How Armenian Halvah Helped My Family Find Home in America

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There was only one thing I understood about death as a child: When it arrived, it brought with it halva.

Halva (which means “sweetmeat” in Arabic) is a confectionary made with assorted ingredients like tahini (sesame paste) or semolina and eaten in various forms across the world, from the Middle East to the Balkans to India. It’s even sold commercially in the U.S. The recipe I knew, however, involved four key things: sugar, butter, flour, and funerals.

At the funerals I attended growing up in Iran, wading through a sea of black outfits with the distinct smell of frankincense in my nose, I’d search through the crowd for my aunts and the glistening, aluminum foil–wrapped treasure they carried on a tray. Multiple days of mourning, house visits, and marathon funeral services administered by the Armenian Apostolic Church—this was the price I had to pay for a tiny piece of halva. It would disappear as quickly as it would materialize, giving me mere seconds of joy in the midst of grief.

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Liana Aghajanian