Dear readers! I have been given the opportunity to share with you some parts of a work in progress. This is excerpt from a novel about a young Swedish girl who moves from her hometown to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden and becomes a belly dancer. You could describe it as a coming-of-age story. I normally write in Swedish, but as I was bilingual at least as a kid, I ventured to rewrite the thing myself in English for this occasion. None of my English-speaking friends had the time to check he language this time so I hope you can bear with me if some things sound strange. Many Swedish expressions are actually directly translatable into English but not every one of them…
And if you have any feedback at all to this, I’ll receive it with gratitude.
// Irene Karlbom Hall
The Novel begins:
My name is Isabelle and I am a Swedish bellydancer. This is a fact that tends to take some explaining. So, over the years I have gathered a collection of useful explanations for different occasions. Short ones, long ones, true ones, untrue ones. And since I have the time and the space right now I think I’ll pick the longest one. And true. Or untrue.
I was far from born to be a dancer. What is a dancer in our culture? A fairy, an aerial creature.
I was a big-bellied kid in the era of the skinniest models. And then I had to wear glasses. And then I was top in my class, except maybe for Thomas, the unhappy love of my life, but he had been ill and was somewhat older so that didn’t count. Then I had a slight hearing problem that made me kind of loud. Then I liked to pull jokes. And nursed a nerdy interest in witches. All that turned me into a girl that no-one with any social self-preservation would ever fall in love with, or ask for a dance at any party. Not for seven damn years was I asked for a dance, except once at the prom, when a guy namned Fabian Malmroth came up. He was, how shall I say, a very short person but with a sharp eye, he could spot my desperation straight through my carefully faked indifference. I guess it takes one to know one. He wanted to leave school un-danced as little as I did. I complained to my girlfriends at my only slumber party, but they said it was just because I was an intellectual, I was interested in facts and stuff and for some reason that made me undanceable.
”No I’m not”, I protested,” I don’t give a shit when Napoleon died, I just study to get good grades so I can get a good job and make a lot of money!” They all nodded incredulously, after all it was my party. The death of Napoleon is quite an interesting one, by the way, but we can get back to that later.
I wasn’t all together friendless. My friends were in other classes, one here, two there. And we were all some kind of outsiders. It was Victoria, all straight A:s but with clothes from the previous decade, Susanne who for some reason spent a whole lot of classes sleeping in a remote corner of the school library, and Gregory who was into explosives and already had a handsome mustache, and me who was…what was I ? An intellectual, apparently. Didn’t sound that hot.
My experience of dance had been a disaster all along, starting in ballet school where I got to be a goblin dressed in an old sack with a rope for a tail and a wig out of blue plastic ribbons. We were all goblins so I guess it was all OK until I spotted the faries, gracefully waving their pink and white veils through the air. I was dead with envy. I demanded my mother to get me something similar, so she cut up a black veil she had worn for her own mothers funeral and sew a fairy costume as well as she could. It wasn’t that great, my white underwear was clearly visible through the thin black fabric, but I danced in it anyway, dragging the veil in the air behind me. I created my own interpretations of the music on a tape called ”Waltzes of the Strauss family”. At home I was brilliant. I decided to try to upgrade from goblin and become a fairy.
The fairy group practiced right before us goblins, that was the reason I hade spotted them in the first place, since we came too early one day. I swear I turned my mothers life into a hellhole that day, I wanted to go earlier and she finally gave up and accepted. I didn’t tell her why, I had a feeling what I was up to was some kind of a coupe but I was optimistic. Thus I entered the fairy class, dressed in black just in time for the rehearsal. My mother had luckily run into a friend and got stuck outside smoking, so the coast was clear. The fairies sat in a prefect circle with their legs crossed just as we did. We all had red ribbons round our right wrists and ankles, another thing our mothers had been ordered to sow, for us to distinguish right from left. My costume wasn’t quite like the others but not far from it, I thought. At a close range their dresses were not entirely similar either. The other fairies looked at me with curiosity but said nothing, fairies are sensitive and considerate by nature. The ballet teacher however must have been of goblin descent, she wasn’t considerate at all. She towered up above me as I sat on the floor, I stared straight into her bulldog face where the pink lipstick sort of floated on top of her mouth, she had been in a hurry smearing in on, apparently. She looked at me with disgust.
”What exactly do you think you’re doing ?”
”I was thinking…” I noticed there was a complete silence, the faint whispering that had filled the room up to then was all gone.
”You were thinking what?”
”I thought I might be a fairy too?”
The teacher stared at me.
”I have a costume!” I claimed.”It was for my grandmo…”
”This is NOT your group. Do you think you can just come? Where’s your mother?”
