Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Bicycle and The Muslim Girl

The film Wadjda, directed by the Saudi female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, had a simple premise: it’s the story of an eleven year old Saudi girl who wants a green bicycle. It couldn’t get any simpler than that. Yet, this film moved me like no other ever had, and the reason was simple: I could relate.

I, too, grew up in a Muslim country. I, too, wanted a bicycle my entire life. Now in my thirties, I am deeply ashamed of the fact that I don’t know how to ride a bicycle, and wonder how many other adults in America can relate. I had a tricycle when I was a small child, the kind that you ride with your feet touching the ground. Once ready to upgrade into a big-girl two-wheel version, I was given excuses instead of answers: what do you need it for? Walking is better for you anyway. Here is a girly doll instead, as tall as you, look how pretty! I was never given the reason as to why I couldn’t have a bicycle.

One day, when I was in high school, I did an informal survey among my classmates to see how many of them knew how to ride a bicycle: out of thirty three girls, only two knew how! One who had lost her dad (read: no male authority figure) at a young age, and one whose mother was European (read: open minded). The rest of us would have been clueless had we found ourselves in a dangerous situation and our only means of getting away was a bicycle. Granted, I am referring to a scene from a movie I have seen, but still, what if?

I think riding a bike – an adult size one – is a skill that everyone should have by the time they’re an adult, not only because of the possibility of the scenario above actually happening, but for the freedom that I imagine only a bicycle could offer, and of course for the health benefits. I get so jealous when I see someone riding a bike. I see it as a privilege that most people take for granted, while billions of Muslim girls around the world have to fight – and lose for the most part – to get a bike.

You’re probably wondering why. Why are these Muslim girls not allowed to ride bicycles? Here is the story that I was told later by female friends: the myth in some Muslim countries is that riding a bike will break the hymen. The precious virginity would be lost. The girl would be labeled impure. If you know anything about Muslim cultures, then you know how precious virginity is to these girls’ male relatives.

It is true? Does riding a bicycle break the hymen? No, of course not! Some of the men in these Muslim countries just don’t want us to have any freedom. Riding a bicycle would mean freedom; it would mean girl meets world. It would mean that her innocent eyes would get to see what’s happening beyond the walls of her golden cage. It would mean mixing with men. And who knows what else the girl will ask for when she grows up: cigarettes, alcohol, birth control pills? The risks are simply too high for some of these men to take.

I am being sarcastic. Well, sort of.

In recent years, I have asked my father about not having a bicycle growing up. I wanted to know his reasons for denying me something that’s so basic when he gave me so much. He promised that he doesn’t remember anything about it. My father had to raise a lot of children and was the sole bread winner, so I do believe that he didn’t mean to deprive me of that privilege. He was also into cycling; we’re talking high tech bikes, proper gear and many competitions, and he was an orphan who was raised by an open-minded European Catholic man, so I chose to believe that it was an unfortunate oversight. I did forgive him. He’s an amazing father, but I do tease him about it every chance I get.

Recently, a friend of mine visited me at home and saw that I have a bicycle. She also saw a helmet and some elbow and knee pads sitting right by it. A couple of days later, she offered to teach me how to ride, stating that her daughter would love to learn with someone else.

Her daughter is ten years old.

I politely declined.

But make no mistake: I will learn how to ride a bicycle if it’s the last thing I do. I have tried the cigarettes, alcohol and birth control pills already.


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Fleeing the Casbah

      Blisters were forming on her heels from the tight shoes. Droplets of sweat covered her forehead as she ran faster and faster through the narrow streets of her neighborhood. It was after midnight when she left home, and as she made it farther and farther away, a sense of calm settled over her.

      Meriem was free. At last.

      It was one of those starry nights that could only be witnessed in Casablanca. The Atlantic Ocean roared with pride and its balmy June breeze caressed Meriem’s cheeks as she made her way through the dirty pavement of the slum, her small body moving gracefully, her long dark hair flowing carelessly.

