A Novelby Nancy Kricorian
“Haunting and convincing . . . There’s a fairy-tale quality to the prose—a sense of wondrous and terrible things happening apart from human volition.” —Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker
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Zabelle begins in a suburb of Boston, with the quiet death of Zabelle Chahasbanian, an elderly widow and grandmother. The story then quickly 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’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. Through each of the often comic interactions and battles she wages in her new country—with a domineering mother-in-law, Americanized children, and the man she secretly loves—images and shadows from a long-lost world accompany her.
“Kricorian is able to transform oral history into her own distinctive, accomplished prose. As in Toni Morrison’s work, the act of simple remembering is not enough; Zabelle, like Morrison’s best work, is a lovely and artful piece.” —Time Out New York
“Zabelle poignantly renders the generational differences, the pull of America, the slow fading of the old culture, the prejudices encountered and hardships overcome. . . . Zabelle’s story is richly and convincingly rendered.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“An epic tale told with admirable economy and grace . . . [Zabelle] is the kind of character who instantly captures your heart.” —Baltimore Sun
“Haunting and convincing . . . There’s a fairy-tale quality to the prose—a sense of wondrous and terrible things happening apart from human volition.” —Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker
“A mother is never truly known to those she loves most-because she does not reveal her secret sorrows and dreams to her own babies . . . But the full and dramatic details of Zabelle Chahasbanian’s life . . . are a treasure to discover in this elegant novel.” —Redbook
“The lasting impressions of this bittersweet story linger in the echoes of its spare, elegant prose.” —Publishers Weekly
“A tender portrait of family, friendship, and love.” —Library Journal
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, clapping his 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?
My grandfather trailed behind us, hobbling along with a cane. My mother called back to him, “We’ll see you at the resting place.” He would arrive after dark and fall down to sleep without even eating. One morning he didn’t wake up. My grandmother slapped her face and called out to God in a loud voice. She sat in the dust and wouldn’t get up until my mother pulled her to her feet. The next day Grandmother sat down in the dirt by the side of the road and begged us to leave her. She said she couldn’t take another step. My mother kissed my grandmother’s hands and said a prayer. Then she wrapped a scarf over my head so I couldn’t look back.
One morning as we were walking, a rumor passed down the line that the men of Hadjin had been shot on the outskirts of town and buried in a big pit. The women screamed like a flock of starved birds. I put my hands over my ears and hid my face in my mother’s shoulder. She didn’t make a sound. After that, my mother walked like someone asleep, holding the baby tightly and pushing me ahead of her.
There were bodies everywhere I looked. Some were old, some were babies, some were bleeding from the mouth, some were half-alive. The smell was terrible, the flies, the maggots, the animals chewing on an arm or a leg while the eyes rolled up, staring at the sky. But we kept walking. Where are we going? I asked my mother. She didn’t know. But we kept walking.
I saw a mother throw her baby into the river. A Kurdish woman who was washing clothes downstream grabbed the baby from the water. The Kurdish woman took that baby with her—it was almost like the story of Moses in the bulrushes.
My mother sold the pots, the bowls, the spoons, the knife, even her head scarf, for food. All we had left was a tin cup on a frayed string around my neck. A Kurd offered to buy the baby, but my mother wouldn’t sell him. I wanted her to sell Krikor so we could get some food, but I felt terrible for thinking this. I thought she should sell me because the Kura looked like he had a lot of food where he lived. Then I felt worse, because I loved my mother.
We came to a place in the desert where we were told to stay. Krikor died there. At night, under the light of the moon, my mother dug a pit using my cup. She couldn’t dig very deep, but she wanted to hide his body from the birds that followed us. She wrapped him in her shawl and put the bundle in the hole. We closed up the place with sand, and then we said a prayer for his soul. The soul of our baby was as small as a breath. It joined the other dead souls in the night wind and blew across the desert sands.
