A Peek Inside Saudi Arabia: Wadjda, the Movie

Mom looking at a dress in the mall
Mom looking at a dress in the mall
Wadjda and Abdullah off the movie set
Wadjda and Abdullah off the movie set

I must admit. I had to think about how to pronounce the film's name before buying the ticket. The Wad part of the name was easy, it was the jda that baffled me a bit. So, I said Wadja, leaving out the d. It worked.

The movie is simply in its premise. A 10-years old girl wants a bike to ride around with the boys. It costs 800 riyals, her parents are against it for girls do not ride bikes in Saudi Arabia! Women do not drive vehicles in Saudi Arabia. Neither can be in public with a man or boy who is not a relative.

Directed by a Saudi woman, which must have been controversial in itself, what the movie shows in the daily life of many Saudis is contradiction or hypocrisy in what is preached and practiced. When Wadjda goes to school, she wears tennis shoes, she walks to school with Abdullah, a boy her age who already has declared he will marry her one day. When confronted in public for walking together, he states she is his sister.

At home, the Saudi family lives with basic modern amenities and where what most westerners do-jeans, t-shirts, nice tops. They watch western TV and Wadjda listens to only rock music even though her mom thinks it is "devil" music. The husband comes home every once in the while and eventually marries his second wife, leaving Wadja and her mom. When they shop at the huge mall, it is mostly high end western clothes and devices. The mother finds a beautiful dress to win her husband back. But she must go to the woman's restroom to try it on.

The mother is strikingly different in western clothes than when wearing the burqa-hijab, a black blob that makes all females look the same. In fact, that is what is striking. Men wonder what the woman looks like underneath the black blob garment, Wadjda's mom is beautiful, yet she hides it in public because she must. When she is at home, it is 100% the opposite.

To get the forbidden bike, she creates music tapes and bracelets and sells them to students at high prices, which is fine, but not enough. So, she enters a competition to learn the Koran verses and she does win. The prize money is more than enough for the bike, However, when the principal asks her what she will spend it on, she tells everyone, "I am buying a bike". The girls laugh. The principal is disgusted (she is young herself but very conservative) and scolds Wadjda and that she should donate it to the Palestinians. Wadjda refuses but loses the argument.

Luckily, Wadjda's mom is a teacher at the school. So, her income, while tight, could, in theory, buy the bike. But it is so against traditions there. When she needs to learn how to ride the bike, she and Abdullah smuggle the bike upstairs to the rooftop area, small, but enough to ride in circles. At first, the big bike has training wheels that the boy installed for her. When she found out what they were, she demanded they be taken off. Almost all first-timers crash, but not Wadjda! This whole experience on the rooftop is in violation of this society- a boy and a girl alone, unrelated.

The movie ends well, because her mom finally breaksdown and buys the bike and she rides in defiance through the streets to where Abdullah is. Together, they race, and of course, she wins.

As I sat there watching it, I looked at the scenes. For instance, external scenes showed what looked like a modern city of sorts, but the color was sand drab and not once did I see a blue horizon of the sky. It was absent. Instead of blue sky, it was a whitish color. Vegetation was sparse or absent. Even as kids went to school or played, few trees or parks were present in Riyadi. All homes had a front door virtually on the street, no front yard. Yet, most had a small courtyard after one enters before entering the main house.

Now I can understand why Saudis must love Europe or America for its contrasts in nature, blue sky, and freedom. What Wadjda did, is what many Saudis probably do in the 21st century, find ways around their conservative way of life in search of freedom. Personal freedom away from dogma and religion. I guess that is where the hypocrisy enters- being at home is totally different than being in public.

Check it out, Three stars for this movie.


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