Riding With Iraq's Most Unlikely Motorcycle Gang.
Words & Images Dan Milner
A village ringed by minefields on the Iraq-Iran border is perhaps the most unlikely place I can think of finding a young motorbike gang, but here they are; a throng of revving engines, burn outs and street wheelies; killing time as patience wears thin. Right now the group is getting fidgety; they want to ride and a damned photographer is holding them up. Perhaps I want ”just one more shot”, or perhaps I’m just stalling for time —snatching a few extra moments to summon the courage to climb onto the pillion of a bike seemingly held together by electrical tape and steered by a guy I’ve only just met. My hesitance is probably justified, after all the trail we’re about to ride weaves between those minefields, a legacy of the 1980’s Iran-Iraq war. Their locations are marked by rudimentary flags adorned with red skull and cross bones, but the old landmines have a lethal habit of re-surfacing and migrating in heavy rains or ground slip. I’m told that they have claimed more than forty villagers’ lives, and maimed dozens more as they’ve tended their fields and livestock.
Life in Narwanda, a small Kurdish village of about 100 families, is undeniably tough. There are the landmines and the ongoing frictions that come with frontier proximity (an Iranian gun emplacement sits atop a nearby peak) and there are the Zagros mountain winters: long, snowy interludes framed by sub zero temperatures. Mere existence here seems laden with challenges and risk, which is why stumbling across this group of eager, young riders was such an unexpected eye-opener. In a place already steeped in danger it seemed unlikely that you’d want to add more, but for the youth of the village, the act of thrashing cheap Chinese-made street motorbikes off-road has become their quintessential escape from the mundane. It’s the same escape you’ll find amongst adolescents anywhere, from Ohio to Oxford —and it recalls memories of my brother and me illegally thrashing our old Yamaha YT 125 around our local corner of British forest in the early 1980’s. No, I may not be able to speak their language, but I sure knew these kids and their enthusiasm.
Stumbling across this motorbike gang was pure accident, having come to Kurdistan to photograph a mountain bike expedition that descended their local mountain, Mount Halgurd. But the moment they appeared I saw my own youthful rebelliousness reflected in their antics. Instantly I knew I had to document their passion, and to show the world there is another human side to Kurdistan other than war and conflict. After my mountain bike crew departed I stayed on, hired a translator, and returned to Narwanda for three days to photograph the group.
So here we are, gathering at Abdulrahmen’s village shop —something the gang does whenever school or mosque timetables allow. Many sport casual loafers, some wear sandals. There are a couple of quilted leather jackets and a scattering of collared shirts that would not look out of place at a posh restaurant. And there are quiff-like bouffant haircuts, many of them. But there are no helmets; I guess when the risk bar is already so high, helmets become optional.
Originally Featured in Issue 044 of Iron & Air Magazine