This was to be our home—a stretch of desert. With a large cloth she had taken from a dead woman by the road and some sticks she found, my mother made us a tent. There was just enough room for us to sit up or to lie down side by side on a piece of blanket, with our feet sticking out. I heard someone say, “The name of this place is Ras Al-Ain.” We lived there for a while, with barely anything to eat and water I brought in my tin cup, while my mother’s eyes grew bigger in her head. She began to look like someone I didn’t know.
The day after my mother died, I sat watching the children around me, who were getting ready to go down to the river.
They dug for cool sand, which they put in rags and tied around their feet so the sand wouldn’t burn their soles. I had done this every day myself, but I was too tired to do it again. Just then someone shook my shoulder.
“Put these on your feet.”
I looked up at a narrow-faced girl who was holding out a pair of rags to me. When I didn’t respond, she kneeled down in front of me and began to knot them over my ankles.
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember me,” she said.
It was Arsinee, a girl I knew from our town. Arsinee’s father had run a café in Hadjin and one in Mersin, where we went in the summer. She was a little older than me, and a little taller. A few times we had played marbles under a table in the Mersin café while my father and grandfather talked with hers.
“How could I recognize anyone?” I asked. “We all look like dogs.”
“My fleas would recognize me anyplace.”
I hadn’t laughed in so long that it came out like a bark.
“My brother here,” said Arsinee, patting a little boy on the head, “has made pets out of his lice.”
The boy’s belly was sticking out of his tattered shirt like a shelf, but he was smiling. He scratched behind his ear. Suddenly I wanted to run to the river, where I could douse my filthy, tangled hair in the water.
Arsinee continued, “Their names are Bedros, Boghos, and Nubar. There’s also a little one called Jesus.”
“What if God hears you talking like that?” I asked her.
“God hasn’t paid any attention to us in a long time,” she said, pulling me to my feet.
Later in the day we walked to the market in town to find something to eat. Arsinee said we had to beg for food.
“My mother would be ashamed if she knew I was begging,” I said.
Arsinee said, “In the first place, your mother is dead. In the second place, don’t you think she’d be more ashamed if you were dead?”
This made some sense.
“You come begging with us, or lie down and die right here,” she said.
So we got a fig, a handful of roasted chickpeas, and a roll. That day we divided the food three ways, and we were always together after that. Arsinee, Sarkis, and I watched out for each other while we were at Ras Al-Ain.
Most days we went into town, to beg in the market or to search the rubbish behind people’s houses. Arsinee figured out how to get food for us and made us eat whatever it was. I didn’t want to pick the barley kernels out of horse droppings, but Arsinee insisted. I didn’t want to eat the lard a woman threw out in the alley, but Arsinee told me if I didn’t, she wouldn’t let me sleep with her and Sarkis that night. Unfortunately, all three of us were sick after that. The next day we had better luck—a Kurdish woman gave us a half loaf of bread. Someone gave us a handful of bulgur, which we soaked in my cup overnight.
We lived like that for a long time. There weren’t any grown-ups left—only children, some of them so small that they didn’t know their names. I started to forget what life had been like before, when I had a house and a garden and as much food as I wanted. Sometimes at night I would sing for Arsinee and Sarkis a song my mother taught me, so I could remember her voice. “Eh leh lepeleh, guz, guz topeleh . . .” Some nights Arsinee would have bad dreams and wake up shouting. I patted her back until she fell asleep again.
One day on our way to the market, we found a dead and rotting camel by the side of the road. It was filled with squirming maggots and covered with fat black flies. Arsinee used a ragged edge of tin to rip pieces of flesh off the dead thing. She made a little fire and used sticks to roast it, like shish kebab. None of her bullying could get me to eat it, and in the end she didn’t have the stomach for it herself.
So we went to the market, where we sat down and sold the meat. We got six pennies, which was a small fortune. With two pennies we bought bread, with two we bought cheese, and we saved the last coins for another day. The food tasted so good, and my belly was full for the first time I could remember since leaving Hadjin.
