When a Man Chops Off His Penis

A man falls in love with a woman. He comes from a prominent family. She is poor. He wants to marry her anyway. But his father says no way. He tries hard to convince his dad, but the father insists.

In the Egyptian cinema's version of this story, the father (usually Farid Shawqi)  would threaten to disown and disinherit the son. He will also get several strategically-timed heart attacks that will take the son on a gut-wrenching guilt trip. Eventually, the father would relent (usually a grandson conveniently brings this about) and the film will have a happy ending. Sometimes, the father would not relent and he is punished by becoming a witness to the suffering of his heart-broken son.

In a recent real-life version of this story, the Egyptian man in love  chops off his penis to protest his father's refusal that he marries the woman of his dreams. Not a happy ending.

In fact, an exceptional one.

What intersts me about this story is the way it is reported. For some reason, a chopped off penis is always big news.  So one man's self-mutilation in a small town in Southern Egypt becomes fodder for global consumption. The feminist in me detects a sense of universal patriarchal loss here.  He wouldn't get the same attention if he cut off a finger or an ear (unless he's a famous painter) or if he drowned himself altogether. But a penis is different (so to speak). It's as if people are saying: "How could he? Lucky enough to be born with a penis and he throws it away? What a waste! What horror!"

The Arab in me is uncomfortable with the  non-universal way the story is framed.  Here's, for instance, how one of the articles reporting the incident concludes:

"Traditionally, marriages in these conservative part of southern Egypt are between similar social classes and often within the same extended families — and are rarely for love."

No, they are not talking about Queen Elizabeth.

Placed at the end of the story, this sentence pretends to offer anthropological context that will explain this act of self-mutilation. And the explanation given is cultural. What it really says is this:

This man belongs to a different culture from yours, dear reader. So if you want to understand why a man would chop off his penis, you need to understand his culture: a culture built on arranged marriages, class hierarchy, and against love. Unlike ours. Because if it wasn't unlike ours then you, dear reader, would not need this explanation.

Readers can now shake off their enlightened heads in a different kind of disapproval that says: "How weird are these poeple? What a shame!"

But these explanations do not explain; rather, they other cultures by flattening them. The reason I brought up Egyptian films earlier in this post  is as a reminder that Egyptian society, like other societies, is complex and contradictory. Yes, there is arranged marriage (different forms of it) and yes class can be a factor (as almost every where else last time I checked).  Still, I don't remember one Egyptian film that celebrated arranged marriage. Not one pop song. Come to think about it, maybe the problem with our young man is that he watched too many Egyptian melodramas and listened to too many Egyptian love songs.

Or maybe he just found a very good way to spite dad.

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