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A man of letters — and passion

Edited Armenian paper before moving to Canada
Architect also wrote book about William Saroyan


Two careers, two countries, one passion.

Call it pride, if you will, of place or of history but certainly of a people. Bedros Zobyan was an architect and crusading newspaper editor born and raised in the Turkish city of Istanbul who used both of his careers to nurture and nudge his fellow Armenians closer to their heritage and culture.

Five years ago, long after he and his wife and daughter had immigrated in 1967 to live quietly in Don Mills, as well as after retiring from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce where he designed everything from buildings to bank machines, Zobyan once again took up his pen.

He wrote a book about the three-week trip he took in May 1964 with William Saroyan to find the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright’s Armenian ancestral home.

Towards Bitlis with William Saroyan was published by an Armenian publisher in 2003. The cover features a photo of Saroyan sitting on a rock in the rugged Anatolian countryside alongside a signpost stating: Bitlis 10.

The pair went from Istanbul via Ankara to Samsun on the Black Sea. They stopped at Lake of Van (considered to be as sacred a place as Ararat to Armenians). Venturing into remote villages where Armenians had lived before the genocide of 1915, they found Armenian children being raised in primitive conditions by Turkish and Kurdish families.

In Bitlis, Saroyan located the foundations of his family’s home, with some help from villagers hoping this rich American was going to lead them all straight to a hidden cache of gold. (He didn’t.)

Although Zobyan told his family that Saroyan took notes during their trip, the author never directly wrote about it, although he did write a play called The Istanbul Trilogy. Zobyan, however, wrote up a series about the trip for his newspaper called: “60,000 Kilometres in 16 Days with William Saroyan.”

For years people told him he should write a book based on those articles. And when he finally did start writing, he became immersed in the work.

“While he was working on the book, nothing else existed,” said his wife, Seta.

It took three years. A perfectionist, he typed, copy-edited and typeset the book, along with choosing and laying out the photos, then sent it to the publisher in Istanbul. When the publisher sent back the galleys, Zobyan proofed every comma.

“Every day I came home from school and my grandfather would be typing. Every day,” said Amara Possian, 15. “My grandma too, both of them always had red pens.”

American Armenians had arranged a special book launch for October 2003 in California, but Zobyan was too ill to attend. When he died at 82 of pancreatic cancer this past December, he had received dozens of letters from Armenians around the world thanking him for writing the book.

It is considered much more than a travel book.

“It’s part of our history,” says his friend, Arta Yuzbasian, an Armenian artist living in Toronto. “It was very well received within the Armenian diaspora, especially in the U.S.”

A dignified and diffident man, Zobyan was well respected within the Armenian community in Toronto.

“People looked up to him,” said Berc Luleciyan. a deacon at the Holy Trinity Armenian Church, who attended high school with Zobyan in Istanbul.

In 1958, Zobyan was commissioned by the patriarch of St. Gregory the Illuminator Church to build a new church in the old authentic Armenian style on the site in Istanbul of the old church that had been expropriated to make way for a highway. He rescued and reincorporated the ceramic tiles from the original chapel, marble stones, and reused the carved stone cross belonging to the 500-year-old church.

It was — and continues to be — the only one of Istanbul’s 28 Armenian churches that displays the austere, powerful lines and massive stonework that marks Armenian church architecture. The church’s Catholics wrote him commending his work.

“My father built the most important church in Istanbul,” said his daughter, Hasmig Possian, 53.

But he was having more fun as a journalist working at the Marmara, a daily started in 1940 by Seta Zobyan’s father, a well-known foreign correspondent. The young couple took over the paper in 1950. One of two Armenian dailies in Istanbul, it had a circulation of 5,000 but a considerably larger reach in terms of influence.

Zobyan lobbied in its pages to save the church he would go on to rebuild; his scoop on the guilty verdict of the court martial trials of the Democratic Party president and its prime minister landed him in prison for two days. Seta Zobyan pulled every string she had to get her husband released.

“Without bribery he would have been in jail months and months,” she said.

They lived a good life for a time, attending balls, receptions for visiting royalty, the ballet and concerts. “I translated for Petula Clark when she was getting a leather coat made,” his daughter recalled. She also danced with Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals, when she was 14 and her father took her on his press pass to a club.

But after the military coup of 1960, many Armenians left Turkey, including many of their families. In 1965 they sent their daughter to Toronto, to St. Clements School, where they believed she would be safe and get a better education.

Two years later, they immigrated, but it wasn’t until 1970 that they sold the paper.

“That still hurts,” said Seta Zobyan.

Neither practised journalism in Canada: Bedros Zobyan went to work for the large architectural firm of Page and Steele building the Commerce Court towers, and Seta Zobyan found a job in market research. She now works part-time as a court translator and interpreter.

In the 1970s they visited Saroyan at his home in Fresno, Calif. He had two houses, one in which he lived and one in which he wrote. After Saroyan died of cancer in 1981, his homes became the site of a museum dedicated to his works and his Armenian heritage.

Zobyan made sure the museum received copies of his book; he’d hoped to translate it into English for Armenians living in California and Europe.

“I will translate it,” Seta Zobyan said. “That was his wish and I will try and make it come true.”

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