ARS & Hamazkayin celebrate Sona Zeitlian’s trailblazing 70 years of service jubilee

GLENDALE, Calif.—Sona Zeitlian (nee Simonian), educator, ethnographer, historian, award-winning author of Armenian women’s history, ARS member, Armenian women’s studies trailblazer and distinguished author of the history of the Armenians in Egypt, was honored for her 70 years of service jubilee by both Central Executive Boards (CEB) of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) and the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society during a program organized by the ARS of Western USA on April 7, 2024, at the Krikor and Mariam Karamanoukian Glendale Youth Center hall. 

Hundreds of attendees came to celebrate Zeitlian’s lifelong achievements, flocking from Egypt, Lebanon, Canada, the Eastern USA and from closer locations across California including Davis, San Diego and the Los Angeles/Orange County basin. The event not only brought the ARS and Hamazkayin families together, but also honoree’s family members, who provided their perspectives and recollections of being associated with an extraordinarily bright thinker who single-handedly preserved oral Armenian women’s history, pioneered the contributions of Armenian women and became herself a role-model heroine.

Opening remarks were made by ARS of Western USA Regional Executive chairperson Vicky Marashlian, who presented Zeitlian’s 70 years of service to the Armenian people as a role model with her wisdom, patience and dedication. Marashlian read a congratulatory letter from author Krikor Beledian of Paris, France. Later, she was joined by Arousyak Melkonian, ARS CEB chairperson, to present commendations from the newly-elected Mayor of Glendale (Calif.) Elen Asatryan and a certificate of recognition from Congressman Adam Schiff, who represents California’s 30th Congressional District.

Western Diocese of the Armenian Church Primate Archbishop Hovnan Derderian’s representative, Rev. Fr. Njdeh Keshishian, read His Eminence’s congratulatory remarks, reminding those present that HH Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II awarded Zeitlian with a Pontifical Encyclical in 2015.

The program emcee Susanna Davtyan, secretary of the ARS of Western USA Regional Executive and principal of the ARS Glendale “Sepan” chapter “S. Hatsbanian” Saturday School

Sona Madarian, who serves on the Board of Regents of the ARS School, presented the honoree as a teacher, researcher, author and historian who documented the oral history of the elderly Musa Ler survivors who were living in Ainjar, Lebanon and published the first book on the role of Armenian women in the revolutionary movement. She noted that Zeitlian was a trailblazer for Armenian women’s studies, unearthing their historical roles and influence in the political and health realms. Madarian emphasized Zeitlian’s role as a faithful widow, mother and grandmother who persevered almost five decades ago after the loss of her husband, Sarkis, who was an ARF Bureau member.

Award-winning architect, poet and political observer Hraztan Zeitlian presented his mother’s unique qualities: her writings pursued a progressive feminist agenda to persuade others to follow her lead; her 1968 book about Armenian revolutionary women paved the way for the establishment of the Armenian women’s studies field; her research on Armenian women was a trailblazer pioneering work; her work presented Armenian women as agents of change, empowering women’s equity and equality; her work evolved into the intersection of women’s issues, community and civil society; her cultural ethnology studies were accessible and purposeful with social and political aims; and she advocated self-organization for the Diaspora communities for the development of the Armenian character.

The program was emceed by Susanna Davtyan and included soloist Haykuhi Babakhanian’s performance of two folk songs as well as a performance by a dozen of the ARS Sepan (Glendale) Chapter’s Salpe Hatzbanian Saturday School students of the “Grateful Animals,” a children’s story written by Zeitlian based on the oral traditions of the women of Musa Ler (Musa Dagh). A video message from Prof. Talar Chahinian of the University of California Irvine (UCI) Center for Armenian Studies explained how Zeitlan’s pivotal books and papers on Armenian women were the forerunners of Armenian women’s studies programs. She added that her public presentations and workshops have pioneered a model for advocacy for women’s rights and inclusion. Prof. Chahinian congratulated Zeitlian on her resourcefulness and tenacity in navigating institutional restrictions to accomplish her research advocating for women’s rights. 

