Thursday, December 3, 2015

Heroines in Hejabs: THE GREEN BICYCLE by Haifaa Al Mansour

When you have a goal, you go for it.  Wadjda wants a bicycle. This wouldn't be that big a deal, except for the fact that she's a girl. And she lives in present-day Saudi Arabia.  Will she be able to make her dream come true?

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour

Wow! The Green Bicycle was published in September 2015, after the very successful 2012 feature film Wadjda garnered world-wide respect for Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female director to come from Saudi Arabia.  Sometimes I make the mistake of setting my expectations for a long-awaited book too high, but this book did not disappoint me.  In fact, Al Mansour captures every facet of a middle-class, working woman’s world in Saudi (reading this brought me right back to my eight years in Kuwait).  The tendency for Westerners to think of all Saudis as oil rich snobs or overflowing with new money has got to be stopped.  Increasing exposure to Western culture often sends middle-class Muslim girls mixed messages that a coming of age story is perfectly suited to deal with.  Wadjda’s struggles to remain independent are innocent, but also become more weighty as they begin to affect those around her—her family, her friends, her classmates, and mostly, her own sense of being.  The theme of Wadjda’s struggle to find herself is very much echoed in the subplot of her mother’s struggle to be a woman of independent means in a patriarchal society where both men and women suffer because of cultural and moral restrictions placed upon them.  For example, Wadjda’s mother is forced to teach at a school two hours from home because teaching in an all-girls school is one of the only acceptable professions for Saudi women and local positions are flooded. So she and 8 other completely-covered female teachers must endure a two-hour drive to and fro on a crazy-dangerous desert highway, in a van with no A/C, driven by a surly Pakistani man who is her social inferior due to his illegal immigration status but who  feels he can berate her because she is a woman. There is also the tense relationship between Wadjda’s mother and father.  What happens when a Saudi woman cannot bear a son?

What superstitions would keep a girl from riding a bicycle in the first place?  Everything about this book was so real—the streets, the empty lots, the dust, the political elections. The longing of Wadjda’s mother to break social norms, but her reluctance to do so because of social tradition. The principal of the school, Ms Hussa, with her designer clothes, high heels and sense of self-importance, the attitudes of the girls in Wadjda’s school.  Seriously, I felt like I was right back in the Gulf. 

I don’t think, as some critics have said, that Al Mansour seeks to cast Saudi in a bad light.  She is showing it with ethos and pathos. She completely honors Koran.  The plots are beautifully woven, and shine brightest in the moment that Wadjda and her mother recite Koran which brings them together, “And of His Signs is that He creates for you mates out of yourselves, so that you may find tranquility in them; and He has put love and mercy between you.” This is beautiful, and Al Mansour turns a traditional male-female dynamic on its head by reinterpreting it as an unbreakable and triumphant bond between a mother and a daughter. 

Vital Stats:
Al Mansour, Haifaa. The Green Bicycle. London: Puffin, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-141-35668-6 

Read the book or watch the movie.  Either one would be a positive experience.
Movie trailer here:

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