This excerpt comes early in Igiaba Scego’s novel, Adua, available from New Vessel Press, and follows the character of Zoppe, Adua’s father, as he adapts to life in an Italian prison. Scego is journalist and novelist born in Itay in 1974 to Somali parents.
Adua was translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards.
Zoppe knew that the best escape route was through his head.
That was the place where he found all the lost scents of his childhood. There, caano geel, shaah cadees, beer iyo muufo.
Candied ginger. Marvelous cinnamon. His Wonderland Somalia.
Zoppe thought about all this crouched down on the cold floor of his cell in Regina Coeli. His head between his knees and his thigh anxious against a battered chest. Vertigo and stabbing pain coursed through his tired veins. And his aching limbs felt defeated. He suspected he had two broken ribs. It was hard for him to breathe and even to bend over.
“Those bastards really mangled me.”
And as if that weren’t enough, they had tossed him unceremoniously in solitary. “This way you’ll learn what happens when you mess with us.”
Beppe gave him a pat on the head before handing him over to the prison. He touched him like a mother her young. Then he had him sip a yellow liquid.
“Drink, nigger, drink.”
Zoppe gulped with difficulty. He made a horrified grimace and felt something burning inside. Was he dying?
Beppe patted him again. “Drink up, you’ll feel better.”
And Zoppe drank and died once, twice, three times. Then with the fourth sip, the warmth began to reach his spent cheeks.
“My aunt’s walnut liqueur can revive even the dead. You’ll feel better soon, you’ll see,” the soldier said, smiling.
In that miserable cell where they’d stuck him there was a cot and a bowl of slop. Limp potatoes floated alongside prickly worms. Zoppe was young, he was famished, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat.
“I don’t want to shit myself to death in this stinking cell.” The room was square, gray, repugnant. Words inscribed with bloody fingernails covered the walls with pain. Zoppe started reading to try to figure out what lay ahead in his increasingly uncertain future.
Mauro da Pisa, Alessandro da Bologna, Antonio da Sassari, Lucio da Roma, Giulio da Pistoia, Simone da Rimini, have all passed through here. The oldest date was 1923. The best inscription was dated 1932. Zoppe recognized it immediately, the supreme poet was one of his favorites:
Through me is the way to the city of woe.
Through me is the way to sorrow eternal.
Through me is the way to the lost below.
“They’ve never cleaned up, that’s clear,” he said, addressing an imaginary audience. Actually, he didn’t mind the quiet of that isolation. It was a reprieve from the torture, from the senseless beatings that had defiled him down to his soul.
His tormenters would soon appear with their stinking farts and vulgar taunts. But in the meantime there was that strange, rat-scented calm to cradle him.
The pain didn’t subside. It was his groin that hurt to death, especially his testicles. Beppe had really beaten him badly. Zoppe asked himself if after all those hits his seed would still be fertile. His testicles throbbed and a yellowish liquid dripped from the tip of his penis. He felt heavy. And he could barely open his puffy eyes.
At the age of twenty he was an old man.
A premature oday, with a drooling mouth and achy bones.
He had his visions to comfort him. His mind catapulted him back into the home of Davide the Jew and his little girl, Emanuela.
He had recently been their guests, and the details were still so effervescent and fresh in his mind that he could almost remember without trying.
He could see the sour cherry preserves that Rebecca, Davide’s wife, had prepared for dessert. He’d filled up on that delicious tart and had also relished what had come before.
“What is this dish called?” he’d asked, astonished at his overflowing plate.
“It’s rigatoni con la pajata,” Rebecca replied.
Just then Zoppe noted how much mother and daughter resembled each other. The same wide forehead, the same big ears, and those sparkling emerald eyes. But whereas Emanuela was exuberant like all children, Rebecca had something mysterious and seductive about her.
Zoppe envied Davide.
And he said: “It smells good. I envy you this rich dish.” Davide accepted that sweet envy.
