Vecchia Bambina by Jailan Zayan

By Wasafiri Editor on March 22, 2023 in

Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe — in all their diversity and complexity. In Jailan Zayan’s piece of life writing she explores religious identity, childhood angst, and the many variations of family.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. You can read the full terms and conditions and submit here.

Karim and I walk towards the front of the chapel, holding hands like a little bride and groom. I take each step the way my ballet teacher taught me: point the toe and glide. Chin up, stretching my little neck, eyeline past the others who are trudging in front of us two by two, I walk up to the crucifix, close my eyes and cross myself. Then I take a seat at the front pew and begin to recite the Fatiha. 

Mum had said it was alright to go to church with the rest of the class, as long as I read the opening verse of the Quran, the Fatiha, even if just in my head. She didn’t say much else, so I assumed I was allowed to do the other stuff. Every day, I would silently race through the verse ‘In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful …’ and finish just in time to fill my lungs and join the others in ‘Mon Dieu, je vous donne mon cœur; je vous demande de m’aider à être sage, à obéir même pour les choses qui me sont désagréables …’ 

Karim was my best friend at school. Our mothers didn’t know each other but they’d given us similar instructions about the Fatiha, although his mother expressly forbade him from the other prayer. We both did it anyway because it seemed to please our teacher, Sœur Elizabeth, and because the headmistress, Mère Marie Didier, always scanned our general direction when the rites began. Besides, it was my plan to become the best Muslim Catholic in all of Rome.  

We had prayer every morning and a siesta every afternoon. I could never fall asleep during those forced naps, the best I could do was pretend. Teachers occasionally checked in on us, lying side by side in our little beds, a weak light seeping into the darkened room from a glass pane above the door. Those of us who shuffled or made noise were told off. We also got in trouble if we spoke Italian in the playground, and quickly had to switch to French when the sisters approached. Our school liked rules and obedience and I was very good at both.  

On the walls of the corridors, neatly handwritten posters reminded us of the important things in life: ‘Vérité, Miséricorde, Liberté et Joie.’ I thought miséricorde meant misery, but a more intense, noble version. I spent the next decades believing that sternness was how one dressed one’s inner goodness, the scale of which slid from good to miserable to misericordable to Saint. This also explained why my dad, my favourite person in the world, apart from maybe Jesus, was so devoid of cheer.  

One spring afternoon, I came home from school to find our house full of people. It wasn’t the first time. One of Dad’s friends had been killed again. When this happened, the house pinballed with activity: there were those on the phone, others writing things down, and strangers stapling batches of papers and stacking them on the dining table. Mum’s artfully arranged living room set was split open to make space for extra chairs. She and other women shuttled in and out of the kitchen, bringing coffee and food, removing plates, emptying ashtrays, washing plates, bringing more coffee.  

On days like these, our housekeeper Bice (pronounced Beechay) snuck my sister and me straight into the kitchen. It always smelled so good in there because Bice was the greatest cook and she always wanted you to eat more. Her accordion smile, which squashed her eyes into tiny little dashes, never left her face. She hugged you like you were the whole world. Occasionally, Mum summoned us to the living room to say hello to Dad’s friends. The men would suddenly stop being serious and smile big hairy smiles, pat us on the head and compliment our good manners. ‘Mashaaaallah, mashallah,’ they would say, which really pleased Mum. Inevitably, one would stand up, dip a hand in and out of a trouser pocket and survey the catch:  a lighter, a crumpled receipt, some coins, loose sweets. The sweets would be fished out for us, signalling the end of the interlude, and we would be taken away again.  

Most conversations in our house floated around two feet above our heads, but I caught bits and pieces to work out what was happening: He was sitting outside … at the café … Via Veneto … shot in the head … Poor man … a cappuccino … His poor wife. I don’t know why adults think children can’t hear them. Killing opponents in the street…shot in his office… at the party headquarters … London … Bonn … Sometimes they dished out really grisly details about what happened to people they knew back in Tripoli: … hanged in the university … in front of their mothers…stripped naked and left alone for days. Or, to Libyan soldiers like my cousin Ali who was fighting a war with Chad:  forced to swim in shit … Crocodiles … chewed their legs off in the lake … Or was it the sea? I became suspicious of lakes and the sea. And swimming pools, just in case.   

