Connect to share and comment

HOG heaven meets downtown Beirut

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

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.”