Ahmed Ibrahim
4 min readMay 14, 2024

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Surmelian The Fighter For Freedom

Leon Surmelian

Levon Zaven Surmelyan (November 24, 1905, Trabzon, Ottoman Empire–October 3, 1995 California, USA) was an Armenian-American writer in English and philologist who has one collection of poems in Armenian.

Surmelian was born in Trabzon in 1905. His father, Garaped Surmelian, was a pharmacist, and his mother was Zevart Tiraturyan. He had one brother and two sisters. Zaven was the third of four children.

In 1915, he lost his parents during the Genocide. In 1916, eleven-year-old Zaven went to Batu and then to Krasnodar on a Russian ship. After the armistice, in 1918, Zaven, together with his orphaned friends, arrived in Polis, then at Armash Agricultural College. After a year, he decided to go to Armenia with his friends, but they had barely arrived when the Turks occupied Kars. Finally, in 1920, they returned to Polis, where Zaven attended Central College. While studying at the Istanbul Orphanage and the Central College, his first poems were noticed by Hakob Oshakan and Vahan Tekeyan.

In 1922, with the support of the Armenian Agricultural Union, he went to study at the Agricultural College of Kansas State, USA. He also studied at the University of Nebraska and the University of Southern California. He has been creating since he was 15 years old. In 1924, Vahan Tekeyan edited the poems of Surmelyan, which he had sent in separate letters, and published his only collection of Armenian poems, "Luys Zvart," which is one of the best examples of Armenian poetry of that period, in Paris. Later, he wrote only in English.

In 1931, Syurmelyan edited the "Armenian Messenger" weekly newspaper in Los Angeles.

Surmelyan gained recognition for his first novel written in English, "I ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen," which is autobiographical and tells about the Genocide through the eyes of ten-year-old Zaven. The novel was published in 1945. Surmelyan is also the author of the novel "98.6°" (1950). This novel is distinguished by the mastery of subtle analysis of the inner world of the characters. In 1964, Surmelyan's work "Sasna Tsrer" was published in England, and in 1968, "Apples of Immortality," a collection of Armenian folk tales, was published. These two works were sponsored by UNESCO as important examples of the creativity of the Armenian people. In 1968, Surmelyan's literary work "Prose Technique: Size and Madness" was published.

In 1958–1969, he lectured on English and English-language literature at the University of California and other educational institutions.

"Luys zvart" poems in Armenian

The collection "Luys zvart" was the first and last Armenian work of Syurmelyan, as well as the only poetry collection of Syurmelyan. Collected in 1924. It was published in Paris in 1950 and reprinted in New York in 1950 and 1972. The collection includes 21 poems that were noticed in the poetic atmosphere of those days. Love and devotion to the land and nature can be seen in Sürmelyan's poems. "Longing" is the title of his poem, in which he longs to be "a flower in the field of wheat red, a cup to the sun", "An old wooden bridge in the village", "A moss-covered spring can hardly sing", "A clay bowl is good for a peasant, that the thirst of the city" even in me die."

Praise for I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen

There is an intimacy here, even though it is a memoir of displacement and mass murder. The big picture of a genocide – such a cold word for such unfathomable horror – is told from the vantage of a small boy, who remembers the smells and sounds of his hometown.

-Professor Ronald G. Suny, University of Michigan

Leon Surmelian wanted his bestselling and widely translated memoir to be known as “a universal story, the timeless legend of boyhood.” It is that, but it is also an astonishingly rich and nuanced portrait of an Armenian world lost to war and genocide. With fierce intelligence and beautiful prose, Surmelian tells his own tale of survival and renewal, and at the same time illuminates the tragic history of his people.

-Nancy Kricorian, author

Leon Surmelian’s I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen remains a vivid reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and the impact of genocide on a human soul. With a great command of detail, this masterful memoir recounts the horrors he witnessed as a child and the struggle to find a home. The lyricism and beauty of the prose enrich our understanding of the effects of diaspora on the Armenian people. This masterpiece deserves to be widely read. I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, please ensure this book never goes out of print again.

-Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

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Ahmed Ibrahim

Full-fledged Content Creator & Tech Journalist. Worked previously with top publishers like AkhbarTech, Abda Adv, and RobbReportArabia.