Tue, Aug 28, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Two tiny Muslim villages in Kosovo, one unique ritual

The festival is deeply rooted in both the lore and soul of these mountain villages that, until recently, could only be reached on foot in winter

AFP, DONJE LJUBINJE, Serbia

Every five years, two tiny Muslim villages in a remote corner of Kosovo put politics and all else aside to welcome family and friends -- some from across Europe -- for an age-old ritual: The mass circumcision of young boys.

To the untrained eye, Donje and Gornje Ljubinje -- or Upper and Lower Ljubinje -- look like many other sleepy hamlets in southeast Kosovo, tucked into an isolated ravine in the rugged Shara mountains.

A majority of the 2 million inhabitants in this breakaway Serbian Province are ethnic Albanians, many practicing Muslims. While the 3,000 residents in the two Ljubinjes share their religion, they proudly defend their ethnic differences.

The tiny population is Gorani -- or Bosniaks as some now call themselves, a Slavic subgroup in Kosovo's southern highlands who speak a language similar to Serbian, with lots of Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish influences, though their names are closer to Albanian.

The villages, which lie 5km apart, are poor and many of their youths have left in search of jobs and a better future in western Europe.

But every five years in the heat of summer, residents forget every hardship that has shaped their lives during a four-day festival that culminates with the mass circumcision of young boys, performed according to rites that date back centuries.

"Everything stops when the festival begins. No one works or does anything these days except celebrate," said the doyen of the village Donje Ljubinje, 80-year-old Sadrija Karadollami.

Even he could not explain the origins of the ritual, called Sunet.

Sunet is deeply rooted in both the lore and soul of these mountain villages that, until recently, could only be reached on foot in winter and where goods are still sometimes brought in on donkeys.

Locals feel the ritual has helped hone their difference from other ethnic communities in the Balkans.

"This is why we are not the same as the others, even when it does not help us," said 40-year-old Arif Kurtishi, in a reference to the bloody wars that have beset ethnic and religious communities in the Balkans.

So attached is Kurtishi to his roots he traveled from Sweden, where he has worked for years, to take part in the festival.

Donje Ljubinje was the setting for this year's Sunet when 130 boys aged from 10 months to five years -- some brought from abroad for the ritual -- were circumcised by 70-year-old Zylfikar Shishko, a barber from the nearby town of Prizren.

Shishko, in a neatly pressed suit and traditional crocheted white cap or terlak, is the honored guest as well as a living legend in these parts after performing circumcisions for the last 45 years.

"It has been so long, that I don't even know the number of boys I've circumcised in the Prizren area, maybe 15,000 or 20,000 or more," he said.

The festivities began with traditional dances as hosts greeted their guests and neighbors from Gornje Ljubinje. Preparations took up the second day when the boys to be circumcised paraded through the village, dressed in special outfits.

On the third day, the ritual started bright and early amid great fanfare as a local imam led a dozen men from house to house along the steep narrow streets of the village, followed by a five-man brass band playing the traditional zurla and goc, similar to a flute and drum.

The imam entered the home where 13-month-old Amar Hashani lay in a bed covered with an ancient baldachin. To the sound of Muslim religious chants, Shishko pulled out his simple equipment -- a scalpel, iodine and medical powder.

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