Urban Transit: Cycling in Iraq
Bought her yesterday at Qaysari Bazaar for 90 000 ID (about 80 USD). I must tell you it was a bit of a harrowing experience cycling in the city, especially as a woman. I was walking with Michael, a fellow colleague who is very knowledgeable about bicycles in the area. Also it is not advisable for a woman to go to the bazaar alone so I felt better going with him being male as well. I can tell you that I got vehemently stared at when we walked through the bazaar with our bicycles – people and cars even stopping dead in their tracks. I did not seem to mind as I usually do get stared at as a foreigner when walking in the road. This was not until an elderly Kurdish man dressed in his traditional garb immediately stopped as I walked past. I then overheard him speak in a heavy pitched and racy tone in Kurdish to the point where he was yelling out. Though I cannot fully understand Kurdish or Arabic as yet, I clearly know what ‘Haraam’ means (something is immoral or forbidden in Arabic) and he mentioned it twice.
I understand that the locals here have never seen a woman on a bicycle and even though attitudes have changed over the years in these parts – seeing a woman on a bicycle is not one of them. I find it strange that women are allowed to drive a car, but heads turn once they are on a bicycle. If I had I done this in other parts of Iraq I would have been thrown off my bicycle and threatened or shot. What I’m saying is that there is still a greater degree of freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan. Let me also add that the people here are generally quite friendly and hospitable and I’ve received a great deal of support from my fellow colleagues regarding my cycling activities. All the while the rest of the city may be rather baffled that I’m on a bicycle.
I nervously cycled back home due to the fact that my lights were not working and that wearing darker clothing just made it even more dangerous.I must also mention that some streets in the neighbourhoods are in complete darkness (with potholes!) at night so I would stop my bike now and then out of sheer trepidation, fearing that a car would knock me eventually. I have good reason to fear the motorists because driving here is downright dangerous and accidents abound due to exceeding recklessness. Like many cities, there are no designated cycling lanes in the city and neither are there visibly painted lanes and signs on the roads for all vehicles. (And, if you must know, car insurance does not exist here).
Surprisingly, I found motorists to be mindful of cyclists. Every time cars hooted from behind was to alert me that they do in fact see me, and it is also considered a form of greeting. Michael told me that they would have shouted at me if there was any transgression and this very rarely occurs in traffic (unlike the road rage in South Africa). The upside of owning a bicycle here is that I need not worry about having it stolen, so there is no chain or lock required every time I park my bike. It is generally very safe as far as crime and security is concerned and the Peshmerga (Kurdish army) and police guards are present in most places.
There is another interesting position on cycling here – it is generally assumed that if you own a bicycle, your social status automatically gets determined too. That is, you are considered to be poor and therefore unable to afford a car if you are riding a bicycle. It is not seen as a recreational activity or means to live an active, healthy or sustainable lifestyle.
Despite the half-traumatising turn of events this week, I am finding my time and journey here most insightful and I am learning something new everyday. And because of this, I feel so much more alive and proud to be different.