‘Listen, habibti,’ Mum said one evening. ‘We have to be very careful right now because there are some bad people and they want to cause problems for your father. So we mustn’t mention Libya, ok? … Don’t say that you are from Libya or that your father is Libyan. And try not to tell people your last name. If anyone asks, say we are Egyptian. All of us.’ My sister and I already spoke Arabic with our mum’s Egyptian accent, so that bit was easy. But not mentioning our Libyan side felt like a lie. Still, the world was an angry monster and the best thing to do was to give it what it wants, to keep it calm. So, we switched off that 50 percent of ourselves and carried on.  

Meanwhile, back at school things were getting complicated. Karim’s mother told him there was no such thing as a Muslim Catholic and he stopped coming to chapel. Not only that, but she must have said something to my mother. ‘Jesus cannot be the son of God!’ Mum told me, her voice vibrating like it does when adults tried to hide panic. ‘God has no children, HE’s not like us. That’s what makes him God!’ I agreed even if I didn’t really understand why it mattered. In turn, she agreed to let me keep going to church. From then on, I saw less and less of Karim.  

As summer approached, our house grew heavier with people and problems. Even the kitchen was occupied and stank of coffee. So, Mum started taking us to Villa Borghese, the most magical place in Rome. There in the park, balloons floated carefree in a perfect sky and jets of water rose and fell in funny fountains held up by marble horses. A merry-go-round with cars, fire trucks and teacups, all blinking with happiness, played calliope music next to the man who rented out bicycles; and kiosks sold shiny windmills and clouds of pink candy floss on sparkly sticks. Mum, however, would haul us past the magic with a promise of ‘next time’ and take us instead to the grown-up restaurant she loved at the edge of the park, with its plain white walls and plain white table cloths.  

Before long, we started going to the restaurant every day and it became our lunch place. As we walked up the marble stairs and across the terrace that led to the indoor section of the restaurant, it was always a small relief that we didn’t choose to eat outside. The click of Mum’s heels on the tiled floor brought the head waiter rushing over, arms in the air, palms to the sky like he was thanking the Lord for the arrival of ‘Signora Zayan!’ My mother cast a spell on everyone she met. She only had to make someone’s acquaintance for five minutes for them to act like they’d been friends forever. And although she was always busy, she made sure that her hair was blow-dried every Monday and Thursday by Mauro at Femme Sistina and that her nail colour matched her ensembles. Our house, our car, and my school uniform smelled of Private Collection.  

One day, Mum finally agreed to let us ride on the merry-go-round. She placed us on a plastic horse and said she’d be right back, she was just going to a nearby shop. In time, the ride became part of the daily routine too. Mum would set my sister and me in one of the cars, give us a kiss and say she’d be back soon. She would pay the man in charge who shouted ‘Grazie! Signora Zayan!’ as he inspected his palm when she walked away. Her errands became longer and longer. One ride turned into two or three or seven or fifteen until I felt sick and my sister cried because she wanted to get off. Sometimes I worried that Mum had forgotten us. Would we have to go home with the merry-go-round man? Would we stay in the park alone? At night? The magical calliope became the soundtrack of our abandonment as I pressed my brain to remember the route home. Of course, she always came back but the worrying exhausted me. So, I decided it was probably best to firmly shut the doors to my thoughts, squeezing and squashing behind them all the things that might seep into my day and frighten me: the park at night, the sea, crocodiles, Libyans, saying the wrong thing, making a mistake. 

At school, I had other urgent matters to deal with. One Monday, as I sat in the dining hall, the kitchen doors swung open and our dinner ladies appeared carrying plates of pink meat I couldn’t identify. My classmates, who had never had to prepare for this moment, robotically reached out for their dishes. I hesitated. Could this be pork? Oh. No. ‘It is absolutely HARAM!’ Mum had said. Pigs, she’d explained many times over, were the filthiest animal and eating their meat was not only the worst sin, but it brought diseases and it was disgusting.  

‘Est-ce-que c’est du porc?’ I asked one of the dinner ladies timidly. I was as nervous of being wrong as I was ashamed of not being allowed to eat it. ‘Ah oui,’ she replied flatly, remembering I was different, before turning her head and booming over the whole of the canteen that there would be no pork for this one, pointing at me. A few moments later, someone reappeared with a suspiciously similar looking plate, replacing my bit of ham with what must have been turkey. Disease clearly still lurked on the plate but because Karim no longer sat next to me, I didn’t know what to do. Probably safer not to eat at all.  