     The teenager continued running until she reached an abandoned shack and decided to rest a bit. He hadn’t woken up when she opened the old door to leave, and chances are he wouldn’t figure out she was missing until morning. I’ll be far away by then, she reasoned cautiously.

      In her coat pocket rested a crumpled candy bar, Mars, her favorite. Happy Birthday, thought the sixteen year old to herself. She opened the treat and chewed on it, slowly, fully aware of the beating her face had taken earlier that evening.  He came home drunk and put his full force behind a punch that her cheeks succumbed to. Where is dinner, you whore? He questioned before throwing the second punch. She spit a tooth out and got up to make dinner. Beans and rice, again.

      Meriem’s life was a series of nightmares that she could never wake up from.

      She could have made dinner to avoid the commotion. She could have done her best to avoid rattling him, to avoid getting what was left of her body beaten. She could have gone with the flow and done what he expected of her as usual.

      But not today. She’d finally had enough.

      She got up after finishing her candy bar and looked cautiously outside the abandoned shack. Not a sound. Not a soul. An old light flickered at the corner of the dilapidated street, where one old shack after another lined up in a semblance of an order, housing large families who had more will to live than an actual life.

      Poverty reigned in her neighborhood.

      As she left her hiding place, the zing from the chocolate bar kicked in. She removed her tight shoes and continued running in the opposite direction from her home, never-mind the dirt and shards of broken glass that dug into her flesh. Pain? What’s pain? How can you know pain if you don’t know joy? she often wondered. He was supposed to be my joy, my escape from the pain. Her mind wandered as she continued her brave escape.

     They had met at a movie theater. She was fourteen and he was thirty, an entrepreneur, he gave her to believe. He took her out to dinner at a restaurant she’d only heard about, in an actual building with running water and working electricity, on the other side of town. Her long hair was braided and as she chewed her food, he played with her braid. He told her about his many travels and expanding wealth and how all he needed was a good girl to marry. She didn’t mind the age difference; everyone is doing it, she reasoned. She didn’t mind the idea of marrying a rich man and getting out of Shackville.

      It’s what happened after dinner that she minded. Very much.

      Meriem’s heart sank as she remembered the scene. His yanking her braid. A car door opening. His genitals violating her innocent body. Blood and semen and tears tainting the beautiful pale rose dress she’d borrowed for the occasion. Screams. Moans. More tears. Slaps and punches and kicks. A mix of feelings she didn’t know what to make of.

      She stopped to catch her breath. The evil bastard, she thought.

      And as if being victimized by him wasn’t enough, it wasn’t even the worst of it.

      The police caught up with him and arrested him. Her family, full of shame but too proud to let him get away with it, pressed charges. A court date was set a year later, and people gathered to watch the drama unfold. She sat quietly as she expected the monster to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, until his lawyer opened his mouth and raped her. One more time.

      The legal lingo was a blur this much time later. The headlines danced vaguely in her memory. Moroccan penal code. Rapist marries victim to avoid prison. A judge who went along with it all. No, this can’t be happening to me, she thought in court as she shook her head, her hand covering her mouth, suppressing a scream. No, throw him in prison, don’t ask him to marry me, he is evil. The decision was made for her. The judge was convinced by the slick attorney. The gavel hit the sounding block and her own life sentence began.

      She was to marry her rapist and he was to avoid prison altogether.

      She fell to the ground as she choked on her tears. The memory was too much still, even a year later.

      No white dress for her wedding. No happy ululations from her friends. No roasted chickens or almond stuffed dates with goat milk. Her wedding looked like a funeral. The men blamed her for making him rape her and the women mourned the pain of an unjust sentence awaiting her.

      Her life was over.

      As her breath steadied and her heart rate slowed, she continued her self-imposed marathon in the dark streets of Shackville, fighting the tears that clouded her big brown eyes in spite of her. Soon she found herself in the leafy calm of wealthy homes, in the Casablanca she only dreamed about. She often wondered why poor neighborhoods in her city were so close to rich ones; why was it that from the backyards of the penniless they glimpsed a constant reminder of the life they were missing out on. Her tiny feet bled as the rocks and gravel dug at them, but she didn’t care. She was free. She no longer had to succumb to the life of servitude and humiliation she had been sentenced to.

