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Become a MemberCulture I Spent Three Days Riding With a Kurdish Motorbike Gang

Travel & Adventure I Spent Three Days Riding With a Kurdish Motorbike GangAbove all, I knew I had to document their passion and show the world another human side to Kurdistan.

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, burnouts 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 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Their locations are marked by rudimentary flags adorned with red skull and crossbones, 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 40 villagers’ lives, and maimed dozens more as they’ve tended their fields and livestock.

(1) Mohammad Sharif, rides past a warning sign showing the known locations of 1980's Iran-Iraq war legacy minefields near the top of the trail they ride above Narwanda village, Kurdistan, Iraq.

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 eyeopener. 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 1980s. 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.

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.

(2) Narwanda village's young motorcyclists smoke and chat pre-ride inside Abdulrahmen's shop, the default meeting place for the group.

(3) Riders gather outside Abdulrahmen’s grocery store opposite the village mosque. His is just one of two stores in Narwanda, but the other is run “by an old guy” so Abdulrahmen’s became the default pre- and post-ride meeting place. The group hangs out here, chatting about life and rides, and smoking cigarettes.

(4) Even though one rider told me, “We aren’t afraid; we are not thinking about crashing,” injuries aren’t uncommon among Narwanda’s riders. While sharing this photo of an X-ray of a fellow rider’s broken leg, Abdulrahmen told me that the rider was still not back on his bike two years after the injury.

(5) Wearing open-toe sandals, 14-year-old Daniel Zaher Baez, the youngest rider in the group, powers his bike up the trail above the village. For Narwanda’s riders like Daniel, the group rides are a social event that lets each person’s personality shine, whether exhibited through their stylish clothing choice or prowess with do-it-yourself motorcycle repairs that are needed to keep the bikes rolling.

(11) 14 year old Daniel Zaher Baez summits a section of the off-road hill climb above Narwanda village, Iraq. Group rides can be hours long, even navigating high up on nearby 11,800-foot Mount Halgurd, Iraq’s second highest peak. Many rides are just squeezed in after school or before evening prayers, often taking the form of sessioning the steep trail above the village as an informal hill-climb challenge.

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