“I’m going to the hayrenik” (fatherland) a friend said. “Yegur hon yertank” (Let’s go there).
There were assumptions in the statement. That the homeland is home, that the homeland is theirs, that the homeland is the cherished old world.
The hayrenik is a place to which diasporans return to make sense of their mixed identities and cultural baggage. It’s a place where they hope to be mystically understood, but are frequently disappointed. Their clothes aren’t quite right or they’re not married or they don’t have children or they’re too…something foreign.
Whether it’s hos or hon, aystegh or ayntegh, the hayrenik is a powerful image. It gives people a sense of place, a feeling of belonging, a soil on which to grieve the past. We seem to need it, or at least some of us.
The so-called poet of the heart, Rumi, claimed by more than one country, tried to free himself of identity, saying, “I have been delivered from this ego and self-will—alive or dead, what an affliction! But alive or dead, I have no homeland other than God’s Bounty.”
Rumi may have transcended into some kind of ethereal universality, but others are concerned with what it means to be from somewhere, some piece of land.
The dirt that is my identity is in a non-descript tract of land in the prairie of North Dakota where my ancestors have been buried for more than 110 years. That’s nothing when compared to Armenia’s existence, but it doesn’t take long to forge an identity, I’ve learned.
It seemed like I might have a shared identity with my family when I registered at a college where some 20 members of my extended family have studied over three generations. Many of us had been raised on the same farm. After that it appears things went haywire.
My relatives in Norway eat moose and whale, while I grew up with beef, corn, and potatoes, and now I eat quinoa and garbanzo beans. My family committed to a specific vocation for the duration of their working lives, while my profession continues to morph and take me elsewhere. My great-grandmother was one of 11 children in Norway, while I have just 1 brother who is 8 years older.
What does it mean to be from a place or a people? Is it skin tone or nose shape, clothes or familial status, religion or political doctrine? If it’s any of these, I fear we may have missed the point.
Maybe what’s wrong with our current approach to identity is that it’s about differentiation. We feel inclined to demonstrate—explicitly or otherwise—how we are superior to others. It’s as if we’re marketing a product or service and we must convince people they need it. Or perhaps we’re just trying to convince ourselves.
If we’re unable to reach a Rumi-like state of being, is there a way for identity and basic values to co-exist peacefully? Surely one can be a “globalite” without jeopardizing the borders that provide protection from external hostilities.
There may be an even more uneasy existence among the self-loathers who despise where they’re from as much as they adore it. Their paralyzing castigation encumbers any hope of improving a collective identity that urges people toward something positive.
How do we see the hayrenik for what it really is, and still love it? How do we form an original identity on our own terms, without regard for the strengths or weaknesses of others?
It is indeed possible that the Armenian World sees the hayrenik for what it truly is and still loves it. But it is just as likely that it is in an unhealthy cycle of criticism without action, condemnation without participation. The latter will not produce positive results. It will not produce much of anything.
The time for an honest and forgiving look in the mirror is now. If we examine ourselves, each and every day, we will not be able to sit idle. We will finally see that we have more power than we once allowed ourselves to believe, and we will not allow ourselves or the hayrenik to deteriorate into our worst fears.