First Published: 2013-12-04

Breaking taboos: Syrian young women use bicycles to get around
Damascenes turn to bikes to avoid endless traffic jams and to save scarce fuel.
Middle East Online

Business has never been better

DAMASCUS - Damascus bike shop owner Ali Jumaa is a happy man despite the civil war raging across Syria: with checkpoint-weary locals in the capital increasingly swapping their cars for bicycles, business has never been better.

"Bike sales are exploding," he said with a big smile.

Young Damascenes especially have turned to bikes en masse to avoid the endless traffic jams caused by hundreds of army checkpoints.

Two and a half years into Syria's brutal war, the economy has taken a beating, with inflation soaring at 68 percent and scores of businessmen leaving the country.

While the conflict has caused heavy losses for most businesses in Damascus, Jumaa, a trader in his 40s, is among the lucky ones.

It's hard to miss his store, which sells bicycles of all types and colours as well as carrying out repairs.

"We have regular clients," said Jumaa, while repairing a bicycle in front of his shop on Khaled bin Walid Street.

"Young women, including university professors, use bicycles to get around," he said.

Syria is a conservative Muslim country and women on bicycles used to be a rare sight.

But for months now, residents say driving in Damascus has turned into a nightmare because of the multitude of army checkpoints which have popped up across the city, with troops inspecting every passing car.

More than half the capital's streets have been shut down, leading to traffic jams which can paralyse the capital's roads for hours on end.

The aim of the checkpoints is to protect the capital from bomb attacks and to stop weapons and explosive-laden cars from slipping in.

The drastic security measures and the congestion they cause have encouraged people to use bicycles, whereas just a few months ago only delivery men and newspaper distributors could be seen using them.

Mohammad Sabbagh, an engineering student, is thrilled at having taken to two wheels.

"I get to university in 20 minutes, while it used to take me one or two hours (by bus), depending on the traffic," said Sabbagh, parking his bike.

"I can do whatever I want with my time now, as I don't have to wait for the bus any more," he smiled.

Manar Masri, also a student, said he took up cycling after he stumbled on a Facebook page named "We need a bike."

"It's wonderful that all these people, especially young girls, want to cycle," he said.

Even some religious figures have joined in.

Mohammed Ali Malla, a cleric at Leila Basha mosque, said on the group's Facebook page: "To navigate the streets of Damascus, our only option is bicycles."

Another social media user wrote: "When I'm stuck at a checkpoint and I see 32 bicycles in front of me, I think to myself, I really need a bike.'"

Breaking taboos

Some have grown so tired of the traffic that they make jokes about it. "Life is too short to spend on a bus," wrote another Facebook user.

In Damascus, an average bicycle costs about 400 Syrian pounds ($30), with most of them imported from China.

Some residents also see bicycles as a way of saving money on fuel, which has grown scarce as fighting has cut off supply routes across Syria.

Fadia is upset so much of her salary goes on petrol.

Buying a bicycle "would be the ideal solution," she said, as the price of fuel has nearly doubled in two years.

The Facebook campaign encourages women like Fadia to abandon their cars.

"Women feel embarrassed to ride a bike, but we need to break all those taboos... even if that seems unusual in our conservative society," one post reads.

But not everyone supports the idea.

A street seller grumbled as he watched a young woman riding through the Shaalan commercial district. "Now we've seen it all!" he called out.

 

Blair calls on West to combat ‘growing’ danger of Islamist extremism

No Qatar ‘concessions’ on end of dispute with fellow Gulf states

Bahrain expels representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

Netayahu to Abbas: Does you want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel?

Dubai's Emaar posts huge Q1 profit

Witnesses in Morsi trial: Hamas and Hezbollah attacked Egypt prisons

Family of detained Al-Jazeera reporter in Egypt call for his release

Bomb targets convoy of Education Minister in north Iraq

After Ervin scandal, Iran Prisons Chief becomes Head of Justice Department

Egypt FM travels to US as Washington relaxes hold on military aid

US diplomat visits Libya amid political upheaval

Jarba asks Saudi Arabia to increase support for Syria rebels

Better late than never: Erdogan offers condolences over mass WWI killings of Armenians

Hezbollah veto dashes Geagea dreams of presidency

UN aid chiefs make impassionate call for Syria access

Police brigadier general killed in Cairo bomb attack

11 new MERS infections registered in Saudi

EU denounces Syria plans for June 3 election

Iran envoy row fails to make headway at UN

Amnesty: Qatar fails to protect domestic workers

US will deliver 10 Apache choppers to Egypt to counter terrorism

US expresses horror at South Sudan violence

Egypt's next president will have to deal with frustrated workers

Rival Palestinian leaders agree on national unity govt

Jumblatt backs lawmaker Henri Helou for Lebanon presidency

Global chemical watchdog: Syria weapons handover at 86.5 percent

Kerry ‘prefers’ Cold War-like situation to current complex challenges

Israel to call up Christian Arabs for military service

Egypt prosecutors submit new evidence in Jazeera trial

Families of Iran prisoners break silence over abuses at notorious Evin

Lebanon sends rare aid to its territory in Syria

Iran divorce rate increases amid slow population growth

Suspected militant attacks kill four Yemen officers in two days

Distrust casts shadow over South Kordofan peace talks

Ali Tarhuni heads Libya constituent assembly

Washington revisits story of Syria chemical weapons

PM Erdogan to tour Europe for expat presidency votes

Erdogan to May Day protesters: Give up on your hopes of Taksim!

Palestine plays down threat to dismantle PA

South Sudan army battle rebels as insurgents target oil fields

Two Somali MPs shot dead in 24 hours

MERS death toll keeps climbing in Saudi

Court deals blow to US administration on drone attacks

Berber protesters clash anew with Algeria police

US has 'indications' of new chemical attacks in Syria