Authors: Haifaa Al Mansour
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Haifaa Al Mansour
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, or events is entirely coincidental.
Jacket artwork from WADJDA appears courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Â© 2015
Jacket illustrations courtesy of Thinkstock.
Jacket design by Maria Fazio
For my parents
For my husband
and for Adam and
adjda wasn't thinking about her ticket to heaven. You could see it on her face.
She wasn't even singing about it, really. Just moving her mouth to the lyrics, her body swaying in rhythm with the melodic chanting of the other girls in her class. Though she mouthed the words, her bright brown eyes wandered the school auditorium restlessly, as if she were trying to catch sight of something more interesting.
Though Wadjda wore the same dull, beat-up gray uniform as the rest of her class, she stood out somehow amid the sea of girls, with their straight, perfectly styled hair, neatly pressed clothes, and confident posture. The long hair surrounding her face curled softly, making her look untidyâmischievous, even. If anyone noticed her there, slouched in the middle of the back row, she'd have been easy to identify as a misfit.
“It's time for battle, it's the only choice,” the girl next to her, Salma, sang. Her voice rose with enthusiasm. “The war is boiling.”
It seemed like they were always singing about their duty
to be virtuous young girls and to fight faraway infidels, or anyone who wasn't a Muslim. As a believer, it was the biggest, best thing you could do. It was better than going on al-Hajj, the holy pilgrimage; better than
, giving money to the poor; even better than freeing a slave. It was the surest way to get to heaven's highest state.
But that didn't make singing about it any more interesting. Sighing, Wadjda let her eyes keep drifting. One by one, she read the posters scattered across the walls of the empty auditorium. During
prayer, the space would be transformed into an all-girls' mosque. So each poster was inscribed with lines from the Quran, or from the Prophet's well-known sayings about women. The closest one read,
My fellow Muslim sister: Be careful from the human wolves; Men. Protect your honor from those who will kill you.
Wadjda smiled, trying to imagine her friend Abdullah as a wolf.
, she thought,
he's got black hairâkind of like a wolf's. But there's nothing ferocious about him. He's more of a hamster!
Laughter welled up inside Wadjda, but she hid her giggles beneath the swelling of the song. She'd missed quite a few lines, and Salma was glaring at her. Glancing guiltily around, Wadjda tried to join back in.
They were singing along to a male voice on a cassette tape, which the teacher had turned on for the girls to
follow as they practiced. But try as she might, nothing more than a whisper emerged from Wadjda's mouth. Even if she'd been louder, she told herself, her voice wouldn't have carried past the first row, where three girls stood, singing their hearts out, chests lifted and chins high. They had the best voices by far, and always got placed up front.
Unlike the girls in Wadjda's row, who'd been stuck in the back for a reason. Yasmeen hit an especially shrill note and Wadjda winced, fighting the urge to put her fingers in her ears. It was definitely better to be quiet-bad than loud-bad.
By this point in the practice session, everyone was tired and restless. They were probably all thinking about lunchtime, and how best to position themselves in the cafeteria line for a falafel sandwich. There was a limited number, and they always sold out. The struggle to snag one before the bell rang was maybe the closest thing to real battle that Wadjda's classmates would ever experience.
“Girls! Stand in your spots!” Ms. Noof shouted. Huffing impatiently, she surveyed the three rows of eleven-year-olds on the homemade-looking wooden stage. The teacher's bulky figure was all but lost in her oversized skirt and long, plain blouse. It was the kind of outfit Wadjda saw advertised along Thirtieth Street in Al-Olaya, the commercial heart of Riyadh. She liked to watch the Yemeni
salesmen there haggle with their customers, who were mostly no-nonsense teachers like Ms. Noof.
Although all Saudi women wore essentially the same black uniform in public, with a veil wrapped around their heads and either a masklike
or a sheer black fabric called a
over their faces, underneath they liked their patterns as crazy and bright as possible. From all the weddings and social gatherings where Wadjda saw her teachersâsometimes, Riyadh felt like a small town, rather than a sprawling cityâshe knew Ms. Noof loved animal prints. Wadjda liked to pretend that, if the school allowed it, her teacher would be wearing a leopard-spotted blouse with matching heels.
