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A girl rides a bike to upend Saudi Arabia's patriarchal society

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You've heard of actors and writers in Hollywood who say they really want to direct. Now meet a director who really wants to write.

Haifaa Al Mansour is the author of the just-published young adult novel "The Green Bicycle." It was inspired by a film she directed, called "Wadjda."

Mansour hopes the book will in turn inspire young girls across the globe.

"I wanted to create this character who lives in a harsh world, but believes in herself and tries to reach her dreams regardless," she says. "For me, I think young adults need those kind of superheroes."

She created the character, Wadjda, an 11-year-old girl who wants to buy a bicycle. How she goes about making this happen is magic.

Below is an excerpt from "The Green Bicycle."


The warm smell of cardamom and saffron teased Wadjda awake. Traditional blond Saudi coffee was boiling in the kitchen, and she could hear the soft sounds of her mother moving from room to room, preparing for the day ahead.

Wadjda loved the familiarity of their house. It was old and cozy, the place where she’d been born. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. The walls were so thin that the slightest noise echoed through the whole space. The electricity went out now and then, sometimes because her mother didn’t pay the bill, but mostly because a fuse blew or a switch broke. Over time, Wadjda had learned to fix these things. Between the constant repairs and the monthly mortgage, her mother was always complaining about the house being a money pit. But while their home had its issues, it was Wadjda’s safe spot, the only place where she and her mother could be themselves, relaxed and happy and tucked away from the world outside. 
 it was barely five in the morning. Despite the early hour,

Wadjda was already in her gray school uniform, tugging a brush through her hair. She liked to get up early, before her mother set out on the long journey to the remote school where she taught. She liked being there for her mother, liked to take care of her and make sure things were all right. Getting up at the same time was a silent act of support.

With the flick of a switch, Wadjda turned on the radio. Her radio. She smiled and brushed her fingers across its metal sides. This was the thing in her small room that she loved most. Music moved her, lifted her. As she straightened the sheets on her bed and threw her slippers underneath, she rocked her hips and shook her shoulders in time with the beat. It was going to be a fun day, and Wadjda was ready for it to begin.

It was going to be hot, too. Already, the sun was burning through the small window above her desk. Wadjda had covered the window with wallpaper, but even that thick sheet failed to block the intense desert heat. Climbing onto her desk chair, Wadjda added a few pictures to the collage she’d started on top of the wallpaper, using images cut from magazines. Her father brought them back from the oil company on the east coast where he worked.

Scrambling down, Wadjda flipped through one of those magazines now, looking for pictures of girls her age. They smiled out at her from the glossy pages: two girls on skateboards hovering at the top of a jump; a girl strumming a guitar; a group of kids sitting on the beach, boys and girls together, arms slung around one another’s shoulders. The heat burned against Wadjda’s fingers as she climbed up again, pressing these new pictures onto the wallpaper. Her collage was her checklist, a reminder of all the things she would do as soon as she got the chance.

On the radio, the DJ introduced the next song. Wadjda dashed to her tape deck and hit record as the new single from Grouplove began. She wasn’t sure what the DJ had been saying about the song, or what the band was singing about—her English couldn’t quite keep up with the fast pace of the lyrics. But she loved the feeling the song gave her. Flinging out her arms, Wadjda spun in a circle, closed her eyes, and let the beat move her. She knew the song was good. The DJs had played it more than a dozen times in the last few days. Only a hit would get so much attention.

Wadjda prided herself on her taste in music. Nine times out of ten, the songs she picked to record went on to become hits. And as much as she loved music, she loved sharing it even more. The mixtapes she made sold for real money at school—five Riyals each. And this latest mix was so good that her classmates would probably buy it even if she charged a lot more!

The thought of selling the tape made Wadjda pause in her dance. Better be safe. Quickly, she clambered up onto the bed and ran her fingers along the length of cord she’d strung in through the window, making sure it connected properly to the back of the radio. The cord led to the roof, and from there to the makeshift antenna Wadjda had rigged up to capture songs from stations all over the world.

She’d found the antenna discarded next to a garbage bin on one of her rambling walks home from school. Who still uses these? Wadjda had thought, squatting in the dirt. I bet it’s someone old, because there’s a satellite dish on every roof in Riyadh!

Not till later, when she was sitting in their satellite dish- less house, straining to make out the song buzzing through her radio’s fuzzy speakers, did Wadjda realize the antenna was perfect—for her. But what if she’d missed her chance? In Riyadh, if you didn’t take something when you saw it, it was usually gone by the time you went back.