There were too many children to count at Ras Al-Ain. While we were there, soldiers came and went. English troops were nearby for a while, and some of them were kind. Then they left, and we came under the Turkish government. They put up big tents, and we were divided into boys and girls. Sarkis was small enough that he was allowed to stay with us in a girls’ tent. They fed us, except for when the Turkish troops passed through. Then the soldiers were fed first, and we got what was left over, which was usually nothing.
One day we saw an Armenian woman sitting in the market, using a saj—a kind of griddle—to cook bread and other things for people. A Turkish boy with a gun and belts of bullets crossed over his chest, like a soldier, told her to hand over the griddle. She needed that saj—it was the only way she had of taking care of herself and her family—but she had to give it to him.
Arsinee was ready to jump on the Turk and beat him with all her force, but Sarkis and I grabbed her.
“Let go of me!” she screamed. “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill him.”
I pulled her arms behind her back, while she tried to kick me and twist free. It was like holding Moug when she wanted to chase down a rat twice her size, straining for a fight she couldn’t win. The boy took the saj and disappeared into the crowd. Arsinee was so mad, she didn’t talk to me, wouldn’t look me in the eye even, until the next day.
A week or so later, Arsinee, Sarkis, and I saw that Turk again. He was in our camp, hanging around with some soldiers, and he wasn’t wearing a gun, so he looked like any boy.
Arsinee said, “Now’s our chance to get him.”
“Are you crazy?” I said to her. “There are soldiers everyplace here.”
She laughed. “That’s why we can do it. I’ll trip him when he walks by, you and Sarkis hold him down, and I’m going to beat him. Then we run away, hide behind the soldiers’ tent. He’s a coward, and he’ll be too ashamed to do anything. What kind of a Turk lets little kids beat him up?”
“I won’t do it,” I said. But in my mind’s eye, I could see myself pressing his arms to the ground.
It happened exactly the way she said. Sarkis and I pinned his arms down, while Arsinee sat on his stomach and hit his head. Then we ran like sand beetles and got away. That night, when we were settling down in a corner of the tent, Arsinee asked, “Now don’t you feel good?” I did feel good. I felt even better the next day when I saw his black eye.
Weeks followed weeks, the sun and the moon circling in their familiar patterns. Then one day the soldiers divided us into groups and took bunches of children off in caravans. Each day three or four tents would be gone. We heard they were taking the orphans to Stamboul, and Arsinee and I decided to go, as if we had any choice. Finally they took down our tent and loaded us into a wagon for the journey.
The last part of the trip was over the cobbled streets of the city. We pressed against the slats of the wagon to see the minarets and domes of the mosques. Arsinee and I ended up in a Turkish orphanage for girls, and Sarkis was in the boys’ section on the other side of the wall. When we arrived, they shaved our hair for lice, washed us with stinging soap, and gave us cotton dresses. We lined up in the courtyard and were given Turkish names. Mine was Neriman. And Arsinee was Elif. We weren’t supposed to speak Armenian anymore.
The directress was strict, but if you followed the rules, you were okay. We learned how to read, write, and sing songs in Turkish and to add and subtract. We worked part of the day knitting slippers, which were sold in the market. We also helped in the kitchen and cleaned the orphanage. The worst job was scrubbing the floors with brushes on hands and knees.
We had food, a place to lay our heads each night, and a roof to keep off the rain. But Arsinee was unhappy. She didn’t want to be called Elif. She wanted to go to Mersin, a seaside town where she thought her uncle’s family was still living. Nobody cared if we left or stayed, so she waited until she had saved up enough food for her and Sarkis, a little bit each day, to make the trip. I thought she was crazy to give up bread and shelter, without knowing if her family was still there, but Arsinee was stubborn.
The evening before she left, we were sitting in the courtyard by the well. She took the tin cup from my pocket and dipped it in the water.