At her call, the girls snapped into place. Their feet, all in plain black leather shoes, lined up in perfect rows across the stage. The large banner looming above them made Wadjda feel very small indeed.
THE 4TH GIRLS' SCHOOL
IN RIYADH EAST,
it read. That wasn't true, strictly speaking. Theirs wasn't the fourth school in the eastern part of the city. But while all the boys' schools were named after famous Muslim warriors and scholars, the girls' schools were labeled with random numbers.
Wadjda twisted her lips and sighed.
Just another one of the lessons girls in Riyadh learn every day,
she thought. From the moment she'd started school, she'd been told that
modesty and quietness, a life in which no one knew anything about her or talked about her,
, were the highest virtues she could hope to attain.
“Again, from the beginning.” Ms. Noof leaned down to push play on the tape recorder, lurching over the small machine like an elephant trying to scratch its toes. Hoisting herself up, she let her gaze fall on the group, scowling at each girl in turn.
From the tape deck came a screech of static. Then the song blared out of the speakers. Though she was trying hard to pay respectful attention, Wadjda couldn't help raising her eyebrows.
They have sound effects now?
She hid her smirk behind her hand.
I didn't think this could get any more dramatic!
Yet, even the movie sound track noise of distant medieval battleâthe thump of galloping hooves, the whinnying of horsesâcouldn't keep Wadjda focused. She was tired of following along with the rest of the class. Her eyes wandered again to the dusty red carpets laid out in front of the stage, traveled across the rows of empty wooden chairs scattered around the room.
They must have taken them from the science lab,
she thought. The faded green paint made her remember hours of experiments, back when her class had its turn with the lab. She wondered if she could find the chair into which she'd
carved her initials, and if the wood still smelled faintly of chemicals.
Two of the older girls entered the auditorium then, pulling Wadjda away from her daydreams. Fatin and Fatima were cool without trying to be. Whenever she saw them, a gigantic grin filled Wadjda's whole face. Fatin was sassy, always ready with a funny comeback or snarky remark. While Fatima seemed calm and quiet on the surface, underneath she was a true criminal mastermind. Her elaborate pranks were school legend, even if she never talked about themâor talked at all, really.
Once, Wadjda remembered, Fatima had taken a shoe from every one of the teachers while they were praying. She'd hidden them all over the playground, burying a sneaker in the sand and tucking some heels into the nooks and crannies of the dusty lot where the girls spent their free periods. When the teachers finally figured out what had happened, they had to go scrambling and dashing around the playground, digging in the sand like pirates on a treasure hunt. Though Fatima never admitted it, all the girls knew such a brilliant scheme was something only she could pull off.
Aside from the fun and laughter Fatima and Fatin provided, Wadjda liked the two older girls because they didn't comment on her messy hair, make fun of her unusual
clothes, or mock the buttons she collected and pinned to her schoolbag. Fatin had even bought one of the colorful bracelets Wadjda made and sold for spare money. It was a special bracelet, with a Justin Bieber charm on it.
Fatin and Fatima should have been in class, but todayâlike every dayâsomething more fun had apparently distracted them. Fatima hushed Fatin, giggling and poking her in the shoulder, as they slipped by the choir. Though Fatin carried a map and Fatima a globe, it seemed obvious that these were props, a way of pretending they had a reason to roam the school. In all likelihood, they were up to something.
Wadjda tried to get their attention, rippling her fingers in a little wave as she lip-synched the song. Fatin and Fatima gave her an ever-so-slight nod in return. A smile of satisfaction lit Wadjda's face. She turned, hoping the other girls in her row had noticed.
They had. But someone else had noticed, too.
And now Wadjda's teacher was scowling right at her.
