“Hey Flora, are doing something special for your birthday?”
Flora waits for a moment so that her friend Nawar can catch up with her on their way home from school.
“No, I don't have anything special planned; I don't expect any surprises either,” Flora replies. “My mom will probably prepare my favorite meal, and that's it. I didn't ask for any presents; I hope I’ll get some money.”
“But you're turning sixteen, aren't you?” Nawar says. “Doesn’t that call for a party?”
“The most important thing about turning sixteen is that it brings me closer to turning eighteen,” Flora answers. “As soon as I’m eighteen, I can do what I want.”
“And what’s that?” Nawar asks.
“I want to get out of here as soon as possible,” Flora replies.
“Seriously? Where to?”
“Anywhere, as long as it's far enough away from here.”
“But you’ll need money to do that,” Nawar says. “Lots of money!”
“I will also need money if I stay here,” says Flora. “If I have to work hard, I prefer working hard in a place where I also like to live.”
“Don't you like it here?” Nawar asks in surprise. “My whole family has been living in this neighborhood for four generations. I can’t imagine leaving my family behind.”
“Do you think your parents, brothers and sister really like living here?” Flora asks.
“I don't know. I’ve never asked myself that question. I think they do. I’ve never asked them either.”
“I've given it a lot of thought. If there’s one thing I know for sure,” says Flora, “it’s that I’m getting out of here as soon as I can.”
“That's courageous. I wouldn't dare engaging in such an adventure.”
“Your great-grandparents had the courage to do so.”
“That was different,” Nawar argues. “Those were different times.”
“What's the worst that could happen?” Flora asks.
Nawar needs a moment to think about her answer, but when it finally comes, she speaks from the heart: “I’d worry about the beautiful things that I would leave behind.”
Flora replies with a tad of mockery in her voice: “I'd be happy about the ugly things that I could leave behind.”
“You shouldn’t joke about such things.”
“I’m not kidding, though,” Flora says. “Look around you. There’s ugliness wherever you look. There’s garbage everywhere: on the street, on the sidewalks, on the squares. The rats have a better life than we do.”
Nawar looks around. She puts her hand on a wall and admits: “Rotten concrete showing the rust of reinforcing steel surfacing through the holes.”
Flora points up: “These buildings are degrading. If you don't pay attention, you risk being hit by stones falling down.”
Nawar squeezes her nose: “There's also the overwhelming odor of urine coming out of every corner you pass.”
Walking home, the girls make the inventory of the past glory of their neighborhood. Sadly, it's the type of neighborhood you'll find on the outskirts of every major city.
“Hey girls!” a group of boys yells from across the street. Flora and Nawar recognize most of them and they increase their pace.
“Why the hurry?” the toughest boy in the gang asks. He holds his hand over his mouth and sticks his tongue between his index and middle finger. “Let us give you a great time. We know you want it.”
Without granting him a look, Flora replies to his proposal with a raised middle finger.
“You dirty sluts!” the boy shouts back at her. "You should return to the country you come from!”
Nawar is scared, but Flora reassures her: “Don't look, Nawar. They won't come after us, those losers are big cowards. They are more afraid of us than we should be of them.”
“I’ll never understand such boys," Nawar says. “They provoke us with dirty talk, but when we ignore their obscenities, we are accused of being sluts.”
“Don't search for any logic,” Flora sighs. “They don’t know what they are saying.”
“And then that comment that we should return to where we came from,” Nawar continues. “I was born here. My mother was born here. My grandmother came here with her parents. I have no ‘other country’ to go back to.”
“You have deeper roots in this country than I do. I moved here with my parents when I was three years old,” Flora says, “but even so, I don’t care about what those bullies shout at me. They don’t know me and my family; they shouldn’t judge us.”
“And?” Nawar asks, “How was your birthday yesterday?”
“As predicted,” Flora replies. “My favorite menu and some cash.”
“Are you going to buy something nice with it?”
“I already know exactly what I'm going to do with that money.”
“You do?” Nawar says. “Please tell me! Are you going to buy clothes? A nice handbag?”
“There's no point in speculating,” Flora laughs. “You'll never guess.”
Nawar pouts: “Don't you want to tell me?”
“I could tell you, but it's easier if I show you.”
Flora pulls out a notebook with the word Wallflowers on the cover: “I'm going to make this place more beautiful.”
She shows her friend a series of photos and sketches of the neighborhood.
“This is the bus stop on block D. Behind it, there's a wall of three meters high and five meters wide,” she says. “I made this design to go there.”
Flora shows Nawar a drawing of a colorful flower field in a sea of green under a blue sky.
“I don't get it,” Nawar says. “What’s your intention with this?”