Viggo Zeitlian, a high school senior and talented varsity football player, explained how his opinion of his doting grandmother evolved as he and his older brother Kyle became old enough to participate in discussions with her. He explained that her passion for learning and discussing was tangible and exciting, and he feels inspired as the recipient of her tenacity, wisdom and guidance. 

Prof. Heghnar Zeitlian Waternpaugh, an award-winning author who teaches art history at the University of California, Davis, recalled that as a child, she had little idea of her mother’s second life as a scholar. She saw her mother working on papers in the kitchen or at a desk; at the time, the honoree was writing a series of books for teenage readers on Armenian legends, such as Haig Nahabed and Ara Keghetsig. When Waternpaugh was old enough to read those stories, her mother wanted to know how her writing could connect with someone like her. While The Role of Armenian Women during the Revolutionary Movement had been published in 1968 before Waternpaugh was born, it was much later that she realized the importance of that book. When her mother first tried researching Armenian women, even the Armenian men in leadership roles discouraged her from pursuing her subject. While there were no readily available records about women’s role in history, her mother invented her research methods and writing style. 

Zakar Keshishian, CEB chair of the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, said that heroes are not just those who die on the front; they are also those who are asked to go to the front, who dedicate their lives to a mission for their community. He described Zeitlian as such a heroine. He asked the other Hamazkayin CEB member, Dr. Dikran Babikian, to join him in awarding Zeitlian with Hamazkayin’s medal of honor for her contributions to literature.

ARS CEB chairperson Melkonian remarked that as ARS volunteers, it is undoubtedly a proud moment to recognize someone like Zeitlian, a heroine in every sense of the word, the likes of whom will rarely come in the history of our nation. Melkonian remarked that Zeitlian has been an exemplary and outstanding ARS member with many years of tireless service to the organization. Her various literary, documentary and research works immortalized Armenian women’s virtues, courage, endurance and patriotism and validated the Armenian mother and grandmother’s role in preserving and disseminating national traditions. Zeitlian brought to life the unknown stories of countless heroines so that they would sound like ringing bell towers and light the paths for future generations. Zeitlian exemplified the embodiment of all those special virtues that she described in her own writings and inspired others to tackle present and future challenges.

Honoree Sona Zeitlian pictured with (l. to r.) ARS CEB member Annie Keshishian (treasurer), ARS of Western USA Regional Executive members Haigo Barsamian (advisor), Vicky Marashlian (chairperson), Seda Khojayan (advisor) and ARS CEB members Arousyak Melkonian (chairperson) and Zharmen Mirzakhanyan (advisor)

ARS CEB members Annie Kechichian, treasurer, and Zharmen Mirzakhanyan, advisor, joined Melkonian to award Zeitlian the CEB certificate and the Michael Aram commemorative plate with the ARS logo.

Finally, it was time to hear from the honoree herself. Zeitlian thanked the ARS and Hamazkayin executives, her family members who came from far away to attend the gathering, the organizers, attendees and all those who expressed their congratulations in writing, including former students and sometimes their children from Egypt and Lebanon. She noted that throughout her life, from Cairo to Ainjar, from Beirut to North and South America, as well as Canada, she has tried to be helpful for the sake of the advancement of Armenian women and their vital role in Armenia’s heroic history, from the revolutionary movement through the First Republic of Armenia. When she was in Ainjar for the first time, she wrote down the stories that represented the values and beliefs of the people of Musa Ler who were displaced from their homeland. She aimed to communicate their legacy to the generations living away from the homeland, instilling pride in their identity. She got involved with women’s organizations by delivering lectures related to social and domestic issues and the protection of women’s rights in the homeland and diaspora. Her solitary work, which began in the 60s, has expanded as programs and courses have been established in women’s studies and the role of women has progressed. Zeitlian reaffirmed her belief that collectively Armenians can strive for the advancement of Armenian women and the common good. 

Following the program’s end, the excitement continued as attendees got a chance to meet with the honoree and congratulate her with smiles and bouquets of flowers.

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.

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