ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — What does one wear to run a marathon in a Muslim country? Since my children and I had moved here two months before to join my husband on a work assignment in this booming region, I had yet to even bare my knees while running. But 26.2 miles in 80-plus-degree temperatures seemed to warrant skimpy apparel no matter what local custom dictated.
When I spotted a woman wearing shorts, I gleefully pulled off my running pants. I had an ally, who turned out to be the country director for UN Women in Iraq, a petite Scottish woman named Frances. She had come up from Baghdad to run the Second Annual Erbil International Marathon “to be able to go for a long run outside,” since in Baghdad she can train only on a treadmill inside her walled compound.
As we nervously waited for the delayed start, the mercury rising with every minute, we marveled at our fellow runners’ footwear selections — everything from soccer cleats to slip-on skater shoes to Converse All Stars. (I particularly want to know how the young man with the black business shoes fared.) We were asked to be in numerous photos. The sight of two Western women — in shorts, no less — gave us unsolicited celebrity status.
Although there were a few other women running, we were by far in the minority. I wasn’t running to get a personal record or hit specific splits, I was running to be part of something bigger than I was, in a country that is trying to heal after years of war.
A marathon anywhere in Iraq would have been unthinkable a decade ago, and even the finish line at Sami Abdulrahman Park is a testament to how far Iraqi Kurdistan has come since the war erupted in March 2003. A dozen years ago the park was treeless; before 1991 it was part of the largest military facility in northern Iraq. Today it is a forested central park with rose gardens, small lakes, colorful playgrounds, a climbing wall, grassy lawns, picnic areas, and bustling restaurants.
The marathon was conceived five years ago, during the height of the war, when Nicola Visconti, the founder of the NGO Sport Against Violence in Rome, said he “half jokingly threw out the idea during a Sunday lunch to organize a marathon in Baghdad with all the significance that would entail: peace, solidarity, reconciliation.” Because of obvious security reasons, a marathon has yet to take place in Baghdad, although plans are underway to make that a reality in the near future.
The course, four loops of a normally heavily trafficked ring road around the city center, was a study in determination. There were no firemen hosing us down, no ice chips passed out by thoughtful spectators. Bottles of water were handed out here and there, but we were mostly left to our own devices.
Weekend life in Erbil unfolded around us as we circled the 10-kilometer course: Men sipped their morning tea at street-side cafes while vendors pushed heavy rickshaws laden with bananas and pomegranates. Women in black chadors crossed the street with freshly baked bread and small children in tow. Shoeless street children ran with me, proffering their hands for a high-five. I gladly obliged.
As we peaked a bridge on the far side of the ring road, I could see the Citadel of Erbil, a walled fortress, arguably the longest continuously inhabited city in the world. It towered above the city as it has for 7,000 years. Archeologists and international development groups are restoring the Citadel and many other ancient wonders that were neglected or damaged during Saddam Hussein’s 24-year presidency. The fast-paced development of luxury hotels and world-class malls has many wondering whether this oil-rich region, promoted as “the other Iraq” by the Kurdish Ministry of Tourism, will become the next mini-Dubai.
As I continued my slog, the clutches of men at the cafes and the traffic policemen began to recognize me. Their curiosity turned to admiration, and on my final lap they cheered me on.
At the finish line, 3:12:56
after I began, my children, Luca, 7, and Mia, 4, and my husband embraced me. There was water to drink, a bench to rest my weary body, and of course, a pair of pants to hastily cover my legs. “You won the marathon, Mom!” Luca squealed as Mia hopped on my aching lap. Sure, it wasn’t Boston or New York, nor was it near my best time, but I was proud to be part of something that may start changing mindsets, one steamy mile at a time.