the intersection of my pretend-bravery, my mom’s teary looks, my vulnerable “manhood,” judgmental stares from the hushed crowd, and the tense silence of my beloved brother, now too far to protect me. I stopped crying, wiped my face on my sleeves. My little organ and I were both ready for this big event; we had to be.

My uncle held me firm and steady. I realized quickly that “it does not hurt” was a big lie. That lie prepared me well for all the other lies to come for the rest of my life.

BAM! The loud music started again. Great, I did not have to be silent anymore! My uncle walked me to the bed and laid me down. My brother was already lying on the far side of the bed. Guests approached one or two at a time, hugged me, and placed their gifts on the bed. Train sets, compass sets, meccano sets, books, painting paraphernalia of all kinds, numerous harmonicas were piling up. I was amazed how fast this mountain was growing. “Wow, I have enough toys for the rest of my life!” I forgot about the pain.

My aunt came by and she stuffed all these gifts under the bed. More toys appeared. My burlap bag was filling too, it even had some gold coins in it! I looked at my brother. We were both happy.


The only remaining gift from my circumcision ceremony on August 31st, 1956: a silver teacup plate


A few weeks later, my frightening circumcision ceremony had become a distant memory. Over the years, I added a lot more cash to my burlap bag. By age fourteen, it was bursting at its seams. One thing that started bothering me was my weekly allowance.

My dad had been helping Crimean Tatars escaping from Russia. They kept coming and coming. Some days, his office looked like a refugee camp, save for tents. I no longer wanted to be a burden to my dad, I did not want his money. It was at this point in my life that my dreams of financial independence, my burlap bag and the humble cabbage crossed paths.

We had a farm an hour’s drive from Istanbul, about one third of the way to Gallipoli. There, we kept a small flock of sheep, goats, geese, a dog, a few stray cats and the neighbor’s donkey. My brother raised chickens during the summer. I looked after our beehives.

In winter months, the dirt road between the nearby village and our farm turned into deep mud. My brother and I borrowed horses from a guy in the village, half an hour’s trail ride to our farm.

Our resident caretaker was Ali, a hard-working Pomak refugee from Bulgaria. One day - I don’t know how it started - I found myself discussing the merits of cabbage with him. He mentioned that cabbage, unlike okra, is a hardy plant, easy to grow, easy to pick, easy to sell. I started thinking about it. I calculated the cost of planting cabbage and its yield. My eyes opened wide when I realized I could make enough money in four months to stop all allowance from my dad, forever.

In my next visit, I shared my thoughts with Ali. Seeing my enthusiasm, he tried to cool me down, “You’ll never know how much money you’ll make until it is in your pocket. You’ll lose seedlings to birds and sheep. Then there is the donkey. Cabbage is poison for him; he may break his rope and eat cabbage, then die. There are the passersby. They will steal a few. On the harvest day, the local deputy will show up and he’ll want to fill up his car with gifted cabbage. In the end, you can lose money!”

I didn’t like what Ali was saying at all. “These farmers are so stupid” I said to myself. “That is why they are so poor.” With my Taurean stubbornness, no way was I going to listen to him.

When I returned home, I emptied my burlap bag and counted my life savings. The next day, I went back to the farm with all my money. Ali and I went to the nursery and bought seedlings. I got a truckload of cow manure delivered to the farm. I bought a second-hand wire fence from a farmer nearby and installed it. Finally, I spent the last bit of my money on a new rope for the donkey. My risk management was complete. The money I had saved in my burlap bag since my circumcision was now fully invested, ready to fulfill my dreams of financial independence.

Daytime was too hot to work. Ali and I planted the seedlings under the bright full moon. I put on my winter gloves first and then wore plastic bags on top of them secured with rubber bands. Having this protection against tetanus, I spread the entire mountain of manure carefully with my own hands around each seedling. A light rain for the next two days helped the seedlings take hold while I rested my sore back. Those two thousand or so cabbage seedlings gave me such a great hope. As they used to say then, “Man, it was groovy!”

Weeks went by. It was a good season; the cabbage grew rigorously. There was less damage than I expected from birds, sheep, donkey, insects and people. Each visit to the farm brought me closer to my fortune and gave me more joy.

Winter was approaching. I asked Ali when to harvest. He stared at the gray clouds on the horizon trying to read an invisible date. After a long pause, he mumbled, “Two more weeks. It will weigh more. More money.”

Two weeks later, on a cold day, I went back to the farm for the harvest. On the way, I prepared myself mentally for the inevitable confrontation with the local deputy. Riding on horseback relaxed me. When I arrived, Ali looked gloomy. He muttered, “Frost last night. Your cabbage is now garbage.”

And just like that, all my dreams of financial freedom turned into financial ruin. I kept cursing myself, “Why did you listen to Ali? Why did you not harvest your cabbage one day earlier? Why? You idiot!”

I remembered my uncle’s words nine years prior, “It does not hurt!” Yes, it hurt tremendously that I had wasted my circumcision on this pile of garbage.

It took another six years to overcome this humiliation. At age twenty, hippies from the West were traveling to the East. I went in the opposite direction. I came to Canada. I enrolled in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Toronto. On the weekends I drove a taxi.

Finally, I was free from my father’s allowance.


My brother trying to feed a stray cat hidden in the bush, 1966. My cabbage turned into garbage but the view was spectacular.


Our hard-working caretaker Ali with our flock of sheep, 1966.



Cemil arrived in Canada when he was twenty and made a wonderful life for himself. He was an engineer during the first part of his working life and a financial planner until his retirement in 2018. He spends his winters in Thornhill, his summers in Niagara-on-the-Lake.