The thought—unlike some of my floating fantasies—is calm and pleasurable and not at all imperceptible. Ballerinas dance inside light bulbs. Really, it all depends on where I’m standing. This one here twirls her skirt in the light when I’m looking sideways. Rhododendrons— like the ones you used to get me— in the long-necked vase on the table, stare back, disapproving, cynical. I know, I know. It’s probably my waning eyesight and a bright tungsten filament to blame, but I have to tell you this: when the jittery fingers of those shrivelled hands of mine, turn on the switch, I see her up there, inside the light bulb. A ballerina pirouettes and flips, not without the flame-shaped halo hugging her.
The view of the Nile from these windows is no longer spectacular. Cars parked, the masses in queues down there, in front of the Faten Hamma Cinema, Twenty-Seven floors below. Young couples feed the fish empty Pepsi cans and greasy Burger King wrapping paper. School kids in striped green and purple uniform mistake the flowerbeds for trash cans. Street hawkers call out on top of their lungs even when there’s no one’s out there in the siesta hour except for the stray cats.
I unfold the tattered note that I’ve held in my hands, in my pocket, and in my bag for the past decade. It’s been with me the whole time you weren’t. I know the words by heart, I sing them every day.
Crossing boundaries. You’ll love it. Follow me.
Ironically, there’s this girl that looks a lot like actress Faten Hamma —the one the Cinema was named after. She comes in every week, walking around like she knows everything there is about anything, saying the note’s in My handwriting. She argues and argues with me, like she has the right to, making me sick.
The hot-headed girl has brought in a doctor, a specialist, she says. Whatever happened to doctor Mistikawy, the family physician?
“Tarek, will she…”
She has those ambiguous eyes, petite posture and dark hair swirling right under her ears. Something about her feels vaguely familiar, a reflection of some hidden truth? I’m being ridiculous again, but she indeed looks like a hamama (a dove).
Remember when you used to call me “dove”?
She calls the specialist Tarek, must be his first name. Are they conspiring against me? But she doesn’t sound conspiratorial if you ask me. She sounds…pitiful. Those vague eyes of her sparkle but in a sad way, like they’re coated with some sort of glaze, are those tears?
“Can’t a woman have some privacy in her own house!” I yell at them, but Hamama and Tarek only stare. I’m travelling soon, and I don’t give a rat’s arse about what they think.
I’ve made a list of the things I’m not leaving behind. Lists are important. I don’t want to forget anything, after all, I can’t even remember what I had for lunch today, or if I’ve had lunch at all.
I’m going over the list one last time.
- The cane with the lion-head.
I’ve grown an obsession for canes lately, but this one reminds me of the time when we parked along the side of Kasr El Nil Bridge to watch the then dazzling banks of the Nile. Remember when you said the large lion statues at the east and west side of the bridge reminded you of the Landseer Lions surrounding Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar square? You said, then, that Egypt was going to be your new home.
- Your copy of Dickens’s Bleak House.
I’m never going anywhere without it. Remember, when we first met? You told you bought this book with your first salary ever. You got it from the South Centre Book Market on the Waterloo Bridge, on a rainy day, from a trestle table next to hundreds of laid out second-hand books. You wanted me to keep the book because it was very much part of you as much I was. I did the same and gave you my prized edition of Marry Shelly’s Frankenstein. You laughed then, and said that man can know a lot about a woman from the books she read. We later went to the Soor El Ezbekiya Used Books Market, and bought dozens of books for as little as ten piasters.
- Your favorite perfume: Joy by Jean Patou.
I miss the Rose-Jasmine scent as much as I miss you. Remember when you bought me the last bottle from Harrods? They stopped making it after. I never used it again after you left.
- The halter-back, bias cut, crepe de chine dress and the cameo brooch.
I bought them from Tiring Department Store in Attaba right before our first date. You took me then to the Khedival Opera House to watch Rimsky-Korkakov’s Sherazade, that’s when you told me I looked prettier than all those fair-faced ballerinas.
I’m all set now, a bit nervous, yes. I haven’t left the house in years, and I’ve always had an aversion to planes ever since that trip to France when I was five. You know about it. I really regret it—not having left when I should’ve. It’s never too late, right? You know how easily I get tired these days, but I promise after I rest a bit, I’ll come dancing like that ballerina in the light bulb.
About the Author
Riham Adly worked as an associate editor in 101 words magazine and is currently a first reader/marketing coordinator in Vestal Review magazine.
She is also a creative writing instructor with several short stories published in literary journals such Vestal Review, Page&Spine, Café lit, The Ekphrastic Review, For The Sonorous, Fictional Café, Paragraph Planet, Visual Verse and The Alexandrian with forthcoming stories in Connotation Press and Writing in a Woman’s Voice magazines.
Her story “The Darker Side of the Moon” won the MAKAN Award in 2013 and was published in an anthology by the same name.
Riham lives with her family in Gizah, Egypt. You can find her on twitter: @roseinink
I love this piece, written in under 1,000 words, for the sense of loss it emanates and the nostalgia it evokes. Riham sent in her work accompanied by Edgar Degas’s ‘L’etoile’ that inspired ‘Prettier than a Ballerina”.
About the Artist
The name Edgar Degas conjures up images of dancers, especially the ballerina. More than half of his works—sculptures, prints, drawings and paintings—are associated with dance. Like Monet, Degas is regarded as one of the founding Impressionist artists although rejects the association and term and preferred to be known as a realist painter.
Degas’s ballerinas are depicted in isolation, almost always a lone figure even in a group. His portraits are notably significant for their psychological complexity, evoking a sense of melancholia and loneliness.
Degas was a superb draftsman and was adept at depicting movement and lines. He lived in a time when France was being industrialised with the use of technology and electricity at its height. These were aspects of modern life that Degas depicted through the lens of the slums, the brothels and horse-races of Paris. It was through the reality of the city in which he lived, that he was able to apply his draftsman’s skills.
“Out of all the subjects in modern life he has chosen washerwomen and ballet dancers . . . it is a world of pink and white . . . the most delightful of pretexts for using pale, soft tints.” — Edmond de Goncourt, 1874.
Indeed, Degas made the ballerinas his focus. He walked the wings and classrooms of the Palais Garnier, where the Paris Opéra resides, sketching dancers in their tutus. There, he was surrounded by the city’s poorest girls—les petits rats, known in the dance world as ‘little rats’, struggling to become the gentle nymphs, pretty fairies and prima-donnas on stage and all to entertain the upper echelon of Parisian society. Soon the world of pink and white engulfed him and he would spend the rest of his life sketching, painting and moulding into sculptures, the form of the ballet dancer.
Paul Valéry, a poet and friend recalls Degas to be a “divided man”, one who was driven by the acute preoccupation with truth who introduced all the new ways of seeing this truth and reality yet was possessed by the rules of Classicism—its elegance, simplicity and style—that he undertook to study and analyse for the rest of his life. I suspect that les petits rats intrigued him, mesmerised him and he felt and empathised with them on an artistic level. Girls as young as six were sent to the Opéra for training and work in order to support their families; these young girls often worked six days a week like factory hands churning out merchandise. A body of literature supports the fact that many of these young girls were prostituted by their families or offered personal sexual favours to their abonnés or patrons in order to advance in their dancing careers. Scandalous rags-to-riches stories filled the press. There were whispers amongst the bourgeoisie speculating on who were the mistresses of wealthy men. What the gossip mongers and critiques failed to recognise were the talent and skills that many of these dancers possessed. Degas brought to the public these dancers’ progress through his paintings.
Degas, Edgar, (1878), ‘The Star’