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In Istanbul's "Circumcision Palace", 10 boys from three to nine years old are sitting on a merry-go-round waiting for one of the most important ceremonies of their lives to begin. Dressed in colourful pasha- style costumes, they are about to be circumcised, like all Muslim boys in Turkey, and the carousel is spinning to the rhythm of a Muslim cleric's chanting.

"It's like Russian roulette," says Kemal Ozkan, laughing. Ozkan, known as the "Sultan of Circumcision", presides over the mass ceremony, stopping the wheel to pick up the boy in front of him for the next operation. The ritual is carried out in a party atmosphere: Ozkan has done as many as 2,000 circumcisions in a day, and has performed tens of thousands in all. He is a local celebrity and even features in tourist guide books to the city. After the summer - high season for circumcision - is over, Ozkan packs his kit and heads for Germany, where he circumcises the young sons of Turkish immigrants.

While a clown attempts to distract a very nervous seven-year-old, Ozkan orders the boy to unbutton his pants. He is held down by his kirve or godfather, who is expected to treat him like his own son for the rest of his life (the boy is forbidden to marry his kirve's daughter).

Ozkan's son, Levent, who works with him, holds up a syringe and quickly injects the boy with anaesthetic. The Muslim cleric begins another prayer chant, which will last just long enough for the anaesthetic to take effect. "If you don't cut, I'll give you double the money that my father is paying you," whispers the seven-year-old to Ozkan. "I don't sell my reputation that cheap," the Sultan of Circumcision jokingly answers, as he grabs the boy's penis.

Some blood drips on the floor. The operation lasts only a couple of seconds. The boy looks surprised, not quite believing that it is all over. Kemal Ozkan gives him a diploma certifying that he has been properly circumcised; in exchange, the boy thanks the Sultan by kissing his hand. Then the boy is handed to his mother who, according to Muslim tradition, was kept in the background during the operation. As she comforts her son, the merry- go-round is spinning again, the cleric is chanting and the Sultan of Circumcision sharpens his knife, preparing to usher another boy into the first stage of manhood.

When all the boys on the wheel have been circumcised, the celebration begins. Traditional music fills the hall and the boys and their families take to the dance floor. But not for long. The anaesthetic only lasts for about two hours, after which the pain sets in. Before leaving, the boys have to be examined in the small medical annexe.

The ideal age for circumcision, according to Kemal Ozkan, is five to nine years old. Most Turkish boys are circumcised between the ages of three and nine, whereas the Jewish ceremony is performed on eight-day- old babies. But even young adult men can be circumcised, as shown in a copy of an ancient Egyptian painting hanging on Ozkan's wall.

"Better late than never," proclaims the Sultan of Circumcision. "A circumcised penis is odour-free, immune to cancer, and makes you sexually more virile!" !