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Splash

Following the water festival season of Anatolia, Dean Kalimniou looks at how disjointed some customs can feel out of context

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18 August 2017

"What are you doing with that hose?" I asked. "It has just rained. There is no need to water anything."

I should have known then that something was wrong. By way of response, my wife turned to look at me, eyebrows raised. At that moment, time dragged itself to a halt. As if caught within a hiccuping freeze frame, I observed her, in increasing horror, frame by terrible frame, turn inexorably towards me and point the garden hose in my direction.

For reasons that I confess I do not comprehend, I am not a fan of water at the best of times. Heraclitus may have opined that "water makes the soul go moist" believing that it is death to fire to become water, considering that souls are made out of fire - in common with the λόγος, which is why we are all here in the first place. I, on the other hand, having been assured by means of my triple immersion in water, of the immortality of my own soul regardless of prevailing weather conditions, merely do not enjoy the sensation of being wet, which is not only why I howled in indignation at my baptism, but also consider the wet trauma of that event to be my earliest memory, dripping down my consciousness ever since.

Seconds later, the torrent reached me, penetrating every weave in my clothes and discharging its wetness upon me. It was the middle of winter and it was inordinately cold. In rage at my saturated violation, I strode forth, whipped the garden hose out of my laughing wife's hands and proceeded to douse her vigorously. Yet she met my aqueous assault with continued laughter, once more assuming custody of the hose and subjecting me to saturation again.

"What's wrong with you?" she asked suddenly, as she perceived my face turning a shade of porphyry that would have been considered lèse-majesté in polite Byzantine society: "Don't you guys celebrate Nusardel? I thought you did."

I responded with the growl of a deranged Greek water sprite that has been disturbed in its slumber by yet another Hollywood portrayal of Greek mythological characters as leather-clad Vikings. But then again, as Bob Marley opined, prior to his conversion to Ethiopian Orthodoxy: "Some people feel the rain, others just get wet."

Around about the month of July, the Assyrian people celebrate Nusardel, a water festival. During this time, it pleases them to walk around the neighbourhoods of their natural habitat, bearing buckets and splashing each other with water. In other urban areas, family picnics are organised so that the like-minded may congregate and drench each other to their hearts' content. Religious sources ascribe the practice of Nusardel to an event in the life of the Apostle Thomas, who, it is said, passed through Urmiya, an important homeland of the Assyrian people in Iran, on his way to India. Such was the power of Christianity in that town that many came to be baptised by the Apostle, who performed the rite by splashing water on the crowd and, spawning as a result, an exponential number of re-enactments.

Nusardel occurs on the seventh Sunday after Ascension, so that it falls, depending on when Easter falls, generally in midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere. Scholars tend to agree that it is a ritual that in pre-Christian times, must have been connected with the summer solstice, perhaps linked to the concept of the resurrection of plants and trees by the ancient Assyrian god of the underworld, Tammuz or Dumuzi, who sprinkles water on sown fields and gardens to hasten their growth. As such, the Assyrian kings of antiquity would traditionally sprinkle holy water on people and crops during the hot summer months as a blessing.

Also around about the same time, the Armenian people celebrate Vardavar, a water festival, where they too go around splashing each other, celebrating the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. The festival is generally celebrated 14 weeks after Easter, so that it too, like its Armenian counterpart falls in the Northern Hemisphere's midsummer.

The festival of Vardavar also dates back to pagan times. It is traditionally associated with the goddess Astghik, who was for the ancient Armenians, the goddess of water, beauty, love and fertility. The festivities associated with this religious observance of Astghik were named 'Vartavar' because Armenians offered her roses as a celebration and in Armenian, 'vart' means 'rose' and var means 'rise.' While we, situated in the West consider a sunrise romantic, nothing can be more calculated to make one swoon that a rose-rise, coupled with a ritual drenching. In this, the Armenians truly can be said to be the architects of fecundity.

Armenian-organised and collective splashing assumes means that are more technologically advanced than their Assyrian brethren. In California, where large expatriate communities of them thrive, it is not unknown for the more enterprising among them to hire fire trucks and turn their hoses upon a gleeful populace, in celebration of Vardavar. It is at times like these, that even though the theory is that Armenians are our closest linguistic relatives, that I am not counted among them.

Sadly, and as valiantly as I tried, I could not justify my paroxysm of fury, on the basis of being violated by precedents unknown. For, as it turns out, our own people do not exist independently of water sprinkling proclivities. Thus, I was incensed to learn that traditionally in Kastellorizo, and on the Asia Minor coast of Lycia prior to 1922, in preparation for the feast of St Elias (20 July so largely contemporaneous with the Armenian and Assyrian water festivals), a protracted amount of reciprocal drenching would take place. For days before St Elias' feast, local children would roam the streets, dragging each other into the sea, or drenching each other with buckets while yelling: «Τ᾽άϊ Λιά!» Scholars speculate that the custom, known in modern Greek as «μπουγέλωμα,» enacted on Kastellorizo even now, is a remnant of a pagan rain-making ritual, considering that Saint Elias, at least in the popular consciousness, was widely held to have power over rain.

The knowledge that our aquatic customs are equally enshrined in hallowed antiquity, in my spouse's casuistic argument, (for whom Nusardel is a reminder of better, kinder, more peaceful times before she was forced to leave her homeland) precludes me from exhibiting any symptoms of apoplexy. At the root of all these festivals are pagan rain-making or fertility rituals and it is amazing that they are celebrated, with differing justifications, at roughly the same time by the three native cultures of Anatolia. Nonetheless, as I towel off and attend to making myself a garlic tea, for my inadvertent participation in Nusardel and «του Άϊ λιος» has resulted in a rather severe case of the flu, I marvel at how tied to place and time many of our customs are, and how disjointed and strange they appear when removed from their original context and aped in the Antipodes. Just as we can never hope to truly appreciate the aesthetics of the resurrection of nature accompanying the resurrection of Christ, unless we spend a springtime Easter in Greece, or relish in the carnality of a Spring Mardi Gras, amidst the lushness of an awakening landscape, at a time when our own is darkening and becoming ever more frigid, the idea of drenching each other in the middle of winter, when rain is plentiful, and water translates to pain, is inexplicable as it is untenable. And herein, lies the paradox, of our Antipodean existence.

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