In Spring 2007 I cycled through the Middle East.
In beautiful Damascus I wandered the catacomb markets and haggled for jewelery while the trader brought me mint tea and fresh-baked flatbread from a neighbour’s kitchen. I travelled up to Maaloula where I heard the lord’s prayer in Aramaic. I stargazed from a field outside Bethlehem, and convoyed through Beirut flanked by motorbike outriders.
Looking back from 2017 I realise how fragile, fleeting and unrealistic the peace and optimism really were, if they existed at all.
A crowd of women makes quite a bit of noise anywhere in the world. Put the women on bikes, put them in the Middle East, give them a powerful message, and the crowd creates quite a bit of attention too. This crowd was collectively Follow The Women. In April 2007 I joined them in Syria to cycle through the Levant countries to Palestine’s West Bank.
Follow The Women is a movement established to promote peace in the Middle East, show solidarity with Middle Eastern countries and raise awareness of the region’s volatility and how it affects the lives of women and children caught up in conflict. Most of all, FTW’s aim is for a more peaceful, stable future for the people there.
The participants were young and old; from all walks of life; from Iran and America, Syria and Spain, Palestine and Portugal – in all 25 countries were represented; some teams were as many as 17, some countries had a team of one; most of the participants had never met before. For some of us this trip was a straightforward thing to do, for others the personal courage it took was inspiring.
Cycling for Arab women is frowned upon in many circles of their society, so put this on a pair of legs that have probably only ridden a bicycle in the weeks preceding the event, and the significance of FTW is really put into perspective.
Arriving at Damascus airport I felt like I sucked down a packet of Marlboro in passive smoking before we caught a connecting flight to Aleppo where we spent our first night. Not for us the Franciscan monastery of the itinerary, we were staying in careworn university halls. The next few days set the tone for the whole journey: a muster time of 7.30am is more likely to be 10.00am; banish all thoughts of setting off on time and ignore the itinerary. Learn patience; learn to wait; expect the unexpected. With this mantra in place the UK team was equipped for the rest of the journey.
On the first day of cycling it was easy to spot the participants who had barely been on a bicycle before. They wobbled, they braked irrationally and occasionally flew over their handlebars; they veered erratically and without warning, unintentionally took out anyone in their path and caused catastrophe behind them. You quickly learnt to avoid the wobblers at all costs: not a very friendly strategy but essential for personal well-being. They were lethal; you couldn’t help but love them.
Syria’s First Lady Asma al Assad joined us for a day in the saddle; then into Lebanon and lunch in the Hariri Palace in Beirut; in Jordan a truly moving cycle ended on Mount Nebo and as we rounded the final mountain bend Moses’ Promised Land gradually appeared with its arid ridges disappearing into the hazy distance; in Palestine we stood in beautiful darkness in Bethlehem’s Beit Sahour – Shepherd’s Field – with a clear starry night above and for that moment all was peace.
Throughout the journey we were greeted in villages and towns by locals and dignitaries who lined the roads, gave out flowers as we passed by, and waved and cheered in welcome, and who had put on food, fanfare welcomes, speeches, and more food. Despite the echo of current conflict these welcomes were not serious or gloomy, they were hopeful and joyous.
I often felt like a bit of a fraud at these welcomes because the combination of over-zealous sponsors keen for publicity, over-optimistic co-ordinators, and absurd waits at borders often resulted in the cycling being curtailed to just a few kilometres with coaches doing the rest.
The more I learnt, the less I understood as we travelled through the five countries. The politics are complicated enough with all the past and present conflict, suspicion and power struggle within the area; now there is the added international demonisation of the Arab world. As one of the Lebanese riders said, ‘We hate Al-Qaeda too. We are Arabs; we are not terrorists.’
At every border the authorities played out a mirthless psychological power game. The first border was Syria into Lebanon and took four hours to cross. All our passports were collected and taken away for scrutiny. Some were not in order – pointless to ask which ones. The clock ticked; we had to stay on the coaches, we were told. Other people are outside, we said. Okay, you can get off the coaches. There was nothing at this bleak coastal checkpoint except crashing waves and feral children haranguing the gun-toting soldiers.
Eventually the passports were returned and we piled back on the coaches. Then a guard with a vicious firearm boarded the coach and gave us, and our passports, another once over. We were finally free to move on. Variations of this scenario were performed each time we crossed a border, which we did six times, not counting the Israeli checkpoints scattered throughout Palestine.
The 150 cycles were provided by Beirut By Bike whose owner, Jawad, was committed, and patient, and unfazed by these vocal, exigent ladies as he and his crew flanked us on the rides through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. They fixed gears, ignored hissy fits and brought up the rear with a breakdown truck for any FTWs who fancied a lift instead.
Jawed seemed unperturbed to watch us stream away on his precious bikes towards the Israeli checkpoint at Allenby Bridge and into Palestine for our final few days. He didn’t accompany us because he is Lebanese Arab and not permitted into Palestine.
Israel controls all border crossings into Palestine and also controls the movement of Palestinians within Palestine. Bar a few exceptions, the Jordanian border was where we said goodbye to our Arab companions.
Farewell Naima, vivacious Beirut co-ordinator, lover of premiership football and studying an MA in aero-dynamics; adieu angry, passionate Algerians; auf Wiedersehen Iran, whose beautiful puppet show entertained us in a cold mountain youth hostel; goodbye hopelessly disorganised, exuberant Team Jordan. Yasser Arafat’s daughter Lena was one of the few Arab exceptions whose liberty to travel through the region was not curtailed. She strode through the Israeli checkpoint resplendent in her orange ‘dangerous’ t-shirt.
Once we got through the big Jordan – Israel check point and the Israeli guards allowed us to cycle into Jericho, our reception at the tatty yet grandly named Yasser Arafat Stadium was a marvellous, heady evening of tinny music, delicious food, impassioned speeches in broken English and frantic dancing (sitting out was not an option).
Here I met Marwa, a young Palestinian whose home is a camp just outside Jericho. She chatted about her daily situation, her school, her aspirations, but how water was the main problem because the supply was frequently cut off for days by Israel. When this happens they then have to buy water at inflated prices – from Israel.
Stories like Marwa’s made me wonder if anything could really change. With so much resentment, allegation and constant conflict, wasn’t it a bit ridiculous to think that a bunch of women on bikes could make a difference? Perhaps. But when you have cycled round a hillside bend in Syria to be welcomed by school children singing out from the grassy roadside, waving flags and bubbling with anticipation, you know that something about the journey was worthwhile.
I watched shy Palestinian women stand and give speeches, and saw the pride and empowerment this platform provided. For this moment they had the world watching and their voices were being heard. “It is our right to live with dignity and without suffering”.
The trip was not all hand-wringing, soul-searching and do-gooding. There was a lot of fun and laughing at our own short-comings, vanities, capricious needs, and the entertainment factor of getting 150 women of different languages through five countries complete with their luggage, bicycles, and paraphernalia: only a couple of bags got lost and miraculously no people.
This journey emphasised for me the immeasurable value of freedom. I am a London cyclist.
I pull on my cycle clothes every day and expect to bike somewhere unmonitored and unrestricted. I cannot begin to imagine being unable to do this: to travel unhindered around my homeland.
The wobblers careered wildly down hills and slopes and were gloriously unperturbed by the many spectacular accidents they caused along the way. When asked why they went so fast the reply was immediate: “because it feels like freedom”.