x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Herat's high flyers

Meet Habibullah. He used to be a stunt man for the Taliban. Now he is taking motocross to the provinces of Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan's darker times under the Taliban, almost anything that brought a smile to people's faces was banned under the oppressive regime; kite flying, music, dancing and most sports were off limits. But one man with a love of motorcycles risked persecution to try something not many others would have risked, and almost no one there had ever seen - motocross jumping. About 10 years ago, Habibullah (he doesn't go by any other name) went to the Taliban's religious police to seek permission to jump his motorcycle. It took a little convincing, but Habibullah walked out of their offices with a special letter giving him the Taliban's blessing.

He'd carry it everywhere and, when stopped by any Taliban foot soldiers, he would produce the letter and be sent on his way. This new stunt man flew over Herat Sports Stadium in front of a crowd of scruffy, bearded men, the only ones allowed to watch the spectacle. The audience had no idea if this adhered to the Islamic code of conduct, but it brought smiles to their faces and it seemed harmless. "I was the only one in all of Herat who had such permission," he proudly recalls.

Almost eight years since the Taliban were deposed, Habibullah, now a 27-year-old motorbike mechanic, and his brother, Najibullah (the duo is aptly named the Bullah Boys) are trying to promote motocross riding in the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border. It is famous for its wide boulevards and minarets and for being one of the safer and wealthier provinces in the war-ravaged country. Together, they run a shop in the middle of Herat, which specialises in Japanese off-road bikes. The bikes are imported from Iran and Dubai and are most certainly a niche product, given the popularity of the far cheaper Chinese 150cc bikes that dominate the market. The two brothers, along with other keen riders, have also set up their own dirt-bike track. They had asked the local council if they could build one on the outskirts of Herat and were given a grassy patch of land within a stone's throw of the UN compound. The loosely formed Herat riders toiled hard, moved heaven and more earth until they had something resembling a basic motocross track.

Every Friday, the Bullah Boys join up with friends to put on a free show for Heratis at their track next to the Joyi Injil river. Hundreds of eager-eyed men and boys turn out each week to see the daredevil riders fly over table-top jumps and whiz around berms, on which, somewhat predictably, the fearless crowds sit just a few feet from where the riders travel. Najibullah says it's a great thrill for him to soar through the sky but equally thrilling is the respect and admiration from the crowd.

"They cheer when we fly and when we crash, too," he says. And there are many of those for these self-taught Evel Knievels. Habibullah has had stitches in his head from a crash and countless sprains and bruises. On the day we visit, only four riders are performing. Others are in the crowd, nursing injuries including broken legs and smashed wrists. When asked about how many members there are in this informal (yet talented) motorcycle club, Najibullah says "there are 14 members but 10 of them are out of action with injuries."

Hence the need for better protection gear. "The first time I jumped without any proper clothes or helmet. I was very afraid of coming down. I had no idea how I would land. "Now I have no fear. It's completely normal for me." It's all part of the fun. "I love to fly. If there's snow or mud I still go jumping." Najibullah's confidence has come a long way since getting on a bike 14 years ago, when even the simplest trick seemed suicidal.

When asked where they learnt to do aerials, he proudly boasts that he watches motocross videos like the Crusty Demons and mimicks their moves. Najibullah now has his sights set on the Joyi Injil river, which is about 30 metres wide in most places. "If I find a place I will try to jump the river. But I don't have proper clothes or a proper motorbike to do such a jump. Otherwise, I'm ready to do it."

And Heratis can be assured that, when he does try to jump the river, it will be a free spectacle, recounting a time a Pakistani motocross rider came to Herat many years ago. "He was charging entry fees for people to watch him jump but I said, 'No, this is for the people and should be free'. "He told me I had ruined his business and he never came back." motoring@thenational.ae