The sky is the limit for wind sports in Iraqi Kurdistan
BAGHDAD--Hazem Amin inhaled deeply and ran towards the cliff edge. His parachute swept up smoothly, floating him above the scrubby plains, jagged mountains and quaint villages of northern Iraq.
The Korek mountain, about 120 north-east of the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil, has become a hotspot for paragliding — the newly found sport of wind enthusiasts.
“It’s a magical sport. I feel so happy as I’m taking off,” said Amin, a 30-year-old member of the Arbil Aeroclub.
Amin said he completed an intensive paragliding course with the club two years ago and has been hooked ever since.
“This kind of sport needs courage, physical strength and a lot of mental concentration,” he said, as he prepared his harness, triple-checked his parachute and donned a helmet.
“There’s adventure, danger and fun all at once.”
The Arbil Aeroclub, founded in 2008, has more than 40 members, including trainers and solo jumpers — among them, a growing number of women.
While traditional sports usually receive backing from the Iraqi state, the relatively new activity of paragliding is fuelled by passion, said Ali al-Atrushi, a Kurdish businessman and one of the club’s founders.
“Our love for this sport pushed us to establish this club, without any government support. All we got from the state was the licence,” he said.
Atrushi said the founders have paid out of their own pockets for 30 paragliders and safety gear — dishing out up to $5,000 for each — as well as one hot air balloon.
On weekend afternoons, cars can be seen driving up to a 2,000-metre plateau in the village of Rawanduz that serves as a flight deck for paragliders.
They usually take off facing west to catch the sunset and then glide down towards green pastures.
Most of the imported parachutes are rainbow-coloured, but at least one features the colours of the autonomous Kurdish flag — red and green stripes on either side of a yellow sun.
Car window repairman Mohammad Abbas, 35, spends his weekends here.
Five years ago, he took a month-long paragliding course with the club and was impressed with their professionalism and commitment to international standards.
“The training goes on for 30 days. You start with ground training, then move to hills, then to the mountains,” he said.
Abbas loved the sensation of flying so much he wanted to share it with others and kept working with the club until he became an instructor himself.
“The hardest thing is taking off. When you can do that on your own, you can do the rest solo.”
Rawez Mustafa, one of four women who have joined the club, now has four solo flights under her belt.
“I’ve loved this sport since I was a little girl. I dreamt of it, of taking off into the sky and enjoying the beautiful views,” the 27-year-old teacher said.
“Now my dream has come true, and I hope the club can accept even more female members.”
Arbil’s Aeroclub isn’t the oldest one in Iraq, but it seems to be the most successful.
Founding member Haydar al-Saidi, who began flying in 1994 with Baghdad’s Fernas Aeroclub, said that wind quality was better in the Erbil region.
“There were many factors that encouraged us to start the club (in Arbil), including the great flying wind, the mountain heights and the passionate people,” the 52-year-old said.
Clubs have also opened in Duhok, Sulaimaniyah and Halabja in the Kurdish autonomous region but they are not as popular as the one in Erbil.
A team from the Arbil Aeroclub even scored third place in a regional competition in Morocco in 2018.
Ahmad Shaker, secretary-general of Iraq’s Wind Sports Federation, said the new clubs could serve as an incentive to boost the sport and pave the way for a national team.
“The way these activities in the Kurdish region developed so quickly and noticeably will hopefully contribute to an Iraqi national team that can take part in international events,” he said.