Too often, Iraq is well known for the wrong reasons. If there wereGuinness World Records for conflict, it would sadly be wellrepresented. But Fareed Lafta is trying to change that. This youngIraqi grew up in
On July 29 this year, he became the first Iraqi to reach the NorthPole, forswearing hiking with dogsleds across the Arctic Circle,instead jumping 3,000 feet from a helicopter, and mercifully notlanding in the sea nor in the vicinity of any polar bears, botheventualities feared by the trip’s leaders.
"I was the first Iraqi and the first Arab to be at the North Pole," hesaid. "I was very, very proud." The jump was part of a jointRussian-German scientific expedition to the Arctic. Lafta has longbeen connected with Russia - after he was recognised as an exceptionalskydiver, he trained as an astronaut in Russian space centres, andhopes to fulfil his goal of being the first Iraqi in space with theRussian space program.
On this adventure, however, he went deep into the earth as well ashigh above it, burying a letter with a “message of love and peace”thousands of metres under the surface of the Earth, along with othermessages from the mission’s members.
The letter said, “I am Fareed, I represent the Arabs, we want peaceand love for the sake of humanity,” he explained.
Now living in Dubai, Lafta and his family left Iraq in the aftermathof the US-led invasion of 2003, when his brother was kidnapped and hehimself was wounded in fighting. Although the country is not yet safeenough for him to want to return, he has worked closely with the Iraqigovernment to promote his activities and message to the people ofIraq.
He worked with the Youth and Sports Minister to organise a skydivefrom a helicopter over the Green Zone last year, just as the airspaceover Baghdad was officially handed back to the Iraqi authorities. The“peace jump” as he called it, was an impressive affair featuringbagpipes, and he said at the time he hoped other Iraqi youth would getthe chance to be involved in aerobatic sports.
He said that he would like the government to support him in his driveto be the first Iraqi in space, but that recently this has not beenforthcoming. “The government didn’t support me until now because theywere so busy with the issue of government formation,” he said.
This halting process from elections to government, which has now takensix months with no end in sight, has also seen a rise in violence.This week, a suicide bomber killed more than fifty people volunteeringin Baghdad to join the security services.
“Iraq disappoints me,” said Lafta. “I love peace, I want people toenjoy themselves, to rebuild the country - the people before thebuildings, because in war you lose people. I hope people choose peaceand democracy.”
He also laments the state of sport in Iraq. Before the war manysports, particularly soccer, which Iraqis follow with crazed passion,were popular in the country. But now, sports clubs are run-down aspeople’s minds have for the last seven years been preoccupied withviolence, which prevented people from going to evening practics. Somemilitia groups also regarded sports as un-Islamic, threatening peoplewho played.
A ban on Iraq’s international team by FIFA - the internationalfootball federation - has only recently been lifted, after allegedgovernment interference in the election of officials.
Giving young men something to do is key to reducing violence, reckonsLafta. “Sport is important for Iraqis,” he said. “All sport releasesyour energy, and maybe some people are doing wrong stuff because theydon’t have something to do that makes them smile. Sport makes youhappy. If you do sport you will be positive.”
Sport of all kinds has shaped Lafta’s life as much as the war anddictatorship that clouded it. He was a national weightlifting championfrom 1998 to 2002. He has skydived from Everest, in the first eversuch jump, after a month of training with Russian aeronautics teams.Falling through nearly 10,000 metres, with 70 seconds of freefall, hesaid he felt “nirvana”.
Most recently, he was back from the ice of the North Pole to Iraq thisscorching summer to promote a blood donation drive to help the limpinghealth system. But his next ideas are once more in the realm ofextreme sports. Three people have died trying to skydive at the SouthPole, and Lafta is keen to make Iraq proud by being the first to jumpover the Antarctic and live to tell the tale.
Already, he is trying to have his North Pole jump registered in theGuinness Book of Records as the first of its kind.
“I try to be a messenger for peace,” he said, “and extreme sports area good way of doing that, because everyone is interested in them.”