“I'm going to buy cans of spray paint in different colors, and I'm going to put this design on that wall.”
“Are you going to paint graffiti?” Nawar asks. “Is that even allowed?”
“Probably not, but who’ll stop us?”
“Er… The police?”
“The police don’t come here very often, and when they come it's always at very specific times. I’ve made a schedule that shows when they're not around.”
“What if you get caught anyway?”
“I'll make sure I'm quicker than the police, and if they catch me anyway, I’ll play the innocent girl. I can always argue that it’s an art project, like something Banksy would do. I’d keep repeating that I’m making the neighborhood prettier, not uglier.”
Flora shows another sketch: “This location also needs urgent work. This is where I'm going to start.”
Nawar agrees with her friend: “Yeah, that's a public dump right now.”
“Everyone complains about it, but no one does anything to change it. Look, I’ve made this design for the wall, once all the garbage is gone.”
Flora points at a drawing representing a heart of flowers.
“That's wonderful!” Nawar says.
Nawar browses through Flora's documentation; she recognizes several places nearby. Flora has designed a unique flower scene for every nook and cranny.
“Can I help with your project?” Nawar asks.
“I was hoping you'd ask,” Flora laughs. “I'm going to buy paint tonight. I’ll start at the garage of block C tomorrow after lunch. Bring a brush, a bucket and other cleaning supplies. I'll take care of the rest.”
The next morning Flora and Nawar fill five large garbage bags with junk. They dump the garbage in the waste containers of the nearest apartment block. Passers-by and residents watch the girls with curiosity and silent approval, but no one lifts a single finger to help them.
When the garbage is gone, the girls scrub the sidewalk in front of the wall that will be their canvas. When that’s done, Flora fetches a roll of painter's tape and some large pieces of cardboard from her apartment.
“These are my patterns,” Flora says. “They make it easier for us to paint the drawing on the wall. I’ve already experimented with them on the roof of our apartment block.”
Flora and Nawar amaze the growing group of bystanders by conjuring a bouquet of flowers in the shape of a heart up on the wall. When the painting is done, they get a round of applause. Both girls take a step back and admire the result. It exceeds their expectations. The neighbors crowd together to take a selfie with the girls.
“This was a blast!” Nawar says on their way back to their apartment block. “Tomorrow again?”
“Sure!” Flora laughs.
“Where do we meet tomorrow?” Nawar asks, as they wait in front of the elevator.
“You don't meet anywhere!” says a voice coming from the unlit stairwell.
“Is that your brother?” Flora asks.
“Yes, that's her brother,” says another voice.
Five boys emerge from the dark. They have been waiting for the girls.
“Can you explain what this is about?” Nawar's brother asks.
He shows his sister a photo on his phone. It's a selfie posted on Facebook by a neighbor with Flora and Nawar in front of their mural.
“That's Flora's project, Driss,” Nawar answers.
“Flora is a slut," Driss says. "She doesn't even wear a headscarf. I don't want you to hang out with her.”
“Nawar is old enough to decide for herself whom she hangs out with,” Flora defends her friend.
“Nawar doesn’t get to choose," Driss threatens. “And neither do you!”
“Nawar is your sister,” Flora shouts. “Show a little respect for her.”
“Respect?” Driss shouts back. “You don't know what respect is!”
“Driss, leave her be,” Nawar tries to calm down her brother. “Flora is my best friend.”
“We are Muslims, Nawar,” Driss silences his sister. “How can a girl who doesn't respect our faith be a friend of yours?”
“That’s bullshit!” Flora says. “I may not be a Muslim myself, but I respect Nawar and her faith."
“You see,” Driss shouts. “She says it's bullshit. How can you be friend with someone who uses language like that?”
“That's not what she meant,” Nawar says. “Moreover, you yourself use language like that every day!”
“That’s not the same," Driss replies. " She's an infidel. We Muslims don't associate with Kafirs. That bitch is worth less than a dog."
“Religion is a beautiful story that is all too often misrepresented,” Flora mumbles, but Driss doesn't care about Flora's wisdom.
“Tfoe!” Driss spits at her. “You’re not worthy that I go on speaking with you.”
The elevator door slides open and Driss grabs his younger sister.
“I'm taking my sister home,” he tells his four friends. “You deal with that piece of shit.”
“Leave us be!” Nawar cries.
She struggles, but she can't stop her brother from dragging her into the elevator while his friends grab Flora.
“How do you feel?” Nawar asks.
“Like I've been run over by a truck and every bone in my body is broken.”
A pump starts to beep next to the hospital bed. A nurse comes in to replace Flora's IV.
“I'm sorry about my brother and his friends.”
