HOG heaven meets downtown Beirut

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.

Graphic designer Hani Bayoun, 47, of the Lebanon chapter bought an $18,000 Road King last year while his wife was out of town. She and other family members accused him of having a mid-life crisis and “acting like a kid.” They also worried the new accessories — the Harley T-shirts, leather vest, boots and black bandana — would avalanche into more permanent adornments.

“They had this picture in their minds that bikers are guys with tattoos, and with ear piercings, and they said no, it’s impossible you’re going to ride,” he said. “I said no, it’s a hobby, and it’s my reward, it’s something for me.”

Others on the tour, like Amer Al Khaldi, 46, picked up motorcycle riding while visiting or living in the United States. Khaldi rode his first Harley 25 years ago as a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

When Khaldi returned to his home in Saudi Arabia to serve as the chief executive officer of the family’s communication company in Riyadh, he dreamed of buying a Harley for another decade and a half. He finally purchased one 10 years ago, and tours whenever he can. His wife, Amal, rode shotgun on the last day of the Lebanon ride, wearing a stylish hat that subtly covered her Islamic headscarf.

Tarraf, the owner of Bikers Inc., started riding motorcycles as a teenager in Beirut in the 1970s, during Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war. The first Harley he saw was a stolen police Shovelhead in the possession of a militiaman in his neighborhood.

“I was a little kid, and I was looking at the bike, and I said, ‘I’m going to have one of these,’” he said.

The chance to own a Harley came when Tarraf traveled to California for film school in 1992. Instead of spending the money his parents had given him for tuition at the University of Southern California, he bought a 1991 black Heritage Classic for $12,000 from a Harley dealer named Bogey, and quickly fell in with a group of “old school” bikers.

“That’s where I learned all the biking tricks, like how to live like a biker, how to fix your bike, how to have a biker’s attitude,” Tarraf said, his smile curling up the edges of his handlebar mustache.

But the biker’s life was short lived. Tarraf soon ran out of money, and he couldn’t even afford to put gas the Harley’s tank. He packed up and enrolled at Parsons Design School in New York to restart his academic studies. He stayed in school, graduated and eventually moved back to Lebanon in 2001 to open a successful film and TV production company with his wife. He continued to ride Harleys as a hobby, but fellow bikers in Lebanon were always bothering him to bring replacement bike parts from the U.S. and asking for him to help with repairs. So, he opened the Bikers Inc. store in 2007. The business took off.

“The production company is still running but I don’t do production anymore,” he said. “I’m into grease now. I spend all my time at the shop, or riding with the guys. I call it an 'early retirement.'"

Tarraf now sells between 60 and 70 bikes every year, including one to Lebanon’ most famous biker, Lebanese politician and Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, to whom he sold a 1200 Harley Sportster last year.

Tarraf hopes to add more customers in the future. He points out that Lebanon’s new Harley Owners Group chapter is just one of 9,000 such groups around the world, with 1.5 million members. Although only 15 percent of Harley Davidson’s $5 billion in annual revenues come from outside the U.S., he believes the all-American corporation is coming to see global sales, including those in the Middle East, as the future of the company’s growth. As for anti-American feelings in the Arab world affecting business, he says the spirit of the Harley brand is both positive and universal.

“It’s like an outlet; the freedom it gives you, the feeling of brotherhood, crowd, people around you, engines, noises, all that, so people got into it and they like it,” he said. “I don’t think people like Harley Davidson because it’s an American brand, but they do see America through a Harley Davidson. [It’s] a face of America that the whole world likes.”