woensdag, mei 24, 2017

Two young Dutch Muslims cycled all the way from the Netherlands to Mecca on a wooden bike, to raise awareness about sustainability within the Islam. It was the result of a close friendship that started six years before at the international conference centre of Initiatives of Change in Caux. ‘With our trip we hope to inspire young Muslims in a practical and personal way.’ 

A green pilgrimage to Mecca

Vrienden Rudy van der Aar en Mohammed Kechouh fietsten deze winter van Nederland naar MekkaIn eight weeks Rudy van der Aar (27) en Mohammed Kechouh (28) cycled from the Netherlands to Mecca. It was a journey of personal reflection and a way to raise awareness about sustainability within the Islam. Thousands of people followed their journey on Facebook and learned about both their small and bigger actions for sustainability.

‘People talk about Islam ánd sustainability, as if it were two things. But it is the same. Living according to Islam means living consciously of your environment,’ says Kechouh. ‘With our trip we wanted to inspire young people to act upon this, in a practical and personal way,’ adds Van der Aar. Kechouh: ‘We wanted to show that everyone can make a difference. And that this is not a burden, but actually gives your live more meaning.’

Their story finds its way to the bigger public. During their travels Al Jazeera and the Egyptian television broadcast items about the ‘two Dutch guys cycling to Mecca for sustainability’. Upon their return to the Netherlands they tell their story in mosques and several associations, as well as in national media. ‘Sustainability is not much debated within the Muslim community. But when we told our stories we often got this reaction: ah, that actually makes sense, I just never thought of it that way.’

After their return both Van der Aar and Kechouh started working for Initiatives of Change Netherlands to develop projects in the area of sustainability and social cohesion.  


Van der Aar and Kechouh met each other in 2011 at the international conference centre of Initiatives of Change in Caux, Switzerland. Together with some forty other Dutch they participated in the conference Learning to be a peacemaker for young European Muslims. The conference focussed on peacebuilding and dialogue from an Islamic perspective. After the conference they both were involved with the Dutch chapter of this European network.

It is the beginning of a close friendship, in which they share an interest for peacebuilding and personal action. Soon they discover they also share a special wish: to one day cycle to Mecca. Kechouh: ‘I discovered I can reflect very well on a bike. Thus the idea grew to cycle to Mecca.’ Van der Aar: ‘I once flew to Mecca for the little pilgrimage, but I missed the physical and mental effort that should go with a pilgrimage. I wished that I could return there in an environmentally friendly way.’


De fietsen van de vrienden Rudy van der Aar en Mohammed Kechouh die deze winter van Nederland naar Mekka fietsten.Thus the idea for their green pilgrimage is born. The company Cocomat that is impressed with their plan offers them two wooden bikes. Minor disadvantage: the bikes have only two gears. ‘But they matched our messages of sustainability so well that we decided to use them anyway.’ They won’t regret it. The bikes appear to be an excellent start for a conversation with all the curious people they meet on the way.

In the middle of winter they leave, travelling through snow and rain via Germany, Eastern-Europe, the Balkan, Greece and Egypt. Twice they have no other choice then to take the plane, in the section between Greece and Jeddah.  

The last part, from Jeddah to Mecca, they accomplish on bike again, despite the strong warnings they got from Egyptians not to bike in Saudi-Arabia. Van der Aar: ‘When we were stopped by the police I thought they were going to arrest us. But they just wanted to warn us to be very careful. When we arrived at the mosque the guards came to us. But they just wanted to make selfies with our bikes!’     

De vrienden Rudy van der Aar en Mohammed Kechouh fietsten deze winter van Nederland naar Mekka.It was one of the personal lessons of this trip for Van der Aar: never let your own prejudice guide you. ‘We have met so many nice people and found help so often.’


We are all together responsible for the earth, is the strong conviction of the two young Muslims, and Islam can help us understand this. Both the life of the prophet and his teachings give many clues about how to deal with nature and the environment, they say. Van der Aar: ‘Did you know the prophet only ate meat two times a month? He warned that eating too much meat is addictive and bad for nature and people.’

Also there are verses in the Koran about purity and avoiding waste. Kechouh: ‘About the ritual of washing it is written: don’t waste water, even if it is alongside a river. So even if it is a spiritual deed, and you are next to a river, you should not spill water. Another verse says: eat and drink, but don’t waste anything, because God doesn’t like the wasters.’

Clean up

During their trip they bring this conscious attitude in many ways into practice. In Greece they raise money to bring food to refugees. In Macedonia they feed the famished dogs alongside the road with dog cookies. On the Egyptian television they explain how they cook their own water and bring it in a thermos bottle, so they don’t have to buy plastic bottles. In Mecca they don’t even let their hair –it is obligatory to cut your hair as part of the pilgrimage – go to waste, but send it to a foundation that makes wigs.     

When they arrive at the holy mountain Jabal Al Nour in Mecca, they start a clean up. Kechouh: ‘I would estimate that there are some thousands of garbage bags full of plastic spread around the mountain. Many people feel powerless in the face of so much waste.’ But that is exactly why the mountain is a good place to start an action. Furthermore: Muslims from all over the world with all different cultures come here. That makes it a unique place to raise awareness about waste.

They put their bicycles, holding signs about purity in Islam, at the foot of the mountain and just start to fill garbage bags. In the days that follow more people join them. They involve the local shop owners and taxi drivers with their initiative, and make posters in different languages to hang in the local shops.

Although their action got positive reactions, they realise this is a problem that cannot be solved from one day to the other. Van der Aar: ‘We need a change of mentality.’ Kechouh: ‘Some people threw away their garbage right in front of me, while I was cleaning.’  

Activating people

During their travels they inspired and activated a lot of people. What have they learned about involving people? Kechouh: ‘It helps to address people from a positive perspective: you can make a change. That is not a hassle. Living consciously makes life more beautiful.’

‘It also helps to tackle the subject as a Muslim through the Muslim community’, says Kechouh. ‘You can appeal to people’s identity, or at least one of their identities. And if you want to engage with people is it important to connect as much as possible with their identity and perception of the world.’

Van der Aar stresses the importance of leading by example. ‘Practice what you preach. By only standing there with that bike in Mecca and at the foot of the mountain, we drew a lot of attention. If you really want to make a difference, you should probably come back with the bike more often. But maybe we at least have planted some seeds.’


Text: Irene de Pous | Photo's: Mohammed Kechouh & Rudy van der Aar