Iranian cyclists pedal for peace

NEW YORK – Peace-loving people here and in New Jersey welcomed two brave Iranian students who have been pedaling around the world with a message of peace and friendship for all nations.

Hassan Alizadeh and Amir Hossein Ahmadi, both third-year students at the Azad University in Iran, have pedaled more than 14,000 miles in the past two years, and plan to pedal another 14,000 miles to complete their peace trip by 2004. “This is the first time – we are the first Iranians to go around the world,” Alizadeh told the World. As unofficial ambassadors of peace and friendship, they are also bringing a message from the Iranian Olympic Committee, promoting sports and cultural exchanges between Iran and other nations.

“We started this trip to help build peace and friendship between nations, because today humanity needs it more than ever,” said Alizadeh, a 31-year-old English major and son of a farmer from the northern province of Azerbaijan. On their bikes each has a small handcrafted Iranian flag and a sign that reads, “Around the World for Peace.”

“We want people to get to know Iranians better,” they said.

They said they’re riding to experience the world first-hand and to make a difference the only way they can – with their bicycles. “We have discovered that people everywhere share the same desire for peace and friendship. It’s the governments, not the people, that are causing the conflicts and divisions among nations,” Ahmadi, a student of electrical engineering, said.

They said they still vividly remember bombs dropping on Tehran and other Iranian cities during the eight-year war with Iraq and they are tired of the constant violence in the Middle East. That is why they decided to set out on this daring four-year trip Sept. 9, 2000.

In the first six months of their journey they pedaled through Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan, where they jumped a plane for Ottawa, Canada.

From there, they pedaled across Canada to Vancouver, across the U.S. border to Seattle, and then to southern California, where they were officially welcomed by the mayors of Los Angeles and San Diego. Their journey from San Diego to New York took them through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

By the time they finish, they’ll have cycled through Central and South America, southern and western Africa, and Europe, before heading toward home. By that time, they will have pedaled through 40 countries.

The hardest days of their journey have been in Asia, they said. Their route took them through some countries where “peace” is in short supply.

“I think we are adventurous,” said Alizadeh, noting that, so far, they have been welcomed everywhere. “Fortunately, people everywhere were very nice to us,” he said. In Pakistan, for instance, several Pakistanis disguised Alizadeh and Ahmadi in the local baggy attire to ride safely through unstable parts of Pakistan populated by Islamic extremists and Taliban supporters, who have killed Iranians and Shiite Muslims. “We appreciated, the help, but the pants kept getting stuck in the bicycle chain,” Alizadeh recalled jokingly.

When asked whether the events of Sept. 11 have in any way affected their trip, Alizadeh responded: “Americans have been exceptionally hospitable and kind to us, although a few have been suspicious and have asked if we were terrorists. Do I look like a terrorist? I asked them, pointing to my skin-tight biking outfit. It is exactly this type of stereotype of Iranians that we hope to dispel.

“When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, our mission seemed to roll backward. We suddenly felt that this incident had undone all of our peace efforts,” Alizadeh said. “Although American people have remained friendly to us, the media has stopped covering our trip. Maybe they don’t want to contradict their government’s policy,” Ahmadi said.

“While, before Sept. 11, even the mayors of Los Angeles and San Diego would meet with us and give us certificates of appreciation, since Sept. 11, most of the American media have refused to give us even a simple coverage,” he added. The only exception, during their stay in New York, has been the reception held at the United Nations headquarters in their honor, where they were received and praised by high-level U.N. officials for their peace efforts. But much of the media failed to cover the event.

Alizadeh said they have not been discouraged by the post-Sept. 11 treatment. He said, “On the contrary, we feel a much more intense desire to continue because peace is more urgently needed right now than ever before. And in this effort, we need the help and support of peace-loving American people more than anything else.”

Alizadeh and Ahmadi began their journey with $4,000 from their Iranian university’s sports department. But they ran out of that money within six months and had to rely on contributions from private donors, including many Iranian émigrés around the world. In Bangladesh, an Iranian-born college professor “who had accumulated 26 professional degrees,” hosted them. When the Canadian embassy in Tokyo refused to issue them visas due to lack of financial support, which might have ended their trip, an Iranian émigré emptied his bank account to post a $20,000 bond.

An American helped them out in Canada, when Alizadeh broke a bicycle spoke just a few miles from the U.S. border. The stranger gave them a ride to his home in Seattle, where he fed them, put them up for the night and paid to get the bike fixed in the morning. “People are very friendly here,” Ahmadi said.

“It’s not the money, although donations are vital for the continuation of our trip,” Alizadeh said. “More important is the warmth and hospitality we have encountered in the 14,000 miles we’ve biked since we first crossed the Iranian border into Pakistan.”

Besides hospitality, strangers they meet often give them gifts. But they end up re-giving the gifts because they have no room in their tightly packed saddlebags. Alizadeh gave Ahmadi’s Arabian flute to a journalist because, “it drove me crazy,” he said.

“The more people I have seen from different countries,” said Ahmadi, “the more I have realized how everyone is just as much a human being and how much I love them all.”

The bicyclists have also brought along with them a container of dirt from their homeland, which they share with Iranians they meet who haven’t returned home in years.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org