4 October 2020

The 2020 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers Creative Nonfiction Winner – Zainab Safi

Zainab Safi’s story Cigarettes and Gasoline has been awarded The 2020 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of creative nonfiction. Zainab was presented with the award online at the National Young Writers Festival at a special event, and won a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks. Read Soledad’s winning piece right here.

Cigarettes and Gasoline

My grandfather was a wonderful man. A doctor, a pharmacist, a published author and most importantly, my greatest inspiration. Baba Khalid, I used to call him. He was always deep in concentration, his thick brows furrowed behind his glasses as he went over his next pharmaceutical book. He was never seen out of his crisp Italian crafted suits and smelled strongly of Old Spice aftershave and cigarettes. His thumbs were rough from breaking open blister packs to sort medication for his older patients. A cigarette always hung from his mouth and, when he was feeling fancy, a cigar. Sitting leg over leg, he recounted stories from his past as he burned through cigarette packets like they were sunflower seeds.

We had a little routine, him and I. Every morning, just as the sun made its debut appearance and the birds sang their morning song, Baba Khalid would walk me over to his greatest pride and joy. His ‘sixth child’, he called the narenj tree that sat in the corner of his garden, the backdrop of every family photo. He’d pick me up and let me pick out a narenj to split with him to have at breakfast. Between long draws of his Marlboro cigarette, he spoke about his childhood, his days abroad, how he came to fall in love with my grandmother, and everything in between. He would always try to include a life lesson to take away from his stories.

“What did we learn, habibti?”

The story that sticks out the most isn’t the heroic story of when he saved someone who had a gun against his head, or the time he was held for ransom by Al Qaeda. It was the simplest of all, the story about the seven triangular UFOs he saw flash across the sky when he was a child.

“I used to be in the army, it was no plane.”

The realist in me had a hard time believing him, but the twinkle in his eyes and his small, reminiscent smile convinced me. I told him my own UFO story, going into an annoyingly excessive amount of detail, yet he still listened. I think that’s why I so vividly remember that specific conversation. He listened to me. Adults don’t do that to eight-year-olds – especially eight-year-olds with the tendency to ramble. He only ever broke his focus to move onto his next cigarette packet. We only went inside when the explosions got louder and the people who delivered gasoline came yelling down the street.

I remember sitting with him on the old fashioned, metal white seats that seemed to litter every garden in Baghdad. The confronting smell of gasoline, the whistle of wind passing through the date palm trees and the roaring of distant explosions is still vivid in my mind. Baba Khalid comforted me by assuring that the explosions were just meteors hitting the earth. We spoke about the solar system for hours on end, him with his deep understanding, and me with my third-grade education. I still remember his faint smile as he told me how much he appreciated spending time with me.

“I’m boring you with my ramblings, but you’ll miss me when I’m gone!”

He was right – I miss him more than I could have ever thought possible.

The 28th of July, 2011, is a time that will forever be seared in my mind. It was the day I started to understand the complexities of human emotion. The phone rang from my parents’ bedroom and my sleepy haze was ripped away by what I can only deem as hysteria. My mother on the floor, screaming; she cried and begged for one of us to deny the horrifying reality. My father kneeled beside her, comforting her, trying to garner any information.

Baba Khalid was dead.

I looked over at my extremely pregnant sister and saw panic pulsate through her eyes. She almost too calmly told us that her water broke, and she needed to get to the hospital right now. My mother wiped away her tears, and with a deep breath, went with my sister to the hospital. I have yet to see someone go through the stages of grief so quickly.

Standing from the sidelines, seeing my mother go through the extreme loss of her father, and then moments later having to compose herself to accompany my sister in hospital was jarring. The explosion of human emotion scared me, coming to terms with having a person ripped away from my life forever was devastating and I refused to believe he was gone. I still have intrusive thoughts and lose myself in a world where everyone I love is taken away from me.

The diagnosis? Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. He had quite literally died of heart break. After the death of my grandmother, he was a changed person. He stopped wearing his suits. He no longer smelled of Old Spice aftershave, only tobacco. He stopped going to work. He abandoned the book he was writing. Baba Khalid refused to go back to the home he had lived in with the love of his life for the past fifty years. For the first time in my mother’s life, she saw her father’s hard, determined exterior crumble. It was somewhat bittersweet, his death. He couldn’t live without his second half and love eventually led to his demise.

It wasn’t until I looked through family photo albums years later that I finally processed his death. Memories flooded my mind, of cold winter nights spent sitting by the fire with my grandfather and my cousins, of narenj trees, Marlboro cigarettes, and the loud calls of the men selling gasoline; moments I had taken for granted. Looking back, I realised that it was easy for me to push his death to the darkest corners of my mind and pretend that nothing had happened. I don’t believe death itself is inherently evil. Death is the only guarantee in life, and I find comfort in that. Instead, I fear that I will never truly appreciate anyone in my life until they’re taken away from me.

I still harbour some regret. I guess that’s just human nature, an inevitable part of life. I wish I had spent more time with him, woken up earlier, put down my games sooner, listened to just one more story. Just one more shared narenj. Just one more packet of cigarettes, until the men selling gasoline came yelling down the street. But then I think about one of the lessons Baba Khalid taught me; “Regret and guilt will get you nowhere. You can’t change what you have done in the past, but the future is yours to bend to your will.” All I can do now is love those in my life more fiercely every day. I find comfort in thinking that even after he’s gone, my grandfather is still guiding me through life.

I like to imagine that my nephew holds a little of my grandfathers’ soul. I like to imagine that I do, too.