Sitting across the street from an Armenian church in Glendale, my brother, Tom, was explaining to the friendly old lady at the baklava shop that his wife was parskahye. I was worried.
It had been two months that we were traveling together throughout the United States and I’d heard that phrase uttered by Tom on numerous occasions. I’d started to fret that my dear sister-in-law was suffering from some sort of debilitating illness I’d never heard of.
“Bro,” I began, studying the sludge at the bottom of my tiny coffee cup. “Just what the hell is parskahye?”
My brother grinned.
Learning all these different Armenian phrases can be quite confusing for a non-Armenian like myself. But I was relieved to discover that my brother’s wife was actually in fine health. She was just an Armenian from Iran.
“Okay,” I continued, noticing the coffee sludge start to dry up. “What the hell is hye?”
You see, before I became acquainted with this complex culture, I just assumed that “Armenian” in Armenian would just be… “Armenian.” Especially since, these days, I have a handful of friends whose names are all somewhere along the lines of Armen, Armin, Armine, and… well, you get the point. It seems like “Armenian” should be a no-brainer.
But then I learned about “hye.” And soon after that, “Hayastan.” The people and their country. This was all getting to be more confusing, not less.
It turns out that Hayastan basically translates to the land of hyes. The “stan” part is obvious, but I’m still to fathom the “hay” bit. But at least now I know the name of the country where I live, spoken in the mother tongue.
The most confusing part, however, is yet to come. Try explaining your complicated background to a complete novice. Maybe your mother is Libanahye (Lebanese-Armenian) and your dad is Suriahye (Syrian-Armenian) — but his father was from Diyarbakir and his father’s mother was born in Hayastan. It’s enough to make your head explode!
Perhaps it would be easier to just explain it all in plain English: Your mother is from Lebanon, but she’s Armenian (Bourj Hammoud was her stomping ground.) But your father? He’s from Syria, though, still Armenian. Your grandfather, on the other hand, was born in modern-day Turkey, and as for your great-grandmother? Well, she hailed from Gyumri, a town in Armenia. It’s so simple, right? Wrong.
Growing up in a British family, explaining my ancestry was much more simple. My mother and father were both born and raised in the Midlands. My dad grew up on the back streets of Leicester, and my mum on a farm in Lincolnshire. My dad filled out our family tree a long while ago. It turns out, we were all from the Midlands, going back hundreds of years. Done. Dusted. Simple.
But Armenians? Not a chance. This whole affair could turn from a simple “Where are your folks from?” question over a casual beer at Calumet (in Yerevan), into a full-on inquisition laden with diagrams, charts, and hastily drawn maps. Soon, pint glasses will be representing various cities across the Middle East and salted peanuts will symbolize your lineage. It’s a total nightmare. But it’s also great.
My brother and I sat in the California sunshine discussing the ins-and-outs of Armenian ancestry for quite some time. We ordered more coffee and Tom explained how Armenians are spread all over the world. Most people you meet in Armenia seem familiar with California, a place of so many Armenians, and all these different “hyes” just roll off the tongue. For me, growing up in a small British family, the world was never that big.
Now, here I am. My wife’s mother and father do actually hail from Lebanon and Syria, respectively. They have family in the States, Canada, and Australia. They’re a classic example of Armenian Diasporans. It’s wonderfully rich in culture, and for me, it’s extraordinarily interesting.
Just don’t make me explain all this to the uninitiated. It’s bloody pointless, but it would probably be fun trying. Until then, I’ll just be happy knowing that my brother’s wife isn’t suffering from some obscure illness. Shod shod merci.