Looking around, there was really little to be envious of. It was all so small. Even the furniture was tiny. The house was composed of two rooms united by the reddish light that filtered in through a small window. The kitchen with an iron stove was in plain view. In the middle, a table, some tattered chairs and a flesh-toned armchair. The space was packed with furnishings. In every detail there was a certain affinity for symmetry that made such a chaotic space endearing. Zoppe was drawn to a blond walnut cabinet with drawers covered in faux vellum. It was an exquisite object that did not fit well with the overall simplicity. It was a little bit like Rebecca, that cabinet, too refined to be the centerpiece of that set.
Rebecca … Davide … Emanuela …
It was incredible for him to see white Jews. Zoppe had known only Falasha Jews, the Beta Israel, from Lake Tana, even though his father had told him that in the West there were Jews “with skin as pale as the moon.” These were pink Jews, so cordial, and their Roman house so cozy and inviting.
Zoppe was blinded by the ochre walls that matched harmoniously with the violet flooring. He was impressed by the hoard of books; they formed a cathedral. And the knickknacks scattered all over the place: ceramic dolls with real hair, decorative wall plates, tasseled colorful boxes and lots of photographs of old people in shiny, faux, silver frames.
Zoppe liked this middle ground where sour cherries intermingled with knowledge.
If he had his basin with him he’d have read the fate of those three people. He would have seen their beginning and their end. All their happiness and their atrocious suffering. Their passionate kisses and betrayals. If only he had his basin he would have warned them about all the dangers and joys of the world.
“Water,” he requested to the guard. “I’m thirsty.”
“Not so fast, Negro,” was his answer. “You’re not at the Grand Hotel. Learn some manners. You say ‘Water, please.’”
“What dfference does it make? You people don’t have good manners anyway,” Zoppe retorted.
“Ah, we’ve got a rebel here,” the guard said. “If times were different,” he added, “we would have shown you, you piece of shit. In Regina Coeli we don’t like rebels. You’re ticks, useless lice of humanity. In Regina Coeli it’s easy to die of hunger or thirst, learn that. It’s easy to bring down that cocky crest you’ve got. In Regina Coeli it’s a short path to the graveyard. But you’re a damned lucky louse. They told me not to let you die. So I’ll bring you your water. But mind you, I might not be able to kill you, but put you through hell, that I can do.”
Zoppe said nothing. He wanted to smash that fatso’s face. But he was in chains. And weak all through his insides. Eventually he ate the slop of potatoes and prickly worms. From the very first bite he could tell that his stomach would refuse to digest it. Vomiting was the logical consequence of an unwanted meal.
Zoppe was a cesspool. The worms dropped from his mouth whole. Restless worms, still alive and a little stunned. He could see them creeping slowly over his wasted body.
“Where’s my water?”
He needed to try to sleep. But could one sleep in such a state?
He wondered whether his father, Haji Safar, knew that he was in prison now.
“I’m sure he had a vision.” And Zoppe prayed that it hadn’t made his father suffer too much.
Happy images from his former life stopped the pain. The lively eyes of his sister, Ayan, his father’s gentle hand, the discipline of the Jesuits who had taught him Italian, and the intense letters from his Ethiopian friend Dagmawi Mengiste. They surrounded him and urged him not to give up. He saw their prayers spiral around him in an embrace of courage. “They love me,” Zoppe thought, “and they’re thinking about me right now.” Even the Limentani family was thinking of him.
He could hear the little girl asking her mother, Rebecca, “How do you draw a wildebeest, Mama? Do you think it has the same hump as a camel? Why don’t we invite the brown man over for lunch again and ask him to draw one for us?”
Zoppe saw Rebecca’s face tensed in a mask of fear. Maybe she knew about him.
Maybe news of his arrest had spread.
He’d ended up in trouble over Francesco Bondi, that Romagnolo with the flat nose and yellow teeth.
Zoppe appreciated nothing about that man. He was too tall, too invasive, too chatty.
He detested the droopy mustache and red hair that the Romagnolo showed off like a trophy. Bondi was always there asking question after question, waiting for amazing answers that Zoppe was never able to give.
And also, he only ever talked about women—bottoms, bosoms, lips, sex. Zoppe found him vulgar. Obviously.
