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Zabelle: A Novel

Zabelle: A Novel

by Nancy Kricorian

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Zabelle begins in a suburb of Boston with the quiet death of Zabelle Chahasbanian, an elderly widow and grandmother whose history remains vastly unknown to her family. But as the story shifts back in time to Zabelle’s childhood in the waning days of Ottoman Turkey, where she survives the 1915 Armenian genocide and near starvation in the Syrian desert,


Zabelle begins in a suburb of Boston with the quiet death of Zabelle Chahasbanian, an elderly widow and grandmother whose history remains vastly unknown to her family. But as the story shifts back in time to Zabelle’s childhood in the waning days of Ottoman Turkey, where she survives the 1915 Armenian genocide and near starvation in the Syrian desert, an unforgettable character begins to emerge. Zabelle’s journey encompasses years in an Istanbul orphanage, a fortuitous adoption by a rich Armenian family, and an arranged marriage to an Armenian grocer who brings her to America where the often comic interactions and battles she wages are forever colored by shadows from the long-lost world of her past.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Zabelle Chahasbanian, the seventysomething matriarch of an Armenian-American family, is dead. Her children gather to plan her funeral. What was special about Ma, they wonder. It is clear that at least they know nothing of the extraordinary life of this "ordinary" woman, her struggles and her dreams. They do not know much of the annihilation of her family in her homeland during her childhood or of her survival and emigration to the United States as the bride of a man she had only seen in a photograph. They know only the barest facts about her friendship with Arsinee, a spunky, irreverent woman who was Zabelle's lifelong mainstay. They know nothing of her poignant romance with a man named Moses. So what was special about Ma? Plenty. This first novel is a tender portrait of family, friendship, and love. Highly recommended.Kay Hogan, Univ. of Alabama Lib., Birmingham

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

The Tin Cup

(Ras Al-Ain, 1916)

I remember what it was to be a child—you see the world in pieces. It was like a kaleidoscope, and every time you looked, the colors fell together in a different way, making another pattern. What I know now makes one kind of sense, but what I knew then made another picture.

The day I was born, my father wrote my name and the date in the family Bible, as was the custom. We lived in a house at the top of a hill, and my grandparents shared a walled yard with us where we had a garden. It was my job to pick mint from a bed that grew along the stone wall. After I gave the leaves to my mother, my fingers smelled of crushed mint all afternoon. We had a kitten that I named Moug, because she was gray like a mouse and had a small pink nose. The kitten sat in the lowest branch of the apricot tree, watching me and my cousins play hand games in the shade. The name of our town was Hadjin.

My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was very small, and together we made a doll out of my father's old shirt. The doll had black yarn hair, black buttons for eyes, and a tiny scarlet mouth my grandmother embroidered with satin thread, and her name was Zaza. My mother made a dress for me and one for Zaza from the same cloth.

I was too small to go to school with my cousins, but my father showed me how to write my name. The letters were like insects walking across the paper. Above my name I drew a picture of me, and Zaza, and Moug, and our apricot tree. The apricots were soft like the baby Krikor's cheeks. His hair was very light, almost blond. He sat in my mother's lap, clappinghis hands while I danced.

In the afternoon, when Krikor and I lay down to rest, my grandmother told me stories from the Bible, about Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the whale, Queen Esther and how she saved her people. How Lot's wife was turned to salt. How Jesus fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes. She also told about devs and djinns, some who were evil and some full of mischief.

My cousin Shushan and I got the idea one day to give the baby a bath in the big earthenware pickle jar in the yard. We had taken off the baby's clothes and were ready to put his feet in the brine when my grandmother came out into the yard, shaking the broom, yelling at us. Khent ek? Are you crazy? What kind of djinns are you girls? She grabbed Krikor and started chasing us around the yard, the baby in one arm and the broom in the other hand. The baby peed all over her dress, and my cousin and I could hardly run because she looked so funny. My grandmother caught up, and the four of us tumbled in a pile, laughing.

One day my father put some clothes in a sack and left the house. My mother was crying into her apron and rocking back and forth in the chair. Grandmother was pulling on her cheeks, because my uncle had departed with my father, so both her sons were gone. I asked, "Where are they going?" No one heard me. Not very long after that, the rest of the family made bundles and got ready to leave our house. My mother was kneading her hands like dough as she made piles of things to take and things not to take. She kept moving objects from one side to another, and back again. Would two pots be enough? The bedding was too bulky for us each to have one, but how many could sleep on one doshag? Should she bring my father's winter coat?

We loaded down the donkey and filled the wagon with sacks of rice, flour, bulgur, and dried fruit. Some clothes, a few blankets. My mother cried about leaving the rugs and the wooden chest she had brought with her from her mother's home. In the chest were the wedding towels she had embroidered as a girl and the needle-lace doilies she had worked. Each knotted loop in the lace was the size of a mustard seed. Strung together, they formed flowers, the sun, and stars.

My grandfather tied a tin cup to a string and made a necklace of it for me. Moug we had to leave behind, and the Bible stayed in its place on the shelf. I took Zaza with me, but somewhere along the road she was lost. Maybe some other little girl picked her up, I thought. She couldn't be lying in the mud under the wheels and feet.

We followed the ones ahead of us and were followed by those behind us, all the Armenians walking together. We abandoned our wagon when we reached the mountains. We climbed hills and mountains, descended into steep valleys, and went up again. It was cold at night; sometimes it poured down rain, and we sat holding a blanket over our heads. The donkey died, so we took what we could carry. To keep us moving, Turkish soldiers yelled from horseback and beat stragglers with whips. Local Kurds traded food for our last coins and my mother's earrings. They were gold earrings with rubies at the center. The sun rose and fell like a gold coin. Light and shadow leaped from fires at night. Grown-ups talked in a language that I knew but said things I couldn't understand. My grandmother whispered to me, "Hush, hush now. Go to sleep." Sleeping under God's own stars, but God's eyes were elsewhere. Who was watching over us? Who knew where we were going? Who knew where my father was and why a man fell down with blood pouring from his side?

Zabelle. Copyright © by Nancy Kricorian. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Nancy Kricorian was raised in Watertown, Massachusetts, which has had a large Armenian community since the 1920s. With degrees from Dartmouth College and Columbia University, Kricorian is a widely published and award-winning poet.

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