This article was first published on GlobalVoices on September 7, 2012

Seven months ago, Arafet Ben Marzou, a 31-year-old Tunisian who graduated from a Biological and Environmental Engineering School, gave up his job as a university teacher and decided to pursue his childhood dream – traveling from Tunisia to China on a bike.

He started his journey in Tunisia and crossed the Mediterranean sea to Istanbul. He cycled through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. He is now in Xinjiang, China.

Ben Marzou has been providing updates about his trip through his Facebook page Tabba’ani (translated as “follow me” from the Tunisian dialect). On August 30, he wrote:

in china… alive.. i will update soon :)))

Xinjiang, China photo via Facebook page Follow Me

This travel project, entitled Wet-bike[fr], comes within the framework of an environmental battle for the conservation of wetlands and their resources. Ben Marzou’s West Asia bike tour from one Ramsar site to another aims at raising awareness about the human and environmental value of wetlands and the dangers that threaten such areas. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Photo taken in Azerbaijan. Via Ben Marzou's Facebook page Follow Me.

On February, 2, the day Ben Marzou hit the road, the World Wildlife Fund Tunis office wrote [fr]:

Pour cette initiative le message transmis est principalement un message d’une dimension humaine et environnementale.
A travers ce périple, il essayerai entre autres de porter une réflexion autour des lacs et des zones humides, et ceci par le partage des photos, vidéos, le contact des gens sur place et le partage de leurs expériences…

This initiative’s message is mainly of a human and environmental dimension. Through this trek, he [Ben Marzou] will try to reflect on lakes and wetland areas, by sharing photos, videos and by getting in touch with local peoples and sharing their experiences…


To make his dream come true, Ben Marzou came face to face with several challenges which he shared via his Facebook page. On July 26, he said:

encore la.. pour le malheur de la route qui reste :))) , des aventures a couper le souffle.. encore en Afghanistan et encore a velo.. merci pour vos messages touchants et sympa, hamdoullah tout va bien, traverser le Hidu kush a becane etait un fort challenge, 5 jours, 120 km et 3400 m d’altitude, sinon je suis quelques part entre kabul et Mazar-sherif

I’m still here..for the remaining road misfortunes :))), breathtaking adventures..I’m still biking in Afghanistan…thanks for your moving and compassionate messages. Praise to God, everything is fine. Crossing the Hindu Kush [a long mountain range that stretches between central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan] was a big challenge: 5 days, 120 km, and an altitude of 3,400 meters. Otherwise, I’m somewhere between Kabul and Mazar Sharif
Fortunately, Ben Marzou did not fall hostage to the Taliban. He was rather welcomed to spend the night in an Afghani viallge. Photo via Ben Marzou's Facebook page

One week earlier he shared tips to follow in case he was detained by the Taliban:

Première leçon enseignée dictée et ordonné par les militaires afghans, en cas où je tombe en otage par les talibans, il ne faut en aucun cas parler en anglais, l’arabe peux être très utile, ta religion peux aussi te sauver, si tu arrives à leur faire expliquer que t’es musulman avant qu’ils te tirent dessus, t’a une chance de survivre…

The first lesson given, dictated and ordered by Afghani soldiers: in case I am taken hostage by the Taliban, under no circumstances should I speak in English. Arabic could be very useful. My religion could also save me. If I succeed explaining to them that I’m a Muslim before they shoot at me, I would have a survival chance…

On August 5, he reported [fr]:

la route du Pamir est fermee… cela complique d’avantage le trajet :/ cette incroyable route qui traverse les Himalaya a travers le tajikistan et le kyrgyzestan est temporairement fermee… des affrontement avec les talibans en cause… pour ma part je serai reellement en impasse..
des suggestions..??

Pamir road [a road which crosses the Pamir Mountains through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia] is closed…this further complicates the journey :/ this incredible road which crosses the Himalayas through Tajikistan and Kyrgystan is temporarily closed…owing to clashes with the Taliban…for me this represents a real dead-end. Any suggestions?

On August 10, he disclosed the greatest challenge he faced during this venture [fr]:

je crois que, plus que tout, le vrai challenge dans cette aventure, c’est le fait d’affronter le blocus administratif et reglementaire de ces ex-republiques sovietiques avec mon cher passeport Tunisien

I believe that more than any other thing, the real challenge in this adventure is confronting the administrative and regulatory blockade imposed by former Soviet countries with my dear Tunisian passport
Ben Marzou cycling in Afghanistan. Photo via Facebook page Follow Me

Iran: First encounter with Shia Islam

Shia shrine in Iran

On his Facebook page, Ben Marzou shared with his fans once in a life time experiences, and lessons he learned from this seven month-long journey. As I neither have the space nor the energy to translate all of Ben Marzou’s interesting stories, I decided to share with Global Voices readers his Iran journey.

In Iran, Ben Marzou, who comes from a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, encountered Shia Islam. Some differences in beliefs and practices, between the two major Islam sects sometimes led to sectarian violence in countries like Iraq, and Lebanon.

On July 16, he published the following post:

Et c’est la fin d’une aventure persane qui a duré 70 jours, 700 km de vélo et plusieurs milliers de km de route, c’est une des étapes les plus intenses dont je me rappellerai toujours, ce grand pays plein de contrastes, plein de vie et de désir, je me rappellerai toujours de cette hospitalité inégalable, de cet amour du partage, « almousafér 7abibou allah » tel croient les descendants d’Ali…

Ce fut aussi ma première rencontre avec le chiisme, que loin de toute comparaison inutile je respecte…

«T’es chiite ou sunnite » c’est une des questions qui s’est fréquemment posée
« Je suis musulman tout court » tel était ma réponse,

Et là curieusement, et presque toujours, un grand sourire se dessine sur le visage de mon interlocuteur…

It is the end of a Persian experience which lasted 70 days, 700km on bike, and thousands more kilometers driving. It is one of the most intense stages, which I will always remember. A large country [Iran], full of contrasts, of life, and desire. I will always remember this incomparable hospitality, and this love to share. “The traveller is the Beloved of God”, that is how Ali’s descendants think…[In Shia Islam Ali is regarded as the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad]

It was my first encounter with Shia Islam, which away from any useless comparison I do respect(…)
“Are you a Shia or a Sunni Muslim?” was one of the frequently asked questions.
“I’m just a Muslim,” I would answer.
Then strangely, and almost always a big smile takes shape on the face of the person addressing me…


Written by Afef Abrougui


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About the author

Ana Astri-O’Reilly is from Argentina, where she lived until five years ago. She currently lives in Dallas, USA with her British husband, but they move a lot. Previously a translator and English and Spanish teacher, Ana first started writing to share her experiences and adventures with friends and family. She speaks Spanish, English and a smattering of Portuguese.