“Do you have a girl?” the Romagnolo often asked. But Zoppe didn’t open up.
Of course he had a girl, but he had no intention of telling that guy about it. Asha the Rash was his woman. Every night in his dreams he savored the moment when he would make her his. But he didn’t want to share such private thoughts with anyone, let alone that lout Francesco Bondi. He didn’t want to sully her beautiful name with a filthy person like him. The Romagnolo ruined women, for sure. Every day he went bragging about his conquests. Mirella, Graziella, Elvira, Carlotta. All of them with big busts and big bottoms. All snatched up under the nose of distracted husbands. These provincial Don Juan routines bored him. He didn’t have all that time to waste. He had to work, not dawdle around. Zoppe’s greatest desire was to impress his superiors. He wanted honors. He wanted cash. So he had to look active. Lots of work didn’t scare him. Especially when he thought of the nice gifts that he would be able to give his Asha the Rash one day.
But then that strange morning came.
Francesco Bondi pounced on him with breath that still smelled of sleep.
Zoppe wasn’t alone. In that miserable and miniscule room he was ashamed to call an office, there was a man with yellow hair.
“Hey, Negro,” Bondi yelled euphorically. “I saw another Negro like you on the street yesterday. I thought you were the only one in Rome.”
Then the Romagnolo noticed the man with the yellow hair. “You’re not military,” Bondi said, a little irritated. “What are you doing here?”
“Don’t judge by appearances. I’m even more, in a sense. The name’s Calamaro.” The two men shook hands hesitantly.
“And this Negro you saw on the street, what was he like, if I may ask?”
“He was a Negro, what do you think he was like …”
“They’re not all the same, did you know that?” said the man with the yellow hair. “There are different types, in every region. Their hair and noses diverge wildly. It depends on the climate.”
“Hair? That stuff this guy has on his head, you expect me to call that hair?”
“Yes,” said Calamaro, calmly.
“Are you kidding me?”
Zoppe buried his nose in his papers and mentally wandered through the city of Rome in search of the other African Bondi was talking about.
There was definitely Menghistu Isahac Tewolde Medhin. The Eritrean hothead. He ran into him one day around the Pensione Tedeschi on Via Flavia. The Eritrean walked slowly, he didn’t worry about being seen too much like Zoppe did. Medhin didn’t want to hide, let alone disappear. His movements were filled with pride. He walked with his head high. He had just finished at the Monte Mario international college run by the Methodist Episcopal Church and was trying to figure out what the future held for him. Zoppe didn’t like the man. His words were too learned, complicated. And his avid anti-Italian ferocity terrified him. That man would soon get himself into trouble. “I shouldn’t have anything to do with him, otherwise he’ll ruin me.”
As he was lost in these thoughts he saw Francesco Bondi’s hand sink into his curly hair.
“You call this hair? is is wool, not even good quality wool!”
“It’s hair,” Calamaro replied calmly. “It’s not pretty, but it’s hair. The gentleman is a Negro, but his features are less Negroid than the anthropological specimens I examined in the Congo.”
And then he too, no different than Bondi, sank his hand into the hair on Zoppe’s exhausted head.
The Somali exhaled with all the strength he had in his lungs and sat there despairingly listening to the two Italians.
He couldn’t say exactly when the discussion turned into something more serious. Had it been Bondi who offended Calamaro, or maybe the reverse? Zoppe was confused. He saw only, through his hair, that the two had moved on to hands—their hands. Fists, in short.
“Please, gentlemen,” said Zoppe, disconsolate. “Please,” he repeated. Then he got the inauspicious idea of trying to break it up.
The police arrested only him for that strange morning brawl.
— Igiaba Scego, Translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards
Published with permission from New Vessel Press
Igiaba Scego is an Italian novelist and journalist. She was born in Rome in 1974 to Somali parents who took refuge in Italy following a coup d’état in their native country, where her father served as foreign minister.
Jamie Richards is a translator based in Milan. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon. Her translations include Igort’s Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Giovanni Orelli’s Walaschek’s Dream, and Jellyfish by Giancarlo Pastore.