By Aram Arkun
Simon Simonian was a prolific author, editor, publisher and teacher who played an influential role in Armenian diasporan life. An initial attempt at presenting his legacy in English has been made by Levon Sharoyan of Aleppo, in Simon Simonian: The Last Scion of the Mountaineers (On the Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of His Death). First published in serialized form in the Armenian-language periodicals Kantzasar, Aztag and Harach, and then as a volume in Armenia, this short work was translated into English by Dr. Vahe H. Apelian and published in 2017 by Hratch Kalsahakian with the sponsorship of the Simon Simonian Fund.
This volume is not a scholarly monograph but a very personal approach to Simonian’s works. Sharoyan’s grandfather “Shoemender Levon” is one of the Sasun Armenians living in Aleppo about whom Simonian wrote in his stories, and Sharoyan grew up reading Simonian’s various writings. Several Simonian family members edited and proofread the translation.
Simonian was born in Aintab in 1914. His father was from the Germav village of Sasun. His family fled to Aleppo in 1921. Simonian was accepted to the newly opened Seminary of the Catholicate of Cilicia in Aleppo and graduated as part of its first class in 1935 together with the future Archbishop Terenig Poladian and Catholicos Zareh Payaslian. He then returned to Aleppo to be a teacher of Armenian language and history at the National Haigazian School till 1938, and again from 1941 to 1946. He taught from 1938 to 1941 at the Gulbenkian Armenian School.
One of Simonian’s most important legacies is the publication work of the Sevan publishing house, which he first started in 1945 in Aleppo and restarted in 1954 in Beirut. He published and edited two issues of a literary periodical called Sevan in 1946, sponsored by the Armenian Teachers’ Association of Aleppo, which printed the works of many prominent writers, including Catholicos Karekin I Hovsepiants, Nigol Aghpalian, Vahan Tekeyan and Hagop Oshagan.
Simon Simonian’s mother Mennoush with her first husband, Bedo Donoyan, who are described in his short story, “He Was Different.”
In 1946 Catholicos Karekin I invited Simonian, the former seminarian, to work in Antelias, Lebanon, as a tenured lecturer of classical and modern Armenian and its literature at the Seminary. The next year he was also appointed as chief editor of Hask, the monthly organ of the Catholicate of Cilicia. He held these positions until 1955, and also taught at the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Hovagimian-Manougian High School for boys and the Tarouhi Hagopian High School for girls until 1960. Catholicos Karekin I in this period entrusted him to edit his unpublished scholarly works, of which only one volume was published in 1951, and the Hask hayakidagan Darekirk, an Armenological yearbook, in 1948, 1951, and 1957.
However, the death of Catholicos Karekin I in 1952, and ensuing political turmoil, led Simonian to leave his positions connected with the Armenian Church and restart his Sevan publishing house in Beirut. He published the works of both established and new authors, as well as Armenian textbooks, and turned into one of the greatest Armenian publishers in Lebanon, printing over 475 titles of 190 authors during 27 or 28 years. Sevan continued to publish even after the onset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 but it was bombed, leading to massive damages, and printed its last work in 1983.
When his printing house was in good order, Simonian published the first issue of his new weekly newspaper, Spiwrk [Diaspora], in 1958. It was a literary and cultural journal with well known regular contributors from different segments of the diaspora, and special editions dedicated to new young writers. Simonian’s independent perspective led to opposition in both the diaspora and Armenia. Simonian served as editor until the end of December 1974, after which his brother-in-law Kevork Ajemian took over.
When still 25 or 26 years old, Simonian began to prepare an influential series of textbooks on Armenian history, some of which are still used in Armenian schools in the diaspora today. Sharoyan praises their patriotic nationalistic style but does not closely analyze them. Sharoyan notes, incidentally, that Simonian claimed his textbooks were plagiarized by the Aleppine Armenian intellectual Armen Anoush-Marashlian (1907-1958).
Sharoyan presents as one of Simonian’s most important achievements the volume Arewelahay kraganutiwn [Eastern Armenian Literature] (1962), which Sharoyan describes as “an eight-hundred-page-long book that reminds one of a heavy-set bible.” It contains biographical information and examples of the works of 42 authors, as well as an appended dictionary for 6,500 obscure or unfamiliar words from Armenian provincial dialects and a chronology of the cited authors’ works.
Simonian had begun penning stories about the lives of Armenians from Sasun in Aleppo from the 1940s, and eventually published them in 1968 with the title, in Armenian, of The Twilight of the Mountaineers. The first story of this collection, “He Was Different,” appears in the present volume in English translation in the appendix. He published two other literary anthologies of his stories, in 1967 and 1970, title Sipanay Kacher [Daredevils of Sipan]. In 1972, he published Ler yev Jagadakir [Mountain and Destiny], which combined all the stories in The Twilight of the Mountaineers with some pieces from the latter two volumes.
He wrote several novels, of which only two were printed. The first, Gu khntrvi khachatsevel [Please Overlap], was published in 1965, and the second, Anzhamantros, in 1978. Sharoyan points out that Simonian’s decision that the latter should only be disseminated after his death does not have any rational explanation and was “a wrong and an unjustifiable act” which lessened the impact of the novel on contemporary readers.
Sharoyan concludes his book with a description of Simonian’s 1983 visit to the United States, where he was honored in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia (the latter event hosted by the Tekeyan Cultural Association).
Simonian died on March 24, 1986 and his former student Catholicos Karekin I Sarkisian gave the eulogy. Sharoyan finds that “perhaps Simon Simonian did not receive the recognition he deserved for his literary accomplishments,” but that interest in his works increased after his death.
There are minor errors of language and editing in the volume. For example, on page 50 Sharoyan writes that in 1945 there were three Armenian literary periodicals in Aleppo, yet on the same page he writes that the third, Simonian’s Sevan, was first published in 1946.
At times, the author’s indulgent personal approach leads to what for most readers is superfluous information. For example, he declares: “Thirty years after Simonian’s death, as I write these sentences, let it be known that I recently procured a copy [of Anzhamantros] from our Kristapor Library and read the book patiently from the very beginning right to the very end.” However, overall the volume provides readers with a useful introduction to Simonian, and is illustrated with interesting photographs from the Simonian family archives.