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Fearful Symmetries

Essays and Testimonies Around Excision and Circumcision


Edited by Chantal Zabus

Often labelled ‘rituals’ or ‘customs’, male circumcision and female excision are also irreversible amputations of human genitalia, with disastrous and at times life-long consequences for both males and females. However, scholars and activists alike have been diffident about making a case for symmetry between these two practices. Fearful Symmetries investigates the sociological, medical, legal, and religious justifications for male circumcision and female excision while it points to various symmetries and asymmetries in their discursive representation in cultural anthropology, law, medicine, and literature.
Experts have been convened in the above fields – SAMI ALDEEB ABU-SAHLIEH, DOMINIQUE ARNAUD, LAURENCE COX, ROBERT DARBY, ANNE–MARIE DAUPHIN–TINTURIER, TOBE LEVIN, MICHAEL SINGLETON, J. STEVEN SVOBODA – along with first-person testimonies from J.K. BRAYTON, SAFAA FATHY, KOFFI KWAHULÉ, and ALEX WANJALA. The volume covers various genres such as sacred writings, literary and philosophical texts, websites, songs, experiential vignettes, cartoons, and film as well as a vast geographical spectrum – from Algeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Kenya, and Somalia to the then Congo and contemporary Northern Zambia; from Syria to Australia and the United States.
In addressing many variants of excision and circumcision as well as other practices such as the elongation of the labia, and various forms of circumcision in Jewish, Islamic, and African contexts, Fearful Symmetries provides an unprecedented, panoptical view of both practices.

Stephen David


When the Nigeria-Biafra civil war ended in July 1970, the Commander in Chief of the Federal Army, General Yakubu Gowon, declared that there was “no victor no vanquished” and, consequently, drew an iron curtain on a painful historical moment. This closure foreclosed further engagements with the events of the war in a manner that imposed a “code of silence” on its historiography. However, in the face of this silence and the silencing of public remembrances, private remembrances have continued to bloom. And in recent times, these remembrance(s) have fertilized a virulent demand for secession. I argue that literary accounts of the conflict question its ‘closure’ through what I call ‘lack of return.’ Relying on Van der Merwe and Gobodo-Madikizela’s conception of narratives as spaces of healing, I engage in a close reading of one fictional account—Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy—and two memoirs—Achebe’s There Was a Country and Chukwurah’s The Last Train to Biafra—to examine how narratives of Biafra call attention to the persistent freshness of the wounds and trauma of the war by creating stories that lack denouement. I find that in these texts, the silencing of ordnance doesn’t herald a return home—whether spatially or mentally. Consequently, these stories could be read as palimpsests that reveal a need for spaces of narrative engagements, abreaction, and healing.

Reading Our Ruins

A Rough Sketch

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

, about the things we need to talk about in a world failing with such violence to make sense of itself. Perhaps, then, to be postcolonial is also to adhere to the notion of ‘Place as palimpsest’, that we are occupants of ‘multiple realities in one moment’. Ruins . These are palimpsests, matrices for

Witnessing the Ruins of Apartheid

The Women’s Jail (Johannesburg) as a Site of Encounter

Marie Kruger

that render Constitution Hill a hybrid site for trauma and commerce, commemoration and politics. As we recognize “[the] palimpsests, [the] matrices for imagining and reimagining realities,” 6 we have to be willing to search for new modes of inhabiting, together, our contemporary landscape of ruins


Stéphane Pradines

constructive and formal constructions. A sort of “Vitruvian treaty” passed on orally, visible on the palimpsest of physical territory and structured by elements, methods and the chronology of construction. These fortified houses ( tighremt ) are midway between conservation and dissolution. The tighremt have


Marinella Arena and Paola Raffa

compendium of constructive and formal packaging. A sort of Vitruvian treaty is passed on orally, visible on the palimpsest of physical territory and structured by elements, methods and timing of construction. These constructions (fortified granaries or tighremt ) hang in the balance between conservation and

Separating the Magical from the Real

The Representation of the Barwa in Zakes Mda’s She Plays with the Darkness

Michael Wessels

palimpsest. Images are superimposed on older images below. The graffiti, however, has no continuity with, or relationship to, the images it replaces. It does not renew them; it only effaces. The destruction of the paintings and the disappearance of the Barwa ancestors that accompanies this destruction is