249 female cyclists from 30 countries, both Western and Arab, began peddling for peace in northern Syria on April 7 in the third annual Follow the Women – Women for Peace ride. Crowds lined the roads to greet them as they crossed through Lebanon and Palestine. British and Iranian riders formed friendships and the Palestinian team even included 24-year-old Lena Arafat, the daughter of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Today the women finished the trip in Amman, Jordan. A staff writer for the Daily Star in Lebanon, Iman Azzi, talked to participants and shared her thoughts about the trek for peace…
Beirut, 11 April — Hundreds of women from around the world took to their bicycles in Lebanon on Tuesday to pedal for regional peace. The third annual "Follow the Women – Women for Peace" bike tour completed its first leg around Lebanon with nearly 250 women riding from Sidon to Beirut — a journey of 50 kilometres that took them about six hours to complete.
The female participants, who come from about 30 different countries, found more than just their bicycles waiting for them in Sidon as many of the coastal city’s residents flocked to the streets to witness the event.
"So many people came out, it was overwhelming," said Bernadette Regan, the president and founder of the project. Regan, a British citizen, has been organising the "Follow the Women" tour since its first journey in 2004. "Follow the Women is growing, which is a great feeling," she said.
As the Lebanese national anthem was played, pedals turned and the Sidon–Beirut tour was off. This year’s journey was a reversal of the 2005 event, when bikers left Beirut for Sidon.
Although many of the participants are avid cyclers, most of the women say that biking is not the best part of the event.
"It’s not really about the cycling," said Jordanian team member Sherine Rahil, 29, who is of Palestinian origin. "It’s about all of us coming together for peace and getting that message across."
Rahil, riding with a red rose tucked behind her right ear and a black and white keffiyeh slung around her shoulders, said it was about women from different countries meeting as individuals and getting to know each other.
"It feels like I have known them forever and we feel so close. When the women get to Jordan, I’m going to invite everyone to my house for dinner," Rahil said.
This year’s "Follow the Women" tour kicked off in Aleppo, Syria, with participants crossing into Lebanon through the northern border on Monday.
"Follow the Women" is not a race. Women biked at their own pace, occasionally stopping to take photos of the flora or a bombed out-bridge, and chatting with neighbouring bikers.
"The whole day was amazing. I spoke with women from Canada, Denmark, Poland and Iran. The Iranian women surprised me. They are so smart and gorgeous," said Lebanese participant Manal Mawla.
The Iranian participants said they were happy to correct the false stereotypes about life in the Islamic Republic.
"So many people thought all women in Iran are covered in black and so it’s nice to be here to say ‘It’s not like that.’ There’s a new generation that exists in Iran," said Hajar, 25, a student who chose not to disclose her last name.
During breaks, the women drank water, snacked on dates and apricots, talked about the pain in the legs or backsides or — gasp — smoked cigarettes.
"I started learning how to ride a bike just for this trip," said Sybil Pereira, from the United Kingdom. She practiced "seriously" for three months. "I read about it in the Times and decided it was something I wanted to do. I hadn’t been to the Middle East."
After fewer than 24 hours in Lebanon, Pereira said she is convinced that she "could live in Beirut. I love it here, I love the people … it’s all such a wonderful atmosphere."
The trail of women did not go unnoticed: little boys smiled and waved, young men whistled and snapped photos while older men nodded and gave thumbs up.
"I want to thank the Lebanese people because they have been through so much this year and yet they still welcomed us," said Arafat, who lives in Ramallah. Her comments came despite the fact that the Palestinian team had been held up for three hours at the border. (When she was two months old, Arafat’s parents were killed in the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut. She was later adopted by the late Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.)
"Just that they let us into Lebanon is a first step toward peace," said Arafat, who has participated in every "Follow the Women" ride.
From Sidon, the bike ride followed the sea north, winding through Remeile, Sibine and Jiyyeh. After a brief, somewhat terrifying, stint along the highway, the group passed Naame, and stopped to hydrate and rest before the last 15-kilometer stretch into the capital.
It was after the slow incline through Ouzai that the group really felt the burn. By the time the cyclists entered hilly West Beirut, many had fallen silent and were concentrating on peddling. In a moment of patience, perhaps also amusement, cars stopped to let the cyclists pass.
"Follow the Women" ended with a lunch at Qoreitem, which was attended by MPs Bahia Hariri, Atef Majdalani and Mohammad Qabbani. Parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri was unable to attend but thanked the women and honoured them with the lunch.
Many of the Western cyclists said that they were surprised to learn that the Middle East is not what it seems to be in the media. Many Arab participants, for their part, expressed gratitude that so many foreign nationals were so eager to tour the Middle East and learn about the region through other women’s experiences. It’s not world peace, but it could very well be a wheel in the right direction.
Iman Azzi is a staff writer for the Daily Star