Still, she had to try. The next day, she erupted out of school the minute she was dismissed and raced through the streets, her heart thudding against her chest. Magically, the antenna was still there. Waiting for her like a gift.

Dragging it all the way to the roof took hours of panting, sweaty work. But it was worth it. The antenna was Wadjda’s tunnel to a faraway world. The music it carried into her room created a private space, a place far from the shrieky Turkish soap operas her mother adored, from the gloomy news reported daily on TV. Wadjda’s radio played music made especially for her.

Turning over the English name of the song she was re- cording in her mind, Wadjda carefully wrote down her own version of its title, translating it phonetically into Arabic. The full track list was labeled wadjda’s awesome mixtape, vol. 7. Next to the growing stack of cassettes, she counted out handmade bracelets. Jewelry brought in decent money from kids who didn’t like music. And just in case, Wadjda specialized in everybody’s favorite treats— candy and chips—which always sold out. The school strictly forbade leaving the grounds during the day, so it was impossible to sneak away and get snacks during lunch. Wadjda had the market cornered.

Her mother hated the idea of Wadjda selling things to her classmates. “Like a common beggar,” she’d say, shaking her head. But she didn’t seem to mind the extra money when they needed things around the house. Over time, they’d come to an understanding: It was all right as long as they didn’t talk about it—and as long as Wadjda didn’t get caught.

Today, if she sold all the bracelets and tapes, and maybe a few bags of candy and chips, she could easily clear fifty Riyals. More than enough for a large pizza and two Cokes on Thursday night, when she and her mother always ordered dinner in. Wadjda smiled, pleased, and searched the floor for her high-tops. The song was nearing its end. Bobbing her head in time, she looked through the half- open door of her room and saw her mother, drying her hair in the living room.

Wadjda thought her mother was the most beautiful woman on earth. Her silky hair fell to her slim waist like a black river. It was so thick that it was hard for Wadjda’s mother to control it all under her abayah and burka. She had to buy a special cap to keep it from falling out of her veil in public. Thick lashes framed her wide, dark eyes. When she outlined them with black lines of kohl, she looked almost cartoonishly glamorous, like a star from a Bollywood film. She should be in a movie, Wadjda thought.

Of course, her mother would never allow herself such a dream. It wasn’t proper. Still, there was something impossibly elegant in her movements, even as she struggled to do simple tasks, like attach a broken brush accessory to the top of her hair dryer. A smile stole across Wadjda’s face as she listened to her mother curse under her breath. Finally, her mother tossed aside the broken part and dried the rest of her hair without it.

But Wadjda was wasting time. The clock read 5:30 a.m. Time to go. She jumped up and left her room—but seconds later she was back by the radio, shifting from foot to foot, drumming her fingers against the dial as she waited for the song to end. At last, she hit stop on the recorder and dashed out, hoping her mother wouldn’t curse her for making them late, yet again.

Today, though, her mother was also rushing, twisting her hair quickly around her fingers and adding little colored clips to hold it in place. Wadjda waited near the door, underneath a gold-framed picture of her father. The picture had been taken on her parents’ wedding day. Her father practically glimmered, his crisp white thobe and checked ghutra complemented by the beautiful brown bisht, or traditional cloak, draped over his shoulders.

Had the bisht been more expensive than her mother’s simple wedding dress? Wadjda had seen her mother’s gown in the closet, had even run her fingers gently across the white silk, but she didn’t know if there were any pictures of her mother wearing it. She couldn’t remember ever seeing one around the house.

Following her daughter’s eyes, her mother glanced at the picture, too. At the sight of her husband, she suddenly looked so tired. Wadjda frowned, feeling the familiar twist in her stomach. Something troubling was happening be- tween her parents, but she didn’t like to think about it. Thinking about it made it real.

Now her mother looked away, sighing. She’d almost finished her hair. Each strand was locked into place, creating a strange mixture of curls and bows. Only my mother could pull off a look like that, Wadjda thought. On her, it was beautiful.

“Turn off the stove before the coffee boils over,” she called. Wadjda ran to the kitchen and twisted the knob, letting the gas sputter out. The sandwich her mother had made her waited on the counter—Wadjda’s favorite, a delicious mix of melted cheeses rolled tight in white Arabic bread. Her mother had made her kerk chai, too, tea and warm milk. Smiling, Wadjda breathed in the rich smells of cardamom and saffron.