“Come over here,” she ordered.
When I went to her, she grabbed my head and poured the water over it. “Now you’re baptized into our family. We’ll send for you if we can.”
There was water dripping down my face, and I saw she was crying. I filled the cup again and poured it over her hair.
The water mixed with her tears. We put our two foreheads together. We sang, “Eh leh, lepeleh, guz, guz, topeleh.”
When they left the next morning, Sarkis clung to my dress, and we had to unpeel his fingers from my hem. But Arsinee and I, our hearts were as hard as month-old bread. Her eyes were on the road to Mersin. And I knew I’d have to be tough like Arsinee to get along without her.
After they disappeared around the corner, I turned back from the gate. Then I drank water from my cup until I was full.
1. The book’s epigraph, Three apples fell from heaven, is a variation on the closing formula of an Armenian fairy tale, akin to “and they all lived happily ever after.” Why do you think the author chose this epigraph?
2. The prologue begins by recounting Zabelle’s story from the third person point of view, but in the first chapter, the narration shifts to first person as Zabelle tells her own life story. Why do you think the author chose to begin the story from this point of view? Why does she begin at the end of Zabelle’s story, only to jump back to the beginning?
3. In the prologue, Zabelle searches for a tin cup, a hand mirror, a set of combs, a silver thimble, a brooch, and an envelope with a Worchester postmark. What is the significance of each of these objects?
4. After her mother dies in the desert, Zabelle’s almost gives up her struggle to survive until Arsinee appears. Later in the book, Arsinee again appears at a critical moment. What roles do Zabelle and Arsinee play in each other’s lives. What role does Arsinee play in the novel itself?
5. While the old country custom of “the bride has lost her tongue” (p. 63) was no longer formally practiced when Zabelle married Toros, how does this custom echo in Zabelle’s dealings with her mother-in-law, Vartanoush? Is there any remnant in Zabelle’s own attitude toward her daughter-in-law, Helen?
6. Zabelle’s romance with Moses Bodjakanian at the shirt factory has as much to do with her unhappiness at home as it does with Moses himself. What does Moses represent to Zabelle?
7. Zabelle has different relationships with each of her three children-Moses, Jack, and Joy. How do her feelings toward each of them shape the directions of their lives? How are these relationships satisfying or disappointing to Zabelle? What about her relationships with her grandchildren?
8. While Zabelle is framed by a historical tragedy, the book is also full of humor-Moses’ divine revelation about plastic surgery, the comic clash of cultures at Jack’s wedding, the funny conversations between Zabelle and Arsinee. How does humor function in the novel?
9. When Joy asks her mother, “Do you love Pa?” (p. 208), Zabelle isn’t sure how to answer, thinking, “It was like asking the elbow if it loves the wrist.” How does the relationship between Zabelle and Toros change over the years? How does it compare to the courtship between Zabelle’s parents described in the Epilogue?
10. The day before he dies, Toros confesses to Zabelle that he witnessed his father’s murder and did nothing to help him (p. 223). This is the first time he has spoken of his experiences in the Genocide, and Zabelle, too, has always remained silent about that chapter in her own life. Why did they never discuss this tragedy? How did it permeate the atmosphere of their home?
11. The epilogue-a tale of Hadjin-is written in the style of a fairytale. Rather than telling the story of Zabelle’s life, it returns to a previous generation to bring the story full circle. What does the epilogue tell the reader about the way of life that was lost because of the Genocide? How does Zabelle “live to remember and forget the tale” (p. 237)? What does she remember and what does she forget?
I wrote Zabelle as a tribute to my grandmother, Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian, and to the Armenian women of her generation who were Genocide survivors, resourceful immigrant wives and mothers and the backbones of their families, churches, and communities, which were reconstituted in the New World. I also wanted to honor the memory of the lifelong friendship between my grandmother and Alice Kharibian, who had been with her in the desert. As we say in Armenian, Bidi hishenk. We will remember.