”Out. But I practiced…”
”Please leave this room immediately! This is not your group, this is more advanced and costs more as well!” Now, she was really upset. Not only was I under-qualified, I was also a thief. I crawled up from the floor and ran out, tears in my eyes.
When I came to the dressing room, my mother was sitting there, goblin suit in her lap. I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hands. She looked at me with a strange look on her face.
”Did you by any chance try to join that other group?”
I nodded, shamefully.
”I thought you might do something like that.”
”Maybe I should have stopped you. But I thought you could have a go since you wanted it so much.”
”She didn’t let me. Cause I’m no good and it costs more.”
”You’re great. Just that it’s not always enough.”
Sighing, I started to stuff myself into the goblin suit.
”Well, I prefer a goblin to a fairy any time. More interesting” said my mother. ”Besides, they’re having a fancy dress party at the end, you can be a fairy on that one instead.”
I put the heavy plastic ribbon wig on my head, tucked away my own hair and let her to paint my face with red cheeks and black freckles.
A goblin, that was my fate.
You could say ballet isn’t for everyone anyway, but I definitely tried some more robust dance forms too. I mean, folk dance should be managed by everyone, you can tell by the name, right? My school was very much into that, I’m afraid. Each autumn by the end of October all normal gym lessons were cancelled, and each class got to learn a Swedish folk dance out of the famous Green Book, for a traditional Christmas party that was held in the middle of December. We were all lined up in the gymnasium, and arranged by height from the tallest to Fabian, girls on one side and boys on the other, after which we walked towards the middle where we formed pairs with whoever turned out to be the right length. The good news were that I actually got a partner, the bad news were we were both usually disappointed and deeply embarrassed by the whole thing. Swedish folk dance is all about jumping up and down, holding each other, either by a sweating hand or in a stiff embrace, usually both. There was a lot of bouncing face to face, tits bounced, eyes flickered, I was constantly off beat plus the one who broke the formations by going the wrong direction. I was bathing in sweat, and even more so on the actual show since we all had to wear a traditional wool costume. I’m sure wool is a great material when herding cows or whatever our ancestors did all day, but in an overpopulated ballroom its pure death. I slipped around on the polished floors, overheated and with zero oxygen in my brain- fainting became a Christmas tradition.
The gym teacher kept a bunch of us hopeless cases after class and made us jump around her in a small circle. I guess separating us from the rest of the class was meant to be tactful, but somehow it made it all even more humiliating. I had absolutely no idea what she meant as she knocked two wooden pieces together and called out various numbers. I jumped fast and slow and here and there but obviously it was still not right. She let go of one of us at a time when she considered them proficient, so in the end I was alone with Gregory who was into explosives, the circle was even smaller and I was getting dizzy.
”Could we go the other way?” I asked.
”We finish for now” the teacher sighed, and we left for the cantine.
”Did you get this follow the beat-thing” I asked Gregory.
”Nope”, he said.” I spent some time in the army youth pluton, they did some of that marching, but it was easier, like left, left, leftrightleft!”
I tried it. It was easier. The dance rhythm we did was rocket science compared to it. We marched all the way to the cantine in no time.
”What were you doing there by the way?” I said,”I thought you were trying to avoid getting drafted?”
”Yes, well…” said Gregory,” I was just kinda hoping to get my hands on some of the stuff I knew they kept there, explosives. But it was all locked up.”
If I hade been able to dance with Gregory we might have somehow managed, but unfortunately I was paired up with Per G Anderson Jr, who was a folklore pro, and swore violently at me when I messed up which I did more or less the whole time.
But what was really weird was the way I always looked forward to that day, every year, expecting to have a great time even though I never did. Year after year. Just as I always looked forward to Christmas, despite the fact that every Christmas so far had produced nothing but family drama. My parents were constantly fighting, mostly about whether they should divorce or not, something my mother wanted and my father resisted. It was never fun, merry, peaceful, warm, cosy or any of the things I associated with Christmas. Sometimes my grandfather came to stay with us, and that made them keep a tense kind of peace, that they compensated by fighting even more before and after his visit. Before they fought about whether he should be allowed to come, after they fought about whether it had been a good idea or not. Despite all this, I looked forward to Christmas with a drunk's stubbornness and I longed for the Christmas folkloric dance performance in a similar way, despite all odds. I dont’t know what kind of a diagnosis you qualify for when you never give up, especially when a number of annoying persons claim something to be impossible ’cause that’s how it is and that’s something everybody knows. What is it called when you’re lika that? Compulsive optimism?
