Letters home from Georgia

Winter 2006

Letter IV, 7 March 2006

dear friends & family,

Lent has now begun in Georgia. As in other Orthodox countries, one is not supposed to eat any animal product -- meat, eggs or dairy -- from now until Easter (23 April). The last week before Lent is called Cheese Week ("Qx'velieri" in Georgian), since this was the last chance to enjoy dairy products before the 7-week fast begins, and -- like Mardi Gras or Carnival in the Catholic world -- it is a period of feasting and festivals. My friend Mirian Xucishvili at the National Museum suggested we attend the Cheese Week festivities in the east Georgian village of P'at'ara Chailuri, where he had filmed the same festival 19 years earlier. According to the locals, carnival once lasted the entire week before Lent, until it was suppressed by the Soviet authorities. It was revived in the 1980's, but most events occur on the final weekend, to keep the children from skipping school.

1. Upon entering the village early Sunday morning, we were greeted by masked children brandishing whips. The masks are modelled after those worn by the main protagonists in the Carnival festival, known as Berik'aoba.

2. Regulation Berik'aoba masks are made of felt, feathers and strips of cloth, both some children made do with other materials, such as plastic flour sacks. The roll of cloth held by the child on the left will be rubbed in mud, to be smeared on the shoes, faces and car-windows of unfortunate passers-by.

3. Meanwhile, a team of seven young men and boys were putting on their costumes. Five of them are dressed as "berik'a", comical figures who in the course of the day will raid each household in the village, carrying off wine, bread and (live) chickens to be consumed at banquets later in the day. They are accompanied by a drummer and a boy dressed as a boar, shown above. The "boar" carries a dried pig-skin attached to a plank, to which is attached a jaw operated by strings.

4. Here are two of the Berikas just before beginning their rampage. Note the cloth mitten covered with mud.

5. Here is the Boar, wearing his distinctive contraption, and another Berika.

6. As the Berikas made their way through the village, raiding chicken-coops, smearing mud on cars and creating general mayhem, they were joined by masked children and others who joined in the fun. This group is blocking the main road through Chailuri, forcing drivers to pay money in order to be let through.

7. The Sunday carnival was preceded by a day of dog fights at the village fair grounds. Most matches featured Caucasian Nagazis, a robust local breed of sheepdog that looks like a cross between a St. Bernard and a brown bear.

8. The main event on Sunday afternoon was Georgian-style wrestling, which drew a huge crowd to the fairgrounds.

9. Needless to say, each day of the Cheese-Week festival ended with a banquet,accompanied by pitcherfuls of local wine. Our host Elizbar Gorelashvili was toastmaster at the farewell feast on Sunday. My friend Paata is standing behind him holding a camera. Chicken was served at the banquet -- I suspect this will my last taste of poultry for some time to come. The first confirmed cases of bird flu have recently been reported in southwestern Georgia, near the Turkish border.

Best wishes to all of you from me and from my hosts in P'at'ara Chailuri, who drank a toast to all of those who are looking forward to my return (at least I hope you are).




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