The forbidden bike

Yesterday I watched and enjoyed the movie Wadjda by Haifaa Al Mansour.

Wadjda and her mother go to the mall.

Wadjda and her mother go to the mall.

[It] tells the story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in traditional society in the suburbs of Riyadh and desperate for a bicycle, which she’s not allowed. …

Al Mansour hopes that Wadjda will help to change attitudes to both women and films in Saudi Arabia. “I hope it will inspire many girls in Saudi to become filmmakers,” she said. “That makes me very proud.

“People have contacted me with death threats, but that doesn’t matter to me. …

While she is in Saudi, Al Mansour only watches movies rented from a DVD shop. She has to send her driver to the shop with a list of the titles she wants, because women are not allowed inside. …

“Casting a woman in Saudi is almost impossible. It’s difficult to find women who are willing to challenge the norms and appear on camera,” she said. …

“Casting the girl took a long time,” said Al Mansour. “We couldn’t advertise for auditions, so it had to be through word of mouth. We looked everywhere around the country and it wasn’t until one week before filming that we found the right girl.”

[Via : The film director who’s not allowed to go to the movies –]

The key themes of the movie are of movement and autonomy, represented by Wadjda’s dream of owning and riding a bicycle in a context where we see her mother enduring long hot car rides to and from work, being driven by a rude and unpleasant hired male driver.

Many scenes in the movie show us Wadjda at school where girls are taught to speak quietly so the men outside the walls can’t hear them, to stay out of sight of men, and that they cannot have items like cassette tapes or bracelets.

But Wajdja is a rebel, and an entrepreneur, finding ways to raise money so she can buy the bicycle she wants. She makes and sells bracelets, for example, makes bargains and trades, and wears blue sneakers under her plain grey or black dress. Most tellingly, she enters a Koran competition, joining the religious club at school, in order to win the prize money for her bike.

Wadjda gently mocking her friend Abdullah.

Wadjda gently mocking her friend Abdullah.

I realised early on that I know virtually nothing about Saudi Arabia. I’m sure there were many things in the movie that just passed me by because I didn’t understand the cultural references. Also the movie was paced differently than many others I’ve seen. The story itself was clear though: that things can change, that movement is possible, that horizons can expand, that there is wiggle room in an oppressive culture.

I have no idea if unrelated male and female children in Saudi Arabia are allowed to talk or play together, and suspect it’s at least discouraged. But Wadjda and a neighbour boy, Abdullah, are friends. They often travel to school together, and Abdullah teaches Wadjda to ride his bike.

One thing I discovered from the movie: the Arabic language fascinates me. It is so fluid. It seems there are two ways of reciting the Koran: one way is to speak the words, but the other way is to almost sing the words:

The proper recitation of the Quran is the subject of a separate discipline named Tajwid which determines in detail how the Quran should be recited, how each individual syllable is to be pronounced, the need to pay attention to the places where there should be a pause, to elisions, where the pronunciation should be long or short, where letters should be sounded together and where they should be kept separate, etc.…

There are two types of recitation: murattal is at a slower pace, used for study and practice. Mujawwad refers to a slow recitation that deploys heightened technical artistry and melodic modulation, as in public performances by trained experts. It is directed to and dependent upon an audience for the mujawwad reciter seeks to involve the listeners.[107]

[Via : Quran – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.]

The sung version was just beautiful. I’m interested now to find out more about the Koran, even though I’m not a religious person. I’m also interested to learn a little Arabic. I did make a start on that a few years ago, though quickly lapsed. Best of all, I guess, would be if somehow the Arabic language just inserted itself into my brain, skipping that awkward and annoying step of actually having to learn it.

Anyway: the movie’s on the US iTunes Store, available for rental or purchase. I recommend it.