Still in school, Isabelle discovers oriental dance and decides this may well be the solution to all her problems. She leaves he home town for the Big City, Stockholm, takes more classes and tries to find out how to actually get to dance…
Excerpt from the middle of the novel:
Summer came to Stockholm and with it, tourists. still warm as if summer didn’t want to give up. I was still in touch with my old flatmates, the Streetmusician and the Guitar Technologist, who now had a new project, to play the guitar and sing the songs of Bellman in the streets of the Old Town, dressed up in 1600-th century costumes. I wanted to become a street performer myself with what I had to offer- belly dance! Slightly reluctantly, they let me in on their project. I would dance on a sheet that we put on top of the cobblestones that unfortunately covered the streets. It wasn’t the ideal dance floor. I struggled to keep upright and felt the stones very clearly through the sheet, that also tended to crumple up beneath me, especially when I tried to spin. No one stopped, people hurried past. As the music ended I took a break and handed over the stage to my friends who started to sing Bellman. All of a sudden bypassers stopped, listened and tossed coins as well as an occasional banknote, and that bothered me a whole lot. I was thinking deeply about what I might be doing wrong, and why the others were so much more successful, when a man showed up and introduced himself as Claudio. He ran a café in a historic basement nearby and wondered if I wouldn’t rather perform there?
”And maybe your friends could play as well”, he added politely, though it was obvious he was more into the dancing than the Bellman. Thus my honor was restored, I thought, and graciously accepted a coffee in the basement café.
He gave us each a card with his name and the titles ” musician photographer journalist film director”. He then told us that he had seen a UFO, grabbed a guitar and sang a song about peace that he had composed himself. He revealed that he knew a thing or two about the murder of Olof Palme but was reluctant to get into details, since there had been some mysterious men snooping around his home lately. We decided to perform in the café the next evening as a test, take a small admission fee and split the gain. This felt way more dignified than wriggling on the street. I couldn’t understand that I hade done such a thing less than half an hour earlier, and I was never going to do it again. Instead, I would make a nice poster.
”How old are you?” he asked me, as the others had left.
”Twenty!” I answered truthfully.
”Good!” He said and smashed his hand into the table. ”So, you are an adult. You know, girls who are maybe seventeen, eighteen, they’re a bit…unreliable.” He picked up an album with photos he had taken, showing av variety of girls posing in their underwear, leaning against the walls of the basement and hiding their faces behind arms, hair or turning away.
”These are artistic photos!” he explained.
”Hm” I said,”did you use a flash?”
”Yes, its too dark down here.”
”It makes them sort of flat though”, I said with a slight hesitation.
”They’re supposed to be like that”, he said. He put away the album and changed topic. We decided to meet again when the poster was finished.
At my first performance in the basement café, five people showed up with of course was a disappointment. I hade imagines a crowd. But no. A fat and nervous man in a suit, a guy with a backpack, and a group of three young people my age - a guy who might possibly be arabic, and two blonde girls. I put on the music and started to dance, but the volume was way too low. I beckoned to the owner to turn up the music, which he did. This made the whole sound system rattle a bit, but it was worth it, I decided. The man in the suit sweated quite a bit but didn’t change expression, his face was blank. The guy with the backpack, on the other hand, looked at me and nodded like he really appreciated the show. The three young people looked at me viciously and with disgust, so I avoided their table. When the show was over and I returned in my normal civilian outfit, the backpacker came up to me and handed over two magazines. One was called Habibi and the other Arabesque. He told me his girlfriend back in the States was a dancer, and that she had asked him to donate the magazines to whatever colleague he would run into during his trip. Which he now did, mission completed. Back home I devoured them. An entire world, countless advertisements about classes, workshops and competitions. Most of it written in a strange kind of English unlike the one I hade been taught in school.
After this, Isabelle meets an eccentric dance teacher who takes her along to the places were belly dance is performed, at this time mostly Turkish restaurants, and soon she is deeply involved in the subculture, relationships and breakups and every kind go culture clash imaginable. At the same time she studies art, a very different all-swedish environment.
Excerpt from the latter half of the novel where Isabelle starts to perform in an illegal nightclub, run by a silverback named Newzat:
I came at six when the pizza parlor closed. Everyone was involved in the project of changing the place into something more sophisticated. The windows facing the street were covered with curtains, tablecloths were waved, the menu consisting of 76 different kinds of pizza was covered in cloth. The staff, swedes as well as turks, were dressed up in traditional costumes, a bit plastic I thought, but everyone swore they were the real shit. In the kitchen a small man created fantastic sculptures from butter mixed with ice for stability, viking ships and various animals were carried out and placed on the smörgåsbord or meze table overflowing with food.
