The Middle East’s leading outdoors figures.
RAHA MOHARRAK 32, mountaineer
The first Saudi woman to climb Everest, Moharrek says she grew up always testing boundaries. That started with pushing her family to expand their idea of what it was to be a Saudi female. She describ es: “Climbing t re es in t he backyard, jumping off piers in the night . . . chipping away at my parents' mentality.” While holidaying overseas with her family, she was given leeway to be the tomboy, to try it all: “Scuba diving, shark diving, sky diving – the best way to get me to do something is to say I can't do it,” she says. Then the rules abruptly changed. “All that was ok up to the point when I became a woman.” Then the pressure to conform, to act a certain way, became all pervading. That began with attitudes at home and so she challenged those attitudes. Mountaineering became her chosen vehicle and she set about climbing the Seven Summits (the original, Dick Bass version with Kosciusko). That culminated, in 2013, in her summitting Everest as part of the Arabs With Attitude team that also included the first Qatari man and first Palestinian man to attempt the mountain. “After climbing Everest, my proudest moment will forever be landing back in Saudi and the airport doors opened and there was my dad's face. He was so proud!” she says. It was a huge moment. “He is such a great example of a typical Saudi male,” she says, but at that moment he was, “able to accept diversity.” Still Moharrek faces opposition, especially on social media, but she is well past letting that slow her down. She is also keen to lose the distinction of being the only Saudi woman to climb Everest (or indeed most of the other major peaks she has scaled). She has been widely quoted as saying, she said: "I really don't care about being the first, so long as it inspires someone else to be second.” With a nod to recent developments in the kingdom that have seen women get to drive at last, she is looking beyond ‘records': “I want to reach the point where there are no more ‘firsts' to be done,” she says. So what's next? She says she wants to publish her memoirs – no mean feat for someone with dyslexia so profound that even writing emails is a challenge. She calls it, “not a book for me, but for every father, every man in the country,” though she says this with no trace of bitterness, just evident relish. And the other target? She lowers her voice: “I'm glad my mum is not here to hear this, ” she says, “I really want to go into space…”
PARVANEH KAZEMI 48, mountaineer
Born in Tehran, capital of Iran, Kazemi's early life was far from a life of sport and the outdoors. “In my family, they thought if kids do sports then they don't have enough time to study,” she says. But after university, with more independence, she tried various sports before settling on badminton. “For seven to eight years, I did it professionally as a player, coach and referee. It was only in 2005 that I got into mountains a little as a hiker. For a few years I went trekking on high peaks in Iran, but just to enjoy nature and without any special goal. Then, in 2010, I tried my first high summit: Mustagh Ata (7,546m) in the west of China.” She coped so well on the mountain that an experienced climber told her she should try an 8,000m peak. But while encouragement was forthcoming outside Iran, inside the country it was often a different story. Kazemi was told that 8,000m mountains were no place for a woman. She wasn't to be denied though, and in 2011, climbed Manaslu, the world's eighth highest peak. Then, in 2012, came a daring double-summit of Everest, and Lhotse – the world's fourth highest. Climbing right behind the famous ‘ice doctors', the Sherpa team who fix ropes up Everest, she was the first climber to summit that year, even ahead of the late, great Ueli Steck. “Being in high mountains (not only achieving success on them) has completely changed my life,“she says. “I have learnt a lot from mountains and still learn a lot.” “My climbs were followed by my friends and some people of my country, but there wasn't lots of attention, even when I made a world record as the first woman in the world to climb Everest and Lhotse in a single week. It's because I'm a freelance mountaineer – I have no support from government – and I did it alone, not with a team.” Asked about her legacy, she says: “I feel responsibility because I tried to break many boundaries and inspire women and a lot of girls now follow me.” She believes things are slowly changing for the better: “With the big success of Iran women, society has to accept the reality that women are not weak, they can do big things and it brings more confidence to women.” Much work remains. “A lot of things in the world work against the normal people of Iran, everything is more difficult for us,” she says. But at least the country is blessed with many peaks, even close to Tehran, and there Kazemi finds solace. “A love of nature and mountains is the source of my energy,” she says. “I prefer remote places where I find peace, silence and beautiful scenery, alone or with small group of friends.”
HICHEM MOUBARAK 41, ultra runner & triathlete
Born in France, Moubarak moved to Qatar more than a decade ago to work in the energy sector, “to be part of the exceptional adventure and vision for the country,” as he puts it. “Here in Qatar there are many cultures and nationalities and this is what makes it very interesting from my point of view. It's a very modern country with a totally different approach to doing things,” he says. Today, when not working, he focuses his own energies on living a healthy, active life that sets an example for his family: as a raw vegan, for instance. “Being healthy is driven by feeling good on the inside, being able to climb or take on a challenge anytime, being able to see our children grow and providing them with a great way of thinking in their lives.” He mentions how life in Doha offers a diversity of escapes: from mangroves and the sea to the north, to the desert in the south, his usual training ground. “I run on any kind of terrain, mainly in the desert, but it can be on rocky terrain, dirt, mud, track . . . running for hours outside the city allows me to feel and hear nature. While moving steadily up the distances, he has become focused on using his running to help others less fortunate than himself. “After a few triathlons, I embarked on 4 Deserts races [a series of ultramarathons] and I'm doing the Grand Slam [all four] this year. This is for a charity, so I believe that one of the fuels is to have this goal to achieve.” He aims to raise US$30,000 for Charity: Water, enough to give 1,000 people – one for every kilometre he will run in the Grand Slam – access to clean drinking water. “Now running outdoor ultras is mainly influenced by looking to be connected with my mind, soul and body all together,” he says.
YOUSEF KHOURSHID 43, ultra runner
Half Kuwaiti and half Jordanian, Yousef works in his family's packaging business but is also the co-founder of Adventure Hub International, a sports company in Kuwait City. “I have always loved training and staying fit,” he says, “but the love for racing began in 2008. Prior to that most of my outdoor activities were related to hiking when I travelled, and spear fishing and diving.” He started running 5km and 10km races and gradually worked up from there, inspired by the example of running greats from far away and much closer to home: “I was mostly influenced by well known ultra runner Jo Petersen from New Zealand, and Salama Al Aqra, a great champion [and noted desert runner] from Jordan.” “The move to the multi-stage ultra scene was when I found a few pages on social media promoting extreme races and ultra running and that's how I got into this scene.” Since then, Yousef has completed 11 ultra events across the planet - most of them desert runs. “The ideal races for me are desert ultras,” he says, “I find mountain races very hard to train for as we barely have any high ground in Kuwait.” What they lack in topography is balanced by searing temperatures: “I usually do strength and resistance training three times a week and the rest are my long-run days which I spend usually on the roads or track. Most is flat and not very challenging – the heat is the only real challenge we have to overcome.” Then there are social attitudes to outdoor fitness: “Some friends and family are supportive but most think it's too harsh on the body considering the conditions we have to deal with. Very few have approached me to ask how to train and participate in these races.” Later this year Khourshid will run his third Racingtheplanet Ultramarathon at the Gobi March in Mongolia and he sees much of his running future tied to their 4 Deserts series. “I'm planning to continue my endeavours and challenges with them – the team they have are always a true inspiration to keep you going forward,” he says. “Future plans and dreams, circumstances permitting, would be Antarctica with RTP, which I have qualified for, plus an event in Namibia and the jungle marathon in Brazil.”