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HOG heaven meets downtown Beirut

The Arab world’s motorcycle fans embrace the bike, and a little American culture, in their later years.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The United States government may not be so popular in Lebanon or the Arab world, but Americana is alive and well here in the form of one American cultural icon: Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The Milwaukee-based company’s cult status here was evident earlier this month at the first annual HOG (the acronym for Harley Owners Group) tour of Lebanon. The three-day ride brought 267 riders and their loud, chrome-encrusted choppers here from around the Arab world.

“It’s the largest ride the country has ever seen, and one of the largest rolling rallies in the world,” said Marwan Tarraf, 41, the organizer of the ride and owner of Bikers Inc., a motorcycle store that will soon become the first licensed Harley-Davidson franchise shop in Lebanon.

Tarraf says there’s an official Harley Owners Group chapter in nearly every Arab country now. The Lebanon chapter only came into being in April and now boasts 150 members, and a Facebook group membership of more than 1,000. Tarraf estimates there are 600 Harley owners among Lebanon’s population of 4 million, and about 3,000 to 4,000 in the Arab world. And many of them have embraced the attitude, culture and dress associated with this century-old American brand.

At the tour's ending ceremony in downtown Beirut, in the shadow of the giant Al Amin mosque, the scene looked more like a mini Sturgis rally than a Middle Eastern capital.

Bikers in leather jackets, heavy boots and with Harley tattoos revved their engines, clouding the stage with a haze of blue exhaust, as organizers gave out awards in Arabic and English. Later, a country band dressed in cowboy hats and boots took the stage to play covers of Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Born to Be Wild,” the theme song from the 1960s motorcycle cult classic “Easy Rider.”

“It is definitely an American icon,” Tarraf said a few days later at his shop, "but Harley as a company expanded its markets and they reached the Middle East 10 or 15 years ago, where they found a new emerging market, and people loved the brand here."

In the pursuit of their hobby, some fans of the bike in the Middle East have broken cultural taboos.

One of three female riders to attend the Lebanon tour was Indji Ghattas, a 29-year-old Egyptian who made the nearly 1,000-mile trip from Cairo to Beirut on the bike she’s nicknamed “carrot,” because of its bright orange finish. Dressed in tight jeans and a black tank top, she’s been Egypt’s only licensed Harley dealer for 10 years. But Ghattas only started riding three years ago due to her family’s apprehension.

 “Because of safety issue, and because I’m the only woman riding in Egypt, it was a little difficult at first,” she said of her family’s concerns of her riding in a conservative Muslim country where the majority of women cover their heads and the roads are poorly maintained. “But now they see me riding and they’re cool with it.”

Ghattas was among the youngest of the Harley enthusiasts who came to Lebanon. Most who attended were middle-aged professionals with families, a love of cruising the open road and, at an average cost of $15,000 per bike, disposable income.