“Don’t blame yourself. You couldn't do anything about it,” says Flora.
“My brother only had to stay in the police station for one night. My mother picked him up this morning. She gave him a tongue-lashing, but I don't know if she got through to him.”
“Your brother is just a jerk.”
“He hasn't always been like that,” Nawar says. “He came under the influence of some really bad friends. I hardly recognize him since he claims to be a follower of what he calls the ‘True Faith’.”
“I hardly recognized myself when I looked in the mirror this morning,” Flora jokes to remove some of the tension in the hospital room.
Nawar laughs, but immediately feels guilty about it: “I shouldn't be laughing at that.”
“But you should,” says Flora. “It would be a shame if you lost your sense of humor over this.”
“Still, it’s not funny. My mother hates what my brother did, but my father is quite indifferent about it. He was so happy with his son’s sudden interest in faith. He says you may have provoked the fight. My mother and father argued all night.”
“What can I say?” says Flora. She doesn’t have a joke ready to laugh away what Nawar just said.
“I don't know either,” Nawar replies.
After an annoying silence, Nawar finally asks, “How long do you think you'll have to stay in the hospital?”
“The doctors say it may take two to three weeks before I can return home.”
“I'll come visit you every day!” Nawar promises.
Wednesday, two and a half weeks later
“Hello, here we are!” Nawar says cheerfully when she enters the room together with Flora's mother, Chalina.
“Are you coming to take Flora home?” the nurse in Flora’s room asks. “I see you brought crutches. That’s great! I'm going to get the discharge form and a wheelchair so that you can take Flora outside.”
After handling the formalities, Nawar pushes her friend through the long corridors of the hospital. Flora gets out of the wheelchair at the exit. She leans on her crutches and she carefully walks to the bus stop together with Nawar and her mother.
“We have a big surprise waiting for you at home," Nawar says as they wait for the bus.
“Don’t tell her too much already, Nawar,” Chalina warns. "You’ll spoil the surprise."
"You'll be amazed,” Nawar says as they get on the bus.
“I think it's best if Flora can sit at the window,” Chalina says.
“But of course!” Nawar says. “Otherwise she won't see a thing.”
Flora is curious, but even more happy that she's finally heading home. And then the bus enters her neighborhood.
Flora can’t believe her eyes.
“What is that?” she asks in amazement.
The wall of the school has changed into a flowery jungle.
“That's my design! And there! That is also one of my designs.”
Wherever Flora looks, the neighborhood has been transformed into a festival of flowers.
“Warda, Nawar's mother, came to visit me the day after you got into the hospital,” Flora’s mother explains. “Nawar told her about your Wallflowers notebook. Warda asked if I thought it would be a good idea to work on your project together.”
“My mom and your mom went to the city council asking if they could brighten up the neighborhood,” Nawar explains.
“The city was charmed by the initiative and assigned a budget to buy more material,” Chalina continues. “The whole neighborhood helped.”
“Even my father lent a hand,” Nawar proudly says. “His argument with my mother has been settled. He understands now.”
As the bus loops through the neighborhood, Flora discovers one mural after another. What was once the ugliest neighborhood in the city, is now a landmark.
“It's beautiful!” Flora says when they reach the stop in front of their building.
“It's a miracle,” says Nawar.
“I'm speechless,” says Flora. “I almost don't believe my eyes.”
“But there’s more! Can we drive a little further, ma'am?” Nawar asks.
“Of course you can,” Chalina answers. “Get off three stops further down the road, and then just take the bus back in the other direction.”
Flora's mother leaves the bus; the girls remain seated for a while.
“If this were a movie,” Nawar whispers, “we’d see the actresses playing our part driving the bus past your wallflowers while an off-screen voice says: ‘Flora left for Paris at the age of eighteen to study art. Then she went to New York where her work was exhibited in the finest galleries.’”
Flora laughs and immediately grimaces trying to hide a shot of pain: “Life is not a fairytale, Nawar. In reality, that voice will probably say: ‘A few years later, Flora would again be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The day after her eighteenth birthday, she was killed by a stray bullet in a fight between the police and a youth gang terrorizing the neighborhood.’”
“What a dark thought,” Nawar complains. “Don’t you like my ending more?”
“I do, but the way your story ends is very improbable for girls like you and me.”
“Yet I think we should keep on dreaming!” Nawar says.
“What if those dreams turn out to be nothing but deception?” Flora asks.
“So what?” Nawar replies. “What are we without our dreams? Trying to reach the impossible might be the most important reason why we go on living our lives.”
“Or why we die trying,” Flora adds.
The future will tell which voice-over has it right, and whether the end of this story remains a fairy tale or becomes a reality.
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