In Syria, it has taken a war to get people on their bikes.
Since the crisis, it’s become more common to see cyclists on Syria’s streets. The reasons are many, but power outages and the high cost of fuel have made bikes a more attractive mode of transport. Students, government employees and teachers have all become regular cyclists –women, too, which was rare before the revolution.
Faddel Saadoun, a 48-year-old bicycle seller in the city of al-Qamishli in eastern Syria, explains that people used to look on bicycles with some disdain, and saw cars as the ultimate status symbol:
“This is not Europe. Europeans use bicycles even if they have their own cars, but here in the Middle East having a car is everybody’s dream. I believe that as soon as the war ends, people will go back to using cars.”
One crucial advantage bicycles have over cars in Syria’s trouble-torn cities is that they can be used to avoid the many checkpoints, which can be dangerous, as well as time-consuming.
“I have a shop in the al-Bahsa area. Before the crisis, it took me about 10 minutes in the car or about 15 minutes by bus from my home to my work,” explains Lund, 32, a computer engineer from Rukn al-Din.
“The situation started to change from the end of 2011, and there were more and more checkpoints between my neighborhood and downtown. There were also abductions at checkpoints. Plus, there were constant increases in fuel prices. For all these problems, the only available solution was the bicycle.”
Some Syrians are abandoning four wheels in favour of two as a political statement as well as from necessity. Abu Mahmoud, 42, a taxi driver from the al-Joura district of Deir Ezzor, says:
“The siege imposed by the regime on Deir Ezzor, and the destruction of most of the bridges that used to connect the city with the countryside, has forced a new lifestyle on people in all respects, even with regard to food, because most people now depend on the free restaurants, which used to be run by the local council and are now currently run by ISIS.
“Taxis are no longer needed, because nobody needs a ride nowadays, what with shells falling most of the time on besieged areas as well as the scarcity of regular fuel and the spread of poorly refined fuels that damage cars. For me, using a bicycle is part of our resistance and solidarity and is proof that we are still committed to the revolution. I remember watching this video of the former Cuban president Fidel Castro defying the United States, defying the siege and the sanctions, and riding bicycles!”
For girls and women, riding a bicycle would have been unthinkable in many parts of Syria in the past. Now, however, things have started to change. As Abu Mahmoud explains:
“In some areas, an initiative was launched to use bicycles as a symbol of liberty. This is similar to what happened in the north of Syria, in Amouda, an area populated mostly by Kurds. The plan was launched to spread the use of bicycles among women, to abolish the idea that riding bikes is only for men. The initiative aimed to encourage girls to ride bicycles to school and other places, to have a group of girls on their bicycles in most streets of the city, and the initiative is still going on.”
Nisreen Jwan Abdul Karim, 16, a first-grade high school student, says, “The aim of this initiative is to assure women’s right to ride bicycles, and to abolish the idea that riding a bike is a disgraceful thing for a girl while it’s completely OK for guys. “Many of us walk long distances to get to school while the guys simply ride their bikes, so … we joined the initiative, especially after threats in most areas of Syria from Islamists who enforce a lot of restrictions on women.
“As a student, I don’t favor carrying weapons, but seeing these videos and pictures of those female fighters in Kobani, where it’s mostly Kurds, this pushed me to cling more to my rights, and this initiative was a tool of protest and defiance while maintaining civil order. The initiative is not over yet – it is ongoing and we have ever-more new participants so our numbers are gradually increasing.”
Lazkin Khalaf, 27, from Amouda, told Syria Deeply, “The traditions of the people in the city say that women must not ride bicycles or horses. The argument is that this kind of activity could cause a girl to lose her virginity, which is considered to be very disgraceful and dishonorable. I believe this is the main reason preventing women from riding bikes, and the initiative was launched to stand up to these ideas. For me, this matter is one of the simplest human rights, whether it’s a guy or a girl.
“Most of the people using bicycles are from the poor or middle classes, and engineers, doctors, even pharmacists, unfortunately feel embarrassed to ride bicycles. They find it shameful with regard of their social position, but I consider this to display great ignorance. In developed countries, even prime ministers ride bicycles, but here in these areas the social class mentality still controls a big percentage of people.”
The dire economic situation faced by most Syrians today means they often have few options, whatever their class, if they want to move around. Taxis are a luxury most can no longer afford. A cab journey that once cost 5 Syrian pounds (SYP) – around 3 cents – now costs ten times that.
So bicycles are often a godsend. Not only do they require nothing more than leg-power and stamina to get them going, they cost less and are cheaper to maintain than a car. But they are becoming an increasingly valuable commodity. As the bicycle seller Faddel Saadoun says:
“Bicycle prices have tripled since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. A bicycle made in China, which is the best quality available, used to cost 2,500 SYP (just over $10), while the same bicycle costs 7,500 SYP (around $35) today. Because of the high prices, we switched to bicycles made in India. They are cheaper, but they are not such good quality. We also sell bicycles that are built locally out of parts made in Thailand. The parts are put together in the city of Aleppo, and shipments usually take a few days to get to us in al-Qamishli.
“Before the revolution, our business was limited to selling kids’ bicycles during the summer time. Students were the only others who rode bicycles. In July 2011, the government provided a scholarship of 2,000 SYP to students. In that week alone, I sold 250 bikes.
“These days, I sell about 22 bicycles every month. This is almost as many as I used to sell in a whole summer season before the revolution.”
But it’s not only in Syria that bicycles have provided a lifeline. They have been used to mobilise people coping with the war in Iraq – something that also supplied Faddel’s business with a welcome boost:
“In 2003, after the war in Iraq, business was booming. The lack of fuel and the proliferation of military checkpoints forced people to use bicycles in Iraq.
“I started to export bicycles there. I bought bicycle parts from Aleppo, put them together in Hassakeh, then shipped the bicycles to Iraq. But in 2007, armed groups in Iraq seized a number of my trucks. I tried to export some other items but two more of my trucks were seized. On top of the security situation, most of the Iraqi merchants started to import what they needed directly from China. Business was very bad then and I lost all that I had saved in 10 years.
“Since the beginning of 2013, there has been an acute shortage of electricity and fuel in Syria. Even those who own cars switched to using bicycles and, of course, my business recovered. Today I own a big warehouse, a wholesale distribution center and two retail stores for fixing and selling bicycles.
“War has had a huge impact on our business, considering what happened in both Iraq and Syria, but I also believe that this boom in business is temporary. Today, many Iraqis don’t use bicycles anymore.”
Whether the same thing happens in Syria, only time will tell.