As the summer approached, I missed my dad even though he was only in the next room. I wanted our old routine back, with me sitting on his lap while he had breakfast, dipping a piece of toast in the runny yellow of his pepper-specked eggs. I missed him bringing me chocolate and then pulling my ear and giving me a little tap on the cheek, which for some reason really made him laugh. He didn’t laugh much otherwise. Most of the day he was locked in his study, his desk and his mind weighed down by what seemed to be every Arabic, English and French newspaper sold in Rome, in addition to the Italian ones. We weren’t allowed anywhere near his study and Mum made sure we kept our voices down when home because Dad was thinking about important things.   

One night, the doorbell rang and a man wearing a flat cap and sunglasses stood in the doorway. Mum must have recognised him because he scurried past her into the living room and she followed him there. He told her something that made her gasp and she ran inside to fetch Dad. All three sat around the coffee table, elbows on knees, working something out in animated whispers. A few moments later, Mum went to the bedroom and re-emerged with a small suitcase. The man took his cap and glasses off, put them on Dad and whisked him out of the house. No one told me where Dad went, nor when he’d be back.  

I think it was the next day that Mum said she too had to go away, and that we’d be staying with Bice for a while. She said she needed to go make arrangements for our next move. Outside our apartment building, Bice’s husband Enzo sat waiting in his blue car, engine still on, his head nodding to the music coming from the radio. He sprang out when he saw us and grabbed my sister and me in a tight hug that lifted our feet off the ground. He flung our suitcase in the boot, slammed it shut and reached into the floor of the passenger seat to retrieve a paper bag with ice-cream sandwiches just for us. We drove out of our street, the walls of the Vatican sliding out of view, and headed to their house. Enzo was a prison guard and they lived in accommodation within the walls of the prison compound. Now I knew that my dad had been to prison several times so this wasn’t a scary thing. Not everyone in prison was bad.  

A gravel road led you right up to a metal gate that had come off one hinge and hung drunkenly to one side. Inside their house, the furniture didn’t match. The curtains didn’t speak to the sofa and the tables all came from different families. I don’t remember where we slept but I know that we all ate together every day. Bice, Enzo, their son Matteo and their two older daughters. Enzo always liked the radio on. Bice would slap it shut with a flat palm. He would pinch her bottom, she’d crumble into laughter and then gesture at him to get out of the kitchen, her hand wielding the large knife she used to chop celery.  

In the afternoons, we sat on their small metal balcony. Enzo did crosswords in his pyjama bottoms, white hairs sprouting from behind the straps of his vest, and Bice told us stories and let us dip sugared biscuits in her mug of red wine. Matteo took us for rides on his motorbike up and down their street. In the evenings, Enzo took us to a bar next to his house where his friends, who wore the same uniform as him, bought us ice-creams on a stick in the shape of a foot. And at night, when my sister and I were tucked in bed, we would hear Bice and Enzo talk. They spoke easily to each other, like they were friends. Sometimes I heard them talking about us. Poverini. Poor things.  

I ate everything Bice made, always tucking a napkin into my collar. I followed her around the house, helping her make the beds and tidy up. We made biscuits and pasta; our faces, hair and clothes dusted in flour. The days were easy and full. It always made her laugh when I said please or thank you. She would squeeze me tightly and say ‘Ah! La vecchia bambina,’ and plant kisses all over my cheeks. It meant ‘old child’.  

Later, Mum would take this phrase and brandish it everywhere with such pride, like it was a trophy, an award for her child rearing. At parties and events or when her friends came over, she would drag me to the centre of the room and say, ‘this is my eldest… la vecchia bambina,’ laying out the fragments of my character for all to see. It made me want to fold in on myself and disappear. Surely the whole point of trying to be so good was to be unseen.  

Mum continued to do this for years. 

She still does it now, her memory scratched by old age, repeating it over and over.  

Jailan Zayan grew up between Libya, Italy, Egypt and Britain. She eventually settled in Cairo where she worked for several news organisations covering events in the Middle East and North Africa. She now splits her time between copywriting and creative writing. She loves cooking and is a little obsessed with Matisse. 

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

Photo by Tsuyuri Hara on Unsplash