Vatche Semerdjian’s Book Feted at Tekeyan Cultural Association Beshgueturian Center


Semerdjian 2

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff


ALTADENA, Calif. – Vatche Semerdjian’s new publication Lusartsargin dag [Under the Spotlight] was celebrated on January 30 at the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA) Beshgueturian Center in Altadena. A large audience of approximately 200 people listened to an extensive program of speakers interspersed with musical interludes. Under the patronage of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Western), and the guidance of the nimble master of ceremonies Parsegh Kartalian, Armenian writers and public figures praised Semerdjian’s career and work. Many members of the TCA Central Board from distant parts of the US attended the event to honor their colleague along with executives and members of the Los Angeles TCA branch.

Born in Beirut in 1938, Semerdjian is a graduate of the Armenian Benevolent Union’s Hovagimian Manugian Secondary School of that city. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the American University of Beirut in 1960. After teaching three years in the Melkonian Educational Institution of Cyprus, and then in a Lebanese school, he studied a year in Belgium and then obtained certification as a specialist in leather manufacturing from a London school. For a decade he worked as a specialist in this field in Ethiopia and for one year in Afghanistan. Political instability in Ethiopia and the Middle East led him to bring his family to the United States in 1976, where he became active in TCA and the ADLP. After the last leather treatment factory in California closed, he was offered a position in the TCA Arshag Dickranian School as a teacher of Armenology in the middle school section. Years earlier he had been one of the active founders of this school. He worked there from 1997 to 2009, after which he retired at the age of 71.

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Semerdjian has been a member of the ADLP since 1956, and has held various responsible positions in this party in London, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Los Angeles. For over a decade, until 1995, he was a member of the West Coast district committee of the party. He became a member of the central board of directors of the TCA of the USA and Canada in 1980, and continued to serve on this board until the present, and simultaneously assumed leadership positions in the Los Angeles TCA chapter. He has been chairman of the latter body from the 1990s.

Semerdjian began writing for the ADLP press from 1956, and from 1977 began to work with the Los Angeles based Nor Or newspaper. In 2000 he assumed the position of editor, as a volunteer, of this weekly newspaper, and continued until October 2005, when he was removed after criticizing the AGBU’s decision to close the Melkonian Institute.

Semerdjian has edited five volumes, including one dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the ADLP (1981). In 2000, his own volume Abrvadz Spiurke [The Diaspora Endured] was published, and in 2012 Hishadageli timakantagner [Memorable Profiles]. Semerdjian’s Lusartsargin dag, published in Glendale, California in 2014 by the Tekeyan Cultural Association is a two volume 1299 page work which include a collection of some of the over 200 articles and editorials he wrote for Nor Or from 1980 to 2005. It is divided into chapters on various topics, and is intended by Semerdjian to serve as a spotlight on American-Armenian views and life in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the pieces have been slightly edited but retain their fundamental intent.

Kartalian welcomed guests, and pithily presented Semerdjian’s career and journalistic, educational, and political party work. Kartalian pointed out that Semerdjian was a chemist by training, but by choice dedicated himself to Armenian letters and to the perpetuation of Armenian identity. In effect, today he is a vanishing type of man.

Kartalian then introduced Lilit Keheyan, a literary critic who is a graduate of Yerevan State University and has worked with Semerdjian as a member of the Los Angeles TCA executive. She summarized the contents of the two new volumes and read various excerpts from them. She felt that the Los Angeles Armenian community still needs the kind of Armenian-language serious newspaper that Semerdjian skillfully prepared while he was Nor Or editor. The newspaper reflected his high standards, lack of posturing and noble concerns. He often approached his topics with “infectious enthusiasm.”

Four Armenian intellectuals, all except one old friends of Semerdjian, then took the stage, one by one. First came journalist, cineaste and novelist Sarkis Vahaken. Vahaken expressed his wonderment at Semerdjian’s thoughtful, encyclopedic work. He said about Semerdjian’s clear and beautiful Armenian that “your style is a true pleasure, characterized by the stamp of your individuality illuminated by the rays of your bright mind, and enlivened by mild refined humor.” While serving the cause of journalistic truth, Semerdjian contributed also to the development of Armenian literature. He combined a high level of writing and objective judgment with a keen ability to observe. The two volumes, Vahaken felt, would be a source for future historians to study contemporary Armenian life. Vahaken noted Semerdjian’s contribution to the education of new generations of Armenians, and did not fail to pay tribute to the great inspiration of Semerdjian’s wife Sossi.

Dr. Arpi Sarafian, a lecturer in English at California State University, Los Angeles, who earned her doctorate from the University of Southern California (USC) in English literature with a thesis on Virginia Woolf, spoke about her many decades of friendship and work with Semerdjian. She said that in the last four or five years, she came to see him in his personal daily life in the physical world, a grandfather, a teacher and most of all a man close to the soil who took patiently great care of trees and plants in his gardens. Sarafian felt this lived life gives value to the concerns and realities expressed in his writings. These two worlds are not contradictory. On the contrary, Semerdjian’s ideas are immediate, taken from real life.

Maria Chrissian, a graduate of Taruhi Hagopian Girls School in Beirut, studied Near Eastern Studies in Washington for her bachelor’s degree and later at California State University, Northridge, studied English. She began by stressing that it was only 41 years after 1915 and the Genocide when Semerdjian entered the field of journalism. Semerdjian made the Armenian press richer, and a portion of his contribution is found in the two volumes Lusartsagin dag. She spoke about his blossoming at the start of his career in Beirut, despite the difficulties of life, with important Armenian mentors and colleagues. It was his “firm faith, inextinguishable hope and boundless love” which turned his life productive and useful, along with the support of his family. He remained faithful to his ideology, and served his people through the ADLP, TCA and journalism despite many obstacles for almost 60 years.

