DAMASCUS: Damascus bike shop owner Ali Joumaa is a happy man despite the civil war raging across Syria: with checkpoint-weary locals in the capital increasingly swapping cars for bicycles, business has never been better. “Bike sales are exploding,” he said with a big smile.
Young Damascenes in particular have turned to bikes en masse to avoid the endless traffic jams caused by hundreds of army checkpoints.
Two-and-a-half years into Syria’s brutal war, the economy has taken a beating, with inflation soaring at 68 percent and scores of businessmen leaving the country.
While the conflict has caused heavy losses for most businesses in Damascus, Joumaa, a trader in his 40s, is among the lucky ones.
It’s hard to miss his store, which sells bicycles of all types and colors, in addition to carrying out repairs.
“We have regular clients,” said Joumaa, while fixing a bicycle in front of his shop on Khaled bin Walid Street.
“Young women, including university professors, use bicycles to get around,” he said.
Syria is a conservative Muslim country and women on bicycles used to be a rare sight.
But for months now, residents say driving in Damascus has turned into a nightmare because of the multitude of army checkpoints that have popped up across the city, with troops inspecting every passing car.
More than half the capital’s streets have been shut down, leading to traffic jams that can paralyze the capital’s roads for hours on end.
The aim of the checkpoints is to protect the city from bomb attacks and to stop weapons and explosive-laden cars from slipping in.
The drastic security measures and the congestion they cause have encouraged people to use bicycles, whereas just a few months ago only delivery men and newspaper distributors could be seen riding them.
Mohammad Sabbagh, an engineering student, is thrilled at having taken to two wheels.
“I get to university in 20 minutes, while it used to take me one or two hours [by bus], depending on the traffic,” Sabbagh said, parking his bike.
“I can do whatever I want with my time now, as I don’t have to wait for the bus anymore,” he smiled.
Manar Masri, also a student, said he took up cycling after he stumbled on a Facebook page titled “We need a bike.”
“It’s wonderful that all these people, especially young girls, want to cycle,” he said.
Even some religious figures have joined in.
Mohammed Ali Malla, a cleric at Leila Basha mosque, said on the group’s Facebook page: “To navigate the streets of Damascus, our only option is bicycles.”
Another social media user wrote: “When I’m stuck at a checkpoint and I see 32 bicycles in front of me, I think to myself, I really need a bike.’”
Some have grown so tired of the traffic that they make jokes about it. “Life is too short to spend on a bus,” wrote another Facebook user.
In Damascus, an average bicycle costs about 400 Syrian pounds ($30), with most imported from China.
Some residents also see bicycles as a way of saving money on fuel, which has grown scarce as fighting has cut off supply routes across Syria.
Fadia is upset so much of her salary goes to petrol.
Buying a bicycle “would be the ideal solution,” she said, as the price of fuel has nearly doubled in two years.
The Facebook campaign encourages women like Fadia to abandon their cars.
“Women feel embarrassed to ride a bike, but we need to break all those taboos ... even if that seems unusual in our conservative society,” one post says.
But not everyone supports the idea.
A street seller grumbled as he watched a young woman riding through the Shaalan commercial district. “Now we’ve seen it all.” he called out.