BAGHDAD BY BIKE: Iraqis Tackle the Pandemic Two Wheels At a Time

This is the year of the bicycle in Iraq – and it’s all thanks to the coronavirus.

By Mustafa Habib

Previously only young Iraqi children rode bicycles – it was seen as a toy and a nice game. Once Iraqis get a little older, they stop riding bikes; it’s not seen as an adult pastime. But this has now changed dramatically. The trend for cycling is a significant development in Iraq so far this year.

The Covid-19 lockdown in Iraq involved a curfew and a travel ban. Even now, there are still three days of total curfew a week – Thursday, Friday and Saturday – with a partial curfew for the rest of the week.

But Iraqis, who have lived through authoritarian governments, wars and all manner of security restrictions, have become adept at breaking the rules in a cunning way – and this is where bicycles come into it. They are one of the ways to move around the city, despite the curfew.

“I wasn’t keen to ride a bicycle,” says Ammar Sahib, a 34-year-old local of Baghdad’s Al Bayaa neighbourhood. “The last time I used one was when I was a teenager. But I decided to buy one because I could cross dozens of security checkpoints without once being stopped by the security forces.”

“The officers allow people on bikes to cross because they assume that the cyclists are residents,” he explains. “But in reality, some of them are coming from much further away.”

And somehow they have a friendlier attitude to bikers. Sahib says that recently a policeman stopped him on his bike and told him he knew that he was not from the area. “But he let me go ahead anyway,” Sahib said.

Another reason why cycling has become more popular is because it can replace other kinds of sport. Since gyms are closed and no team sports can be practised, young men are turning to cycling to keep fit.

Many young Iraqis dream of owning their own cars – a motor vehicle is both aspirational and an integral part of family life in Iraq, and in fact, the rest of the Middle East. Often the attitude is, in this heat, only poor people would walk (or cycle). But now many locals have parked their cars and switched to cycling.

Bicycle sellers told Al Menassa that their markets have become more popular than ever during the pandemic. Iraqi bicycle sellers may well be one of the winners of this global health crisis.

Business has boomed over the past four months, says Mohsen Abdel Karim, who has owned a bicycle repair and sales store in the Sadriya district for many years.

“This is an unprecedented year for bicycles in Iraq,” Karim said. “Last year, I might have sold five bicycles a week. Now I sell five bicycles a day. And cycling accessories have also become very popular.”

Karim’s bikes range in price from US$50 to US$3,000. “We also have the latest European and American brands and there is high demand for these kinds of bicycles among wealthy younger Iraqis,” he explains.

Over past years, young civil society activists in Baghdad have tried to encourage more people to cycle. Three years ago, they even established a cycling club, named Baghdad Bikers, which was officially recognised as a sports club by the government. But they were never really all that successful in attracting a larger following.

“What we achieved in many years, the coronavirus achieved in just a few months,” exclaims Majid Sayeed, a member of the cycling club. “Finally, bicycles have become more popular with Iraqis and I only hope the situation will continue after the pandemic is over and the curfew is lifted. We hope that by then Iraqis will be more convinced of the health benefits of cycling, as well as how it is better for the environment.”

The only negative to the trend for cycling right now, is that it is still limited to men. In this conservative society, it’s not socially acceptable for women to cycle and if they do, they may be subjected to harassment on the city streets.

“I’d like to ride a bicycle, just like my brother,” says one local woman, Nour Sami. “My family is fine with it but it’s not easy to confront the rest of society.”

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