Nearly 250 women, representing 30 nationalities from mostly Europe and the Middle East, but also the United States and Canada, arrived in Beirut last week for the third "Follow the Women" bike tour, which winds through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and - Israeli government permitting- the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Started in 2004. One of the founders is a British woman named Detta Regan, "Follow the Women" is not a race, but a bike tour where women ride in the name of female empowerment and the aim of expressing solidarity with the Middle East. It is also a good place to break down cultural stereotypes and experience woman-to-woman diplomacy, away from official government positions and media hype.
Most of the Western women I cycled with expressed surprise at how calm Beirut is, and how beautiful. "It's nothing like how it is in the news," the British woman next to me exclaimed.
This is a sentiment I often hear from my grandmother in Indiana, who seems to be in a constant state of anxiety that I am about to be swallowed whole by a region collapsing into utter chaos. Of course dangers exist, but on a day-to-day basis, life in Beirut is safe for the ordinary resident, even Americans.
After less than 24 hours in Lebanon, the British woman said, "I feel like I could live in Beirut."
Each woman wore her flag and a smile, even when pedaling up the toughest hills. Some dressed in professional biking gear, a helmet and black Spandex shorts, while others opted for jeans, black loafers, dangling earrings or the traditional Palestinian black and white scarf known as the keffiyeh.
"I'm so happy. I've always wanted to speak to people from the West, but my English isn't very good. Here everyone is making an effort to listen to
what I have to say. I really feel like we're equals," said Iman Abu Ghazali, 20. A Jordanian woman of Palestinian descent named Sherine acted as a translator as we drank pineapple juice during a break.
Sherine, a dentist, added that I should tag along for the rest of the trip. When I told her I had to work, she gave me her e-mail address and told me that if I ever came to Amman, she would have a bed for me in her home. We had known each other five minutes.
The excursion of spandex-clad, flag-waving women did not go unnoticed: Little boys dared us to give them high-fives; young men whistled and whipped out camera phones while older men nodded and gave thumbs-up. Others looked bewildered. Women on bikes, actually biking in general, is not a common sight in the region.
It was right after biking through Jiyyeh, the site of an oil refinery bombed by Israel during the 2006 Summer War, that I first saw one of the Iranian participants. I recognized her by the postcard-sized Iranian flag sticker attached to her baseball cap as she cycled past on the second seat of a two-seated bicycle. A blond Danish woman sat in the front.
Seeing a Dane and an Iranian share a bike was a stark contrast to the scenes after the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, when Iranians burned Danish flags and some bakeries in Syria refused to sell cheese Danishes.
When we spoke after the ride, I learned the Iranian's experience in Beirut was a carbon copy of my own. "When I was biking, they saw our flags. Half the people smiled and were so happy to see me, but the others weren't so sure," said Parvaneh, 26.
Parvaneh's compatriot, Hajar was also happy to be an ambassador for the often misunderstood people of the Islamic Republic.
"I've talked to some many women about so many things, including religion. So many thought all women in Iran are covered in black and we're here to say: 'No it's not like that,' " said Hajar, 26, who was wearing a colorful aqua and yellow silk bandana. "There's a new generation that exists."
I wanted to tell her that a new generation exists in America, too, one that has learned from Iraq that military force can't solve our problems or make us safer. But, as an American living abroad, I couldn't speak for the public opinion at home.
After a few minutes, Parvaneh looked at me and said, "We want peace for your land." I nodded. If only all diplomacy was as easy as sharing a bike ride along the coast.
Top Picture: Members of "Follow the Women" event pose on the stairs of the Baalback Roman ruins in Bekaa Valley April 12, 200. About 250 women from 34 countries took part in the event to campaign for peace in the Middle East.
American Laurie Moser, right, and Iranian Poupeh Pigari, left, wait at the starting line during the 'Follow the Women - Women for Peace' ride in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Women activists wait at the starting line during the 'Follow the Women - Women for Peace' ride in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Sources: Concord Monitor, AP, Reuters, Ya Libnan
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