Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Tree with Deep Roots: Surmelian

He was born in 1905 in Trabzon. He took shelter among his neighbors when the disastrous days had come and his family joined the big parade. He stayed in orphanages in Erivan, Nor Bayazıd, Karakilise and Batum. In the period of armistice, he received education in Armaş- Izmit and then in Getronagan, Istanbul. When all the orphans in the city were sent abroad in 1922, he happened to go to the USA. He was the son of a pharmacist but wanted to study agriculture.

Having lost all his loved ones in the Great Disaster and having found himself in the New World after a series of personal catastrophes, this lad normally chose to study especially agriculture. Why he had decided to master in that filed is best told by him in his poetry.

I planted that tree as a cross for my dead ones

Wherever he had traveled, Levon Zaven Surmelian always had the pain of his beloved country in his heart. With the purpose of transforming the stony Armenian land into a green field and of creating his own paradise on those lands, he had to become a good expert in agriculture. He received the title of professor of agriculture in Los Angeles, a city full of other Armenian sharing the same history. Those Armenians worked hard to recreate an equivalent for Sivas, Maraş, and Antep on a foreign land. He visited Armenia for a few times but did not have the opportunity to live there. He could not make his dream of working on that barren land to make it a rich and prosperous one with a plow and hook in his hand.

Surmelian started to get his writings and poetry in Armenian published and received praise from renowned Hagop Oşagan. In guidance of his godfather poet Vahan Tekeyan, he launched a writing career in poetry. The reason why he wrote in English was his desire to Express whatever has happened in his homeland and the maltreatment against his people. His autobiographical book I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen was published in 1945.
The renowned writer William Saroyan described the book as the real life story of a generation “who succeeded to survive in a way that turns their enemies mad (...), who had their world destroyed but stubbornly kept on living, and as an effort to “fix ruined lives”.

In the book I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen, Surmelian told the story of his life in Trabzon before 1915, his family, his father´s pharmacist´s, his neighbors, Turkish play mates, the death parade that his family went to, how Greek families tried to survive taking shelter in his house, his experiences in different orphanages around Caucasia, his magic-like experiences in Istanbul and finally his travel to the United States…

He did not lose his good intentions and childish vision even while writing about the most violent and disastrous events. He managed to create a universal tragedy out of the lives of his brothers and friends, whom Saroyan defined by saying, “If we are to categorize them under a certain nation, they would be belonging to the nation of children”. He had the same hopeful and compassionate style of writing when he told his happy childhood days in Trabzon, his search for happiness on unknown paths, and the painful feeling of deficiency he had in orphanages.
Just like the walnut tree told in the poem by Nazım Hikmet, another poet who has craved his homeland so passionately, he expressed his feelings in an infinite variety of expressions:

Under the Armenian sun
with large green leaves
I am a tree
my feet are strong
just like snakes
they swirl across the crosses on holy lands
and with my arms up against the wind
I erect myself just like Jesus
on top of the mountain.

Translated by Ahu Sıla Bayer

June 22, 2007

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