Chrissian praised his sacrifices and work which led to a productive and useful life. Directly addressing Semerdjian, Chrissian concluded: “May your noble example inspire new apostles, and may you with new vigor and enthusiasm present us with new surprises.”

The newest of Semerdjian’s friends spoke next. Dr. Krikor Adanalian of Aleppo is a cardiologist who received his medical education in Armenia. He explained that he came to know Semerdjian first through his writings some twenty years ago, but then met him in person for the first time in Los Angeles in 2003, and then had another opportunity in 2014. Semerdjian’s articles broadened the horizons of Adanalian’s mind, forcing him to examine issues from different perspectives.

Adanalian found that true writers like Semerdjian are like beacons illuminating the paths people must take in life. Semerdjian for over half a century served Armenian literature and the Armenian people. His articles objectively dealt with the issues that were the most important for the Armenian people’s life in Armenia and in the diaspora. He left an inerasable imprint upon diasporan Armenian journalism. Adanalian expressed his thanks for this legacy.

Finally, keynote speaker Yervant Azadian of Detroit, also an old friend of Semerdjian, was introduced by Kartalian as the man who brought the Egyptian-Armenian newspaper Arev to its zenith and prepared a new generation of Armenians who today occupy responsible positions in the Armenian community. Today Azadian continues his leadership role, publishes books, and writes an editorial column in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.

Azadian described Semerdjian’s work with a stream of superlatives: “A work which is inestimable, a work which is irreplaceable, and a work which is edifying. This is the kind of superlative praise a reader encounters when he picks up Vatche Semerdjian’s journalistic two-volume book, Lusartzagi dag, venerable both in terms of volume and aesthetic presentation, and even more so concerning its content, wisdom and understanding of political ideas.”

Azadian said Semerdjian’s journalistic legacy has been turned into part of the classic canon through the publication of these two volumes. He was amazed at the variety of topics in the work, which includes politics, the arts, history, science and sports, and pointed out that Semerdjian is one of the rare individuals in whom profound erudition and wisdom join together to form a fortunate whole. Furthermore, Semerdjian has an unusual talent for writing with humor and “incomparable linguistic richness.” Azadian felt that “it is worth reading these volumes just for their literary style.”

The reader derives great pleasure from his works because, as Azadian stated, “Even while examining the simplest matters, the reader begins with expectations about the path to be taken but always ends up encountering a pleasurable surprise and sometimes startling conclusions.”

Azadian said that as a journalist, Semerdjian goes beyond elucidating events and issues to give authoritative guidance to readers. Though he is a member of the ADLP, and does not fear taking strong positions, at the same time he does not blindly ignore or scorn the contributions of others to Armenian life. Furthermore, Semerdjian is an advocate of the change of generations in Armenian community life.

Azadian concluded that the rays of the “spotlight” of Semerdjian’s two volumes “illuminate the reader’s path, and enrich our souls.”

Archbishop Derderian closed the formal panegyric portion of the evening by speaking of his contacts and friendship with Semerdjian for over a decade. Semerdjian’s legacy for coming generations presents the characteristic features of Armenian identity and the colorful picture of his times. He is “a man who lives by visions of new dawns beyond the horizons of calm seas” and is homesick for the Armenian homeland.

Semerdjian stepped up to the podium at the end of this long evening to respond. He thanked the master of ceremonies, all the speakers, and the musicians, as well as those who contributed to the production of the two volumes, especially the donors and TCA. Mike Nahabed and Seta Khodanian greatly facilitated the publication process. Semerdjian declared, “I have to feel so small at this moment after such extensive praise and lofty words….I am greatly moved by the content, quality and sincerity of the assessments expressed during the past two to two and one-half hours.”

The evening closed with the ceremony of a kinetson, and refreshments. Semerdjian was asked to explain the meaning of this ceremony. He said that it originated in the early 1980s when the poet Mgrdich Hajian from Mexico City came for the publication of a new book of his. Harut Yeretsian told Semerdjian to get wine from a store next to the old TCA hall on Beverly Boulevard. He brought a bottle and Yeretsian explained that this was a widespread custom in Armenia which for the first time would be introduced now to the US.

Strangely, when Vartkes Bedrosian came as one of the first visitors from Soviet Armenia, Semerdjian told him we adopted this Armenian custom, and he exclaimed, “What a foolish thing!” Nonetheless, Semerdjian and others tried over the years to give meaning to this act of pouring wine on a newly published book. They said the wine gives long life to the book. Now there is no author who does not want to have a kinetson ceremony. Semerdjian and the Armenian writers and clergy present then participated in the kinetson and informally mingled with the audience.
Many letters of congratulations were received on the occasion of this event, of which three were read during the program by Kartalian. These were from the central board of the TCA of Armenia, signed by Executive Secretary Garegin Gevorgyan and President Ruben Mirzakhanian; the Writers Union of Armenia, signed by its president Eduard Militonyan; and Nerses Babayan of New York, writing also in the name of his father Yervant Babayan.

The long chain of speakers during the evening was interrupted twice by refreshing musical performances. First, Salpi Kerkonian on the flute with Sosi Kerkonian on the harp performed excerpts from the works of Loris Tjeknavorian and Antonio Vivaldi as the Yergnayin Dagher duo. Salpi, with a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in music from USC, has won many competitions, and has worked as Principal Flute for the American Youth Symphony and the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. A tenure member of the Glendale Symphony, she has performed on 30 TV and movie soundtracks, and on various television shows.

Later, pianist Shushan Hakobyan and violinist Ophelia Nanagyulyan performed two classical pieces, and were joined by bass Vagharsh Martirosyan of Moscow, who sang an aria by Vincenzo Bellini.

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