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Author’s Note: Quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof.
The Green Bicycle is the debut novel by Haifa al-Mansour, based on her movie, Wadjda. Both the movie and the book tell the story of free-spirited 11-year-old Wadjda who enters a Quran competition to raise money to buy a green bicycle.
Wadjda reminds me a lot of Ramona Quimby, Beverly Cleary’s masterful creation. Like Ramona, she can’t seem to get things right. She doesn’t fit in at school and thinks her principal hates her. She is at odds with the “good” girls and oftentimes finds herself daydreaming. I wish Wadjda had been around at the time when I was reading about Ramona’s antics. There were no young Muslim girls in the stories I read growing up. But at the time I didn’t know that mattered. Being Palestinian was just as important as being American to me but my Arab-Muslim identity didn’t really come up. Except during Ramadan, of course.
Reading this book now, I can appreciate how much representation really matters. Beverly Cleary wrote her series of books to address the lack of stories about real children. Al Mansour mentions feeling invisible in Saudi Arabia and her motivation for making her film was “to have voice.” While this story is a reflection of Saudi Arabia specifically, I’m happy young Muslim girls will see themselves in Wadjda. Obviously sexism isn’t just an Arab/Muslim thing but I could relate to all the big and small ways it plays out in this book. Wadjda’s constant frustration with Saudi Arabian society’s cultural oppression of women and young girls: her small rebellions like listening to and recording Western music to sell to her fellow classmates and cutting out pictures from magazines of all the things she wishes to accomplish in life. Her best friend is a boy named Abdullah with whom she has a love/hate relationship because she resents the freedom he was born with while she has to fight for every bit. It’s clear he loves her back, at one point he declares, “Wadjda, you know I’m going to marry you when we’re older, right?” But he’s afraid to be seen with her because of societal restrictions.
There is a constant push/pull in this book between who people are forced to be in public and the people they can truly be in private. The author does a good job of setting up this juxtaposition of the private/public lives. “Home” we are told, “was the only place where she and her mother could be themselves, relaxed and happy and tucked away from the outside world.” For these Saudi women, it isn’t just home; it’s wherever women gather alone.
We see the girls at school crowd Wadjda to buy her trinkets and mix tapes even though they’re not allowed at school. There are the teachers who wear animal prints at school away from the prying eyes of men. We meet two rebellious teens, Fatin and Fatimah, who are described as “sassy,” “a true criminal mastermind” whose “elaborate pranks were school legend.” They were “cool without trying to be.” I hate using the word rebellious because it conjures images of Muslim girls throwing their veils to the wind and running wild. These girls and women are just trying to find a place for themselves in the world too.
Wadjda’s mother is perhaps the best example of dealing with private struggles while maintaining her public dignity. Wadjda describes her as “the most beautiful woman in the world” with “her silky hair [that] fell to her slim waist [and] was so thick that it was hard for [her] to control it all under abayah and burka.” Her mother often sings love songs at home and flirts with her husband when he comes to visit. When Wadjda enters a Quran competition to buy a green bicycle she sees at a toy shop, it is her mother with her beautiful singing voice who helps her recitation. Wadjda thinks, sadly, that her mother could have been in a movie but knows her mother would never pursue such an “improper” career. Her mother is a strong character; she is opinionated and protective. But she knows her limitations and isn’t ready to push them.
The problem for Wadjda is that she is ready to push the limits, and is lucky to be young enough to get away with it, until she isn’t. One day, her principal pulls her aside to tell her that she needs to come to school the next day wearing the abayah ras (full abayah and veil). While her mother takes it as a sign of maturity, for Wadjda it’s just another step toward becoming another faceless, nameless figure in the crowd. When she sees the green bicycle sitting outside the toy shop, she is determined to do everything she can to stop that from happening.
While the main storyline is Wadjda’s quest to raise money for the green bicycle that will enable her to race Abdullah and find her freedom, the other characters are just as compelling. Al Mansour does a wonderful job of creating characters that are all flawed in some ways but all have redeeming qualities as well. No one in this book is perfect. Everyone is a victim to the pressures of a patriarchal society that uses culture and religion against its citizens. The men, too, have roles they have to adhere to whether they want to or not. And even Wadjda, with all of her bravery and willingness to tout societal norms, finds herself faced with moments of uncertainy.
For a story centered on Muslim characters, this is an amazing feat. Too many times, stories can seem preachy or judgmental. The Green Bicycle does not shy away from religion and religious figures but they are not one-dimensional good guys or evildoers. Everyone in this novel simply is. And this, in my opinion, is the best thing about this book. It’s told from an insider’s point of view without ever leaning one way or another. Al Mansour allows the reader to judge each character and situation for themselves.
Young readers will find this book an easy read. The language can be poetic but straight forward. Wadjda is relatable because she makes mistakes but still tries her best. She is funny and fun and spunky. I think kids and adults will enjoy this book. There are storylines to keep all ages entertained.
At the end of the story, Wadjda rides off into the sunset on her bike and at first it seems unrealistic. This is Saudi Arabia after all. But deep down, you root for her all the same.