Cycling through barriers

Tales of Two Cities

Sarah-Dadouch-Full

On Monday night, I stood in Downtown San Francisco, staring at Violetta. My heart swelled with sadness over her broken state. All I wanted was to find out who did this to her and make that person pay.

Violetta is the name of my violet bike (also, my gray backpack is called Grayson). After three years of living in Berkeley, I finally gave in and bought her. I expected the sore thighs and the sweat that came with biking up Berkeley’s hills, and I embraced the possibility that I would freeze to death someday while biking down Ashby in December. But what I didn’t expect was how much I would come to love it, all of it.

I love whizzing down the streets, mentally shouting, “So long, suckers!” to all the students who are left to the 51B’s mercilessly erratic schedule. I love having the option of biking to Ocean Beach or across the Golden Gate Bridge on the weekend with ease. And most of all, I love Violetta, for she has not only become my best friend but part of my identity as well.

Which is why I was crushed when someone stole Violetta’s seat and seat post last weekend.

If someone had told me when I was in Syria that I would one day be on the verge of tears over a bicycle, I probably would have burst out laughing. The only time I had ever ridden a bike in a street was in Amsterdam, when I was 15. It blew my mind to see separate street lanes assigned for bikes, bicycle-renting shops on every other corner and such a wide variety of bicyclists throughout the city: men in their business suits, mothers with their children trailing along, teenagers and college students alike. That, combined with Amsterdam’s charming streets and beautiful architecture, made the concept of biking seem magically appealing  — an appeal I had completely forgotten until I got Violetta.

People in Berkeley take biking for granted, and over the past few months, so have I. A few days ago, I was reminded of this when I heard about a Facebook campaign in Syria called It’s About Time We Got Bikes (very, very rough translation). About a year ago, several college students in Syria started toying with the idea of using bikes as a method of transportation to college. Initially, the students wanted to use bikes because they were a form of exercise and a more environmentally friendly form of transportation. With the streets of Damascus littered with roadblocks, it’s easier to bike past all the cars waiting in line and pass through in time to make it to class, instead of leaving a few hours early in anticipation of the long roadblock line. But the campaign quickly took on a much deeper purpose: It works on encouraging girls to join, making its own small social revolution.

Riding a bike through the streets is not considered ladylike and is therefore not socially acceptable in Syria. I remember once telling my mom how cool I thought it was that my cousin bikes to work, and she replied by saying that’s one of the pluses of being a guy. I hadn’t ridden a bike in Damascus since I was 11, after which I wasn’t considered a child and it became immodest for me to bike in my city’s streets.

In a video on the group’s Facebook page, two girls were interviewed; both expressed how reluctant they and their parents were about this, how they were worried about people’s reactions, including random people on the street as well as their relatives and friends. But both finally gave in and got bikes. One girl, when talking about her experience, described the surprise and shock on people’s faces when they see her but points out that change is happening and that it’s about time people’s mentalities evolved.

The campaign’s Facebook page proposes solutions to concerns expressed by women who wear headscarves and dress modestly in long skirts, suggesting women’s bikes that have lower bars and wearing leggings underneath skirts. One college girl’s gleeful post said she heard a bike horn behind her, and when she turned around and saw a girl on the bike, she almost started clapping for her in solidarity.

The administrators pose questions to women, asking them about the reasons that stop them from biking. Through discussions and posting pictures of women (and a Photoshopped one of Obama) riding bikes, the administrators are trying to empower every man and woman to get rid of those shackles of society that decided it was unacceptable for women to ride.

Biking is just another aspect of Berkeley life that we enjoy every day, but back home, it is a revolution emerging from a civil war that is destroying our country from within. It rises from the midst of the destruction and devastation that has riddled my country, piercing through the darkness that has cast its shadow over Syrians’ lives and bringing a sliver of hope to everyone. Change is here, and those who want to fight it better be prepared, for these college kids have a will of steel.

Sarah Dadouch writes the Friday column on global perspectives of Berkeley. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @SarahDadouch.