I switched to my costume and was photographed in front of all the butter. And then again along with the staff. And then again between the two owners, dressed up in suits. I felt naked and ridiculous. I never felt that way about it when performing, but there, in front of a a table full of butter, stuck between two suits, it was a surrealist painting. My belly was white, I sucked it in and smiled, and made faces, and put my fingers behind their two heads like rabbits ears, pictures the photographer never took or at least didn’t keep and luckily didn’t show the unknowing owners. On the finished poster I just looked very happy.
Though posh was the ambition, Newzat was eager to save money on the music, he hired a synthesizer guy instead of a band. The synthesizer guys were like bar pianists, a popular budget solution but boring for the dancer, there was no real energy to the music without the live drum. I was wondering who would show up and secretly hoping for Firat, who was like a chafing shoe in my life. There were a bunch of one-man-orchestras circulating, but he had plenty of offers as long as he managed to resist the temptation to make fun of everybody. He was a big teaser, but also clever at backing off the exact moment his victims were beginning to lose it. His speciality, however, was to poke in one last ambiguous comment just as they lowered their guard. I was seldom bored when he was around, stuff always happened.
When I arrived on the big night Newzat had invited the entire center city police department and posted the sign ”subscribed” on the front door. The tables were filled with large bottles of whiskey.
He gave me his office for a dressing room, at least something, I wouldn’t have to see another basement, I would be sitting on a rotating black leather chair and spread my makeup things on a fake oak desk, how glamorous. My expectations hade definitely lowered.
Sure as hell, when I came out Firat was already sitting there, playing his Turkish elevator music. I was happy to see him but even happier to see he brought a drummer.
”So I’ll have a drum after all!” I exclaimed.
The drummer was called Özgür, and gave me a pale smile. Nwezqat was squirming.
”Only for the opening. Something extra!”
Firat and Özgür nodded politely like two schoolboys. Newzat hurried away. The moment he turned hos back we looked at each other and smiled. I felt that this orchestra, though small, could be something good. Newzat obviously didn’t understand the importance of a drummer. Even if Özgür had a tense look about him he seemed nice.
The police started to arrive, they were many. They started to eat and drink, the whiskey bottles were being opened. The policemen were getting happier and happier, except one who looked a bit like he might have been from the middle east himself. While the majority of them were getting tipsy he was obviously stone sober and somehow on guard. He was the only policeman behaving, I wondered what my grandpa would have said.
While I was waiting in the office Firat knocked and started to search his bags for some electronic device or other. He obviously wanted to say something so I looked at him and raised my eyebrow.
”Still seeing that Hassan, are you?”
He wasn’t much of a pokerface but his Swedish had really improved in no time.
Samara was right, he was cute, but married. And somehow that mattered. You might have thought I was out of moral standards but that wasn’t entirely so. I hade my own distinctions when it came to human beings, and we were just about the same age, and so was his wife. Old men and women, as I saw them, were a different story. They didn’t count. The Old People were another species, a powerful race of losers to be used and taken advantage of, but sadly they tended to always end up taking advantage of us instead. They conned us younger people using their cunning and long life experience and we craved revenge.
”Tell you what” I said. Firat froze and raised his eyebrows.
”My friend’s having a party, in the Old Town. She said I could come and do a dance there too, like, after the gig. Maybe you and the other guy want to come and play? I mean, we won’t get paid, but we get to go to a party, well, she told me to ask you…”
”I’ll ask him!” He looked like it was settled. Things had lightened up.
It was time for dance and trying to prove I was worth it. I had quickly sewn a new green costume and rubbed some extra red dye into my hair, that had grown quite a bit and was getting close to my waist.
I enter the room and realized in the middle of a spin that Firat was playing a turkified version of ”Here comes Pippi Longstocking”. He continued bravely with a number of hits for kids and I realized he must have taken his baby to preschool recently. Newzat and his entourage of dignified men in suits did not react to the repertoire at all. The had probably never set foot in a Swedish preschool or kindergarten. The policemen didn’t seem to notice either. I started to make funny faces at him as I had my back to the audience, until I realized there was a mirror on the wall behind his back, and that Newzat was watching.
When I came out on the street with my bag Firat appeared to be persuading Özgür to come to the party in the Old Town. Özgür said something in Turkish. Firat, who within a few months hade evolved from beginner to practicing interpreter explained:
”He says, the Old Town, no way, is full of racists”
”Not at all! That’s the people who hang around, these are the ones who live there, they’re different!” I tried.
While we were standing there, Newzat closed down, straightening the curtains that covered the windows. On the inside the bottles were empty and the police acting like a bunch of retards except for the Turkish police who was still sober. The plates were empty and the butter animals starting to decay and collapse. Firat had borrowed Newzats phone and called för a cab.