“People who think girls can’t run because of their religion have old minds,” Ahmed Rahman from Erbil tells CNN, smiling and pointing to his head.
“They can run. They have their right, like the men”, says the 18-year-old high-school student and 10km race competitor.
A chance to unite
Erbil is far removed from the chaos that engulfed southern Iraq after the US invasion in 2003.
The races went ahead against a backdrop of Kurdish flags and pop music. Sami Abdulrahman Park, complete with a lake and swan-shaped pedalos, marked the finish line. A convenient cafe selling popcorn and fizzy drinks flanked the endpoint, receiving thirsty customers, while the winners’ awards ceremony began with a martial arts performance.
“The running event normalizes the area”, Mark Craven, a runner from Winchester, UK, says, swigging from a water bottle after finishing the 10km.
“When I told people I was coming here, they assumed I was coming here just to run round Erbil on my own. So many people have incorrect perception of what this place is, but I have shaken so many hands,” he tells CNN.
Craven traveled overland from south Turkey, which has a land border with Kurdistan.
Ahmed saw the event as a chance to promote harmony in the region, despite the internecine clashes between authorities in Baghdad and Kurdish politicians pushing for independence.
“Every morning, I run by myself, or sometimes with friends, but when I am here I am running with others for co-existence and I prefer that,” he says. “When I see this many people I feel comfortable and safe. When I am running I keep going until the end.”
As they left the park after the race, participants of both sexes plucked roses from the gardens, and tucked them behind their ears, or arranged them as hair accessories.
Roses, running and the road to Mosul — all parts of life here.