Mystical Visions of a Survivor: Zabelle Abdalian

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By Carla Friedman

LOS ANGELES — Wandering through an antique shop in the seaside village of Cayucos, I stumbled upon an impeccably preserved little book, titled Scientific Air Possibilities With The Human, Zabelle Abdalian, 1934. Inspired by the life of a Madame Mary A. Harper, whose biography is detailed in the author’s introduction, this theosophical compilation of essays includes thoughts on the “beneficial effects of natural radium in the air,” esoteric views on body, mind, spirit, science, technology, theology and economics. Intrigued, I descended the sea washed wooden stairway, bought the book and walked — face to page, to a bench overlooking the Pacific.

How is it that a woman wrote about another woman in the feminist backwoods of 1934 America? How could anyone extol the health benefits of radium? How did the author amass such an interesting array of thoughts so similar to my own? With these questions in mind, I left the sea for Google.

The books she penned during her lifetime are held within University libraries throughout the country. In addition to Scientific Air Possibilities With The Human (re-issued in 1954 under the title The Amazing Power Within You), her published works include; “Bow in The Cloud” (1953), a play about world peace set in both new York and Burma; Thy Flame Is Blown (1952), a poetical biography of her father, killed during the massacre of Armenians in 1895; and SA PWH Prince Of The Air(1955), Zabelle’s autobiography. I then discovered a small handful of documents referencing her mother, Haiganoosh’s claims against the Turkish government, for the death of her husband, Nahabed.

My next find would come to be the door to open all. Via a letter written to the Armenian Observer in 2008, I found Zabelle’s great-niece, Pamela Barsam Brown. Her home is just a stone’s throw from where I received my degree in poetics and Buddhist studies in 1985. In my mind’s eye, I could literally walk to her house. (This small coincidence spoke to a feeling of interconnectedness that would return to me again and again throughout this journey). After the initial timidity of our first phone call, we have developed a lovely friendship centered around Aunty Zabelle, Abdalian family history and contemplations on what it feels like to be descendants of wounded lineage. Touched by my interest, Brown sent everything her great-aunt had ever published. With Zabelle’s door now open, the story of her unfolded, revealing a tale of survival, courage, faith, and a little bit of magic. I soon felt as if Zabelle herself had taken me by the hand, and was leading me through a confluence of history, lineage and mystic memory.

Zabelle Abdalian was born October 6, 1886, at the foot of the Taurus Mountains in Gurin, Turkey. It was during this time that her father, Dr. Nahabed Y. Abdalian (a naturalized US citizen who had received his Doctorate in Medicine from New York Medical College in 1879 and was the first ordained Armenian-American medical missionary to Turkey), had returned to the village of his birth to care for the people of his homeland. Her life in Gurin, with her father, mother and four brothers and sisters was a happy one. Yet In 1895, Zabelle’s world darkened when her beloved father was killed during the massacre of the Armenians. The Turks burned the Abdalian home, looted their belongings and imprisoned the family. Zabelle’s infant brother died from exposure and starvation. With the assistance of the United States government, the Abdalian family was granted safe passage to America in 1896. Zabelle, with bright mind and sensitive spirit, had a sense of the mystical from a young age. These sensibilities of spirit and imagination helped to carry her across the sea to a new life.

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Of her father’s death she wrote: “I was overwhelmed, felt as one falling into a bottomless pit of black despair. The passing of his soul was like the transition from raging storm into rare, brilliant sunlight.”

Her first years in America were spent in New York and Rhode Island where she attended public school, sang in St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Choir and worked in jewelry factories to help provide for her family. For a time the children were separated due to a lack of resources, but when reparations were finally awarded to Zabelle’s mother for claims against the Turkish government in 1903, the Abdalian family was reunited. Haiganoosh moved with her children to Del Ray, Calif., and purchased an olive ranch in partnership with others.

In addition to working the farm, Zabelle became an accomplished pianist who could play the works of classical masters such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. She sang in the choir, and committed to memory complete operatic scores. She held a position at Shreve and Company, one of the finest jewelers in San Francisco. Here, as the only girl amongst men, she was referred to as “The only flower in the roof garden.” Zabelle served as an instructor in surgical dressing at Red Cross headquarters during WWI and then returned home to care for her mother. After her mother’s death in 1932, Zabelle moved to Los Angeles to live closer to her sisters. She continued to sing in the choir, write and pursue spiritual and intellectual interests. Zabelle served her country once again during WWII, working in a garment factory which manufactured uniforms for the Armed Forces. With many of her co-workers being of Mexican descent, Zabelle taught herself how to speak very proficient Spanish.

Whether by virtue of trauma or second sight, Zabelle had an extraordinary mind. Alongside her dedication to the Episcopal Church, her thoughts on consciousness and spirituality sprang from what is known as the New Thought Movement prevalent in Southern California during the mid 1930s. After an exhaustive search, I have concluded that the luminary, Madame Mary A. Harper, whom Zabelle so meticulously described in the introduction of Scientific Air Possibilities With The Human, may not have existed in the visible world.

“Zabelle had a large imagination and while I can only conjecture, I would presume that Mary Harper, one of these silent friends (likely invisible), resided in her own mind”

~ Pamela Barsam Brown

My thoughts drifted to Marie Curie — Nobel Prize recipient in physics for the discovery of radium. Ironically, after having worked in the very same jewelry factories creating glow-in-the-dark watches which incited the landmark class action lawsuit known as “The Radium Girls,” Zabelle adopted the early belief that the poisonous element of radium was an organic compound with healing properties found naturally within the air.

As a child, my awareness of ‘Holocaust’ was derived almost solely via the torch of my own Judaic lineage. I felt burdened by its weight without even knowing I was carrying it. With lineal heart laden with boxes, and a few thousand pages of dreaming, I took the path that Zabelle had taken, to the edge of the western sea. I am the dark in my mother’s eyes, and her unyielding determination. I am my father’s fear of hunger, and his love for the music of rivers.

Through her writings, Zabelle Abdalian remembered with tenderness, respect and hopefulness. Choosing not the shadowed, fisted heart of one burdened by tragedy, she became beauty, empathy, compassion for others, and reverence for the mystery of Spirit. As I sit here, not far from the place where she once stood, it is this grace I find within my own breath. This is her gift.

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