Her mother ran into the kitchen and tended to her coffee, adding a few scoops of cardamom and a pinch of saffron. Smiling down at Wadjda, she said gently, “Lots of caffeine in there. Hopefully it’ll keep you going—at least through morning period.”

Wadjda nodded. Recently, she’d heard one of her teachers say that caffeine was bad for kids. In Riyadh, though, people didn’t give habits up easily—not even bad ones. For as long as she could remember, Wadjda had been drinking tea and coffee. She liked the little kick she got from kerk chai. These days, she needed it to get through her endless boring classes. And her cousins and friends drank it, too, so surely it couldn’t be that bad.

Outside, a car horn honked. With a jolt, Wadjda and her mother whirled toward the door. Wadjda’s mother moved too fast, though, and splashed boiling coffee across her hand, scalding her pale skin. Sighing in frustration and pain, she wrapped the wound with a wet towel.

“I guess he’s already here,” Wadjda said, rolling her eyes.

Her mother spoke without looking up from her burned hand.

“Well, he can just wait. I’m doing everything I can to be ready on time.”

But there was worry hidden in her tone. And when she moved, she moved. Her mother poured the coffee into a thermos, grabbed her notebooks, donned her abayah and burka, and made for the door, all in a rush. Wadjda hurried along behind, carrying the rest of her mother’s sup- plies in a jumbled heap in her arms.

At the door, Wadjda’s mother paused to tug the keys from their hook, knocking a string of blue prayer beads to the floor as she did so. These were Wadjda’s father’s. He always had the beads dangling from his hands, and he’d roll them over his index finger with his thumb when he talked. Sometimes he even swung them around an extended finger as he paced the house, letting the long blue string slap rhythmically against the fabric of his white thobe.

Wadjda’s mother picked them up and put them back in place. For a moment, she covered them with her palm, letting her hand rest tenderly against the beads, the way she touched Wadjda’s cheek before bed. Then she turned to Wadjda and pulled her veil over her face, businesslike once more.

“Don’t forget your key, and don’t lock the upper lock. Your father may be coming home after his night shift.” Her tone was the one she reserved for the times that Wadjda came home late or didn’t finish her homework—so not really that often, Wadjda thought. Not a regular occurrence. Well, not a tone she’d heard for a few days, at least.

As they exited through the front gate, Wadjda frowned, twisting her lips and setting her jaw like a superhero face- to-face with her archnemesis. Before them stood Iqbal, her mother’s Pakistani driver-for-hire. He was in front of his old van, plastering a broken headlight on with duct tape. When he saw Wadjda, he matched her glare with a deadly evil eye. But then he saw her mother, and he began to act showily exasperated.

“It very long way, Madame!” He yelled at her in bossy, broken Arabic. “Other teachers we are taking, very long way. You late every day! No taking you late!”

Rolling her eyes at the familiar show, Wadjda put her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. Iqbal towered over her, but she did not yield.

“She no late! You just came! I see you—five minutes not even!” She used the same broken Arabic for emphasis.

“I no talk to you, little girl. I talk to your mother. She is late!”

Without letting Wadjda or her mother reply, Iqbal got into the car and slammed the door. A picture of a smiling child in shalwar kameez, the traditional tunic and trousers worn in Pakistan, fell to the floor. Iqbal picked it up and cleaned it tenderly before putting it back on the dash- board. Time seemed to pause; he stared into the eyes of the little girl in the picture, looking as if his mind and heart were very far away.

Then he looked up and found himself back in Saudi Arabia, staring right into Wadjda’s face, which was pressed up against the glass. Leaning back, Wadjda stuck her tongue out, just to make sure Iqbal knew who he was dealing with. He honked again, waving his hands at her with ever more exaggerated impatience.

“Don’t worry about him,” her mother said from beneath her face covering. “Okay, yalla, bye!” She took her things from Wadjda, ruffling her daughter’s hair as she stepped into the car. Wadjda heard her parting words faintly: “There’s no problem, Iqbal. You take lots of money, so let’s have some quiet for the long drive.”

The minivan bumped away in a cloud of dust and clanking of engine parts. As Wadjda was about to go back into the house, she saw the minivan swerve wildly to avoid an oncoming car. In its recovery, it almost crashed into the garden wall of a nearby house. Wadjda flung her arms wide in dismay. What was Iqbal doing? Nervous, she watched the battered car disappear around the corner, the familiar fear that Iqbal would drive her mother straight off a cliff somewhere tickling its way into her mind.