With her hands on her hips and her brow crinkled in angry lines, Ms. Noof looked like a storm about to breakâright on top of Wadjda's head. Wadjda's heart skipped a beat. She couldn't get in trouble now: She hadn't learned the lyrics of the song by heart. What if Ms. Noof called
her out in front of her classmates? She didn't want to think about what would happen. Wadjda darted her eyes to the floor, tucking her hands into her uniform pockets and rocking back on her heels. To fake an innocent look, she made her eyes very wide as she sang.
It didn't work. Ms. Noof hit stop on the tape recorder. The song ground to a halt, cutting off a triumphant rattle of drums. The girls' voices trailed away into silence, and they looked up, seeking guidance.
“Wadjda! Step to the front, please.” Ms. Noof set her hand against her hip and gestured with one finger. Wadjda bit her lip and reluctantly dragged herself forward. As she passed through the front row, her high-top Chuck Taylors came into view. Wadjda's Chucks were no longer too new and black, nor were they too worn and holey. They had just the right beat-up gray color she'd hoped for during her countless hours running in the streets with Abdullah. The shade was highlighted by faded purple laces.
Among the other girls' black leather shoes, though, her high-tops didn't look so perfect. Wadjda closed her eyes and rubbed her sweaty palms against her sides. She wished she could hop offstage and sprint away to anywhere but where she was right now.
Noura, smiling the sweet and perfect smile of a sweet and perfect girl, bumped Wadjda's shoulder, hard, as she
took her place in the back row. Wincing, Wadjda gave Noura a lethal glare. Then, slowly, she turned to face Ms. Noof. Wadjda's eyes felt like lead weights, drawn to the floor by a powerful magnet. By the time she found the courage to raise them and meet her teacher's gaze, Ms. Noof had come close, towering over her. Wadjda knew there was no bigger sin than her lack of enthusiasm for the song. She would not be easily forgiven.
“Why don't you show us all your beautiful singing voice? Start with the first verse.” Wadjda could see the smirk in her eyes.
The rest of the girls giggled. A finger poked Wadjda hard in the back. Wadjda looked over her shoulder, trying to find the culprit, anger and embarrassment swirling through her. The feeling mixed itself up with the crystal-clear certainty that she was, yet again, a complete loser. Her face flushed, burning so hot and red she was sure her classmates could see. Stupid blush. Stupid song.
Again, Wadjda fixed her eyes on the floor. Again, she scuffed her feet back and forth. Determined, she opened her mouth, ready to singâbut no, down went her eyes, and her mouth clamped shut. The whole class was laughing at her. How could she sing?
“Well?” Now Ms. Noof was smirking openly. “If you don't want everyone to hear that
yoursÂ .Â .Â .” She trailed off and gestured with her head toward the door.
Wadjda left without speaking. In her absence, the group looked more unified, a perfectly matched set of neat, well-dressed girls. Ms. Noof smiled like a satisfied general inspecting her troops and finding them ready for action.
“All right, girls. Let's go over it again from the beginning!”
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
I can't believe I got kicked out of class. Again.
Wadjda's foot connected with a rock, sending it arcing through the air. It didn't hit anything, though. It just plunked back down in the dirt, sending up a cloud of dust.
Nine a.m. The day had only begun, but already the merciless sun burned down, sending its punishing rays right through Wadjda, who stood alone in the center of the courtyard. Shielding her eyes, she searched the horizon for relief. Not a cloud in the sky. Even her school's menacingly high fence didn't cast much shade, though it stretched up far above Wadjda's head. The sun had already positioned itself directly over the playground, and there was no relief from its scorching brightness.
As if things weren't bad enough, waves of heat poured from the back of the split-window AC, tooâstraight onto
Wadjda. Sweat sprang out all over her body. Sighing, shaking her loose clothes to move air across her skin, Wadjda paced the dusty ground, searching for shade. She'd been banished to this spot before. She'd also visited the principal's office enough times this year to know she had to tread lightly and mostly stay put. The last thing she wanted was for her mother to have to come to school for another meeting. She would do anythingâliterally, anythingâto keep that from happening.