      The past year was a daily reminder of her misfortune. The monster she’d married had no money; in fact, he was a resident of the same slum she lived in with her parents and five siblings. He’d been watching her for a while and cooked up his little plan after a friend of his did the same thing to another girl. The monster moved her into his lowly abode and proceeded to rape her, beat her, insult her and blame her for his lack of success in life. No amount of pleading helped her case as he rejoiced in her sorrow. On the day of her sixteenth birthday, she was to put her plan into action.

      So far, it was working.

      Meriem ran past the local souk and didn’t even flinch at the smell of day-old sardines. She headed toward the neighboring villas, passing the walls of the old Casbah, the walls that kept the old medina and its destitute residents away from the rest of Casablanca. As she made it past a few villas, her sense of calm returned and she felt freedom welcoming her. Palm trees lined the streets in perfect order and the smell of freshly cut grass permeated the air. No destiny from here on could be worse than the one she had escaped, she told herself. As she stooped to take a rest, sitting on a rock behind the walls of a fancy residence, she fantasized about what her life could become, while playing with a rip in her old jeans. Maybe joy was not just a dream after all; the folks in neighboring villas could certainly attest to that. Maybe her slice of Happy Pie was still awaiting her. Maybe …

      “MERIEM … MERIEM!” she heard him bark.

      It was him. Definitely him. And he was on her trail.

      She got up and continued running.

. . .

      She stood in her dorm room looking out of the small window. Lake Erie caressed the shore gently and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sparkled like a rare jewel in this clear-skied autumn day. Carefully examining her brand new Levis and clean Converse, she couldn’t believe her luck. A college student at last! And in the United States of all places! And to think that just four years ago, things were so different …

     Four years ago to the day, she was running in the narrow streets of the slum of her childhood, fleeing her rapist-turned-husband. As he closed the gap, Meriem ran faster and faster, taking shelter in the backyard of a villa where the gate had been left ajar. Quietly, she crept up to the front door and knocked, and the owner, a retired journalist, let her in and listened to her story, while she took turns crying and talking and crying some more. He insisted she stay with him and his wife, and within weeks, the foreign media were aware of her condition.

      And look at her now! A high school diploma that she fought so hard to get, a long list of supporters around the world who cheered her on, and a scholarship to an American university thanks to years of hard work, English classes and perfect grades.

      Meriem met his eyes as soon as she entered the cafeteria. Andrew, thick blond hair and dimples, had already interviewed her for the school paper and taken an interest in her story. He said hello to her and she went and sat next to him, feeling her blood rise to her cheeks with lightning speed. Their conversation flowed naturally, as usual.

      “You never told me,” he asked, “what happened to … him?” a bit more hesitantly.

      She didn’t want to think about him. She swallowed hard and answered.

     “He died. He ended up in prison and was beaten to death.”

      “I can’t say I am sorry,” Andrew countered. He had such honesty about him, such ease. Meriem felt safe by his side. He made her want to forget about her past, about the pain and suffering.

      “I got you something,” he declared, pulling a couple of Mars bars from his pocket. “Happy Birthday, Meriem,” he said cheerfully.

      Eyes misty, she took one of the chocolate bars in her hand and smiled. “Thank you, Andrew; you remembered!”

      “Of course I did. You are all I think about.” His dark blue eyes spoke a universal language. “Can I take you out to dinner to celebrate? Cleveland is even more beautiful at night.”

      She leaned in and gently kissed his cheek, her long dark hair brushing against his arm. “I thought you’d never ask.”

      They walked out of the cafeteria hand in hand, her heart dancing, her mind dreaming of a white dress and almond stuffed dates.

In Memory Of Amina Filali, who left our world way too soon.

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