In the living room, Wadjda rushed to grab her back- pack. But catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she stopped and looked hard at her reflection. Slowly, she lifted her hair, wrapping it around her hand and piling it loosely on her head. Could she ever look as effortlessly elegant as her mother? If Wadjda pinned her curls and tilted her chin slightly to the left, catching just the right light, could she be as beautiful?

Sunbeams flickered across her face and reflected off the glass. Sighing, Wadjda put on her abayah, turning away from the girl in the mirror.

Outside, bright sunlight beat down on the rows of concrete houses lining the streets. A tall wall fronted each home, and a thick layer of dust coated everything: the trees, the trash heaped in the gutters, even the cracked gray sidewalks. In Wadjda’s neighborhood, it was difficult to tell one thing from another. Beneath its blanket of dust, the street seemed boring and lifeless, a giant beige blur stretching endlessly into the distance. Aluminum foil or tightly drawn curtains covered the windows, offering the people inside protection from the sun—and from the curious eyes of the outside world.

Here and there, groups of girls walked to school, their bodies completely covered with black abayahs and veils. Only different backpacks or eyeglasses distinguished one from another. Taxis and minivans passed by with a roar, leaving dust clouds hanging in the air behind them. Women were not allowed to drive in Saudi, so each car was packed with female passengers, all pressed tightly together, all dressed in black. Clusters of foreign-looking men, mostly Indian and Pakistani, moved toward their places of work. They had on worn, faded clothes, most of which looked as if they’d been beaten with a dusty broom in place of cleaning. The women instinctively kept their distance from the men, moving to the other side of the street or waiting for them to pass so they could avoid any accidental contact.

She couldn’t wait any longer. With a sigh, Wadjda turned toward school—and flinched, her body jerking back as, crash! A rock skipped past her, knocking against a discarded soda can and sending it clanking away across the sidewalk.

Startled, Wadjda looked up to see her father, smiling and tossing another rock up into the air. Her heart swelled. From the accuracy of the throw, she’d known it was him even before she turned around. Her father was always showing her how to skip stones, and there were endless targets on Riyadh’s trash-ridden streets. Discarded cans and fast-food wrappers seemed to fill the sidewalks as soon as the street sweepers passed through, the new garbage easily taking the place of whatever trash had been re- moved.

Wadjda’s father ran his hand through his short black hair and drew his fingers across his neat mustache. Wadjda could almost feel its soft tickle against her cheek. She liked how his uniform from the oil rig had faded, turning a cool, sun-bleached gray. When he’d left home, it had been bright blue and ugly. It looked much tougher after a little wear and tear. Like my sneakers, she thought.

“Watch this!” her father called, and flung a rock toward a jumbo-sized fast-food cup, which someone had left on the wall behind Wadjda. Even as she ducked, Wadjda saw the cup fly from its place, lid and straw exploding in opposite directions. Impressed, she grabbed a stone from the dusty road, hefting it in her palm, feeling its weight.

“Oh yeah? Check this out!” She searched for her target, chest puffed out bravely, and zeroed in on a dusty milk carton lying a few meters away. Though she gave it her best shot, the rock fell short. In silence, Wadjda and her father watched it tumble to a stop near her father’s foot.

“Close, my girl! Keep practicing. You’re getting there.”

Wadjda couldn’t wait any longer. She ran over and hugged him. “Where have you been, Abooie?” she blurted, wrapping her arms around his chest and squeezing tight.

Her father didn’t answer. He just held her out in front of him, smiling. “Look at this,” he said at last, pulling a shiny black rock from his pocket. “It’s volcanic, from the Empty Quarter. It’ll fly straight and fast—think how that will help your aim! Now, you have school, yes? Better get going.”

Wadjda took the rock from his hand, beaming. He patted her on the head. They stood side by side for a moment as Wadjda rolled the glossy stone in her hand. She didn’t want to leave, not yet. She wondered about her father’s lonely life on the rigs, out in the middle of nowhere. In her mind’s eye she saw him pacing the Empty Quarter, imagined a glint of light on a stone catching his eye. She thought about him picking up the shiny black rock, holding it in his hand, and thinking of her. His daughter.

With a surge of glee, she tossed her new prize up high once, then again. On the third throw, she snatched it from the air and started off toward school, running fast, her shoes slapping exuberantly against the sidewalk.

“We left the door unlocked. Ummi’s been waiting for you all week!” she called over her shoulder.

Her father’s eyes flickered at the mention of her mother. Once more, he passed his hand over his hair. Then he patted the dust off his overalls and moved toward the front gate of the house.


From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International

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