Mideast anti-Americanism doesnt apply to Harley-Davidsons
Mideast anti-Americanism doesnt apply to Harley-Davidsons
He"d had a rotten day at the office -- the boss had barked at him,
ordering him to get some mammoth project done within an impossible
deadline. So he got aboard his pearl-white Harley-Davidson Street
Glide, turned the ignition, gripped the throttle and revved the engine.
He rode through streets crowded with apartments, past well-lighted
skyscrapers. The city faded behind him and he breathed in the cool
nighttime air, his motorbike roaring through the desert.
For a few minutes, he felt free of his job, his family, of pressures
and demands on his time -- just heading out on the highway atop nearly
800 pounds of pure American thunder.
On a Middle Eastern highway.
"My mind just clears," says Rakan Talal, a 26-year-old from Riyadh,
Saudi Arabia"s capital, who was among a small but fervent crew of hog
fanatics converging on Lebanon the first weekend of October for the
country"s first Harley-Davidson tour. "I don"t think about anything.
Just the road and feeling the wind. Riding on two wheels is something
else. Riding a bike makes it all feel better."
About 130 Harley riders roared into town from all over the Arab world
-- Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. The group driving in from Jordan ran
into trouble at the Syrian border. Apparently, someone didn"t have the
proper papers. They were held up for hours. But in the end, it was cool.
Even as clerics and politicians in the Arab world ring out
denunciations of U.S. foreign policy and the encroachment of
Western-style decadence, these gleaming emblems of American freedom are
growing in popularity here, says Marwan Tarraf, who sells Harleys in
Lebanon and helped organize the tour. Five years ago, he knew of only
25 serious Harley riders in Lebanon. Now, he says, there are about 180.
Harley clubs are popping up around the region. Talal says his chapter
in Riyadh has about 300 members. They ride in one of the world"s most
religiously conservative countries wearing the black leather jackets,
heavy boots and snarling insignia of biker gangs everywhere.
Talal sees no incongruity in having the green flag of Saudi Arabia,
with its sword and elaborate Koranic script, right below the glistening
Harley-Davidson badge on his black denim jacket, or in playing Arabic
pop music as he rides his all-American bike.
In fact, he says, Saudi Arabia is the perfect place to ride. The wide
roads are fantastic for motorcycles, smooth and well-maintained. Such
highways are becoming more typical in the Middle East, especially in
the car culture of the Persian Gulf. Dry, sunny days are also common in
the region: Lebanon gets about 300 days a year of Southern
Most Harley riders seem to have some kind of tie to the United States.
"It"s part of American culture," says Tarraf, a burly 40-year-old with
a head shaved shiny and a goatee speckled with white. "It"s a lifestyle
adopted mostly by people who have some kind of connection to America.
They either lived there or studied there or are connected to Americans."
But anyone can ride a Harley. It"s all about freedom and the exhilaration of the open road and, like, wow, man.
"Once you get on a Harley you feel that you are really free and
that your spirit is always up high and you"re going through the wind,"
said Abraham Kadoumy, 51, who discovered motorcycle culture when he
lived in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early "80s.
"Freedom is what it"s all about," he says.
Harley-Davidsons also have deep roots in Lebanon. Police here have been
riding them for decades. In fact, bike dealer Tarraf says he fell in
love with Harleys after getting a lift on one stolen from the cops
during the 15-year civil war.
He dreamed of owning one until he was 28, when he bought his
first. He was living and working in New York City and went to the
dealership there, plunking down every last cent he had. "I didn"t even
have the money to pay for the gas," he says with a smile. "But I had
Many of the riders" girlfriends or wives accompanied them to the
tour, and in the case of Jidda resident Mohammed Shahabeddine, 47, even
his children were there.
He"s grooming his oldest, 19-year-old Nadine, to ride in Lebanon, where
she"s a student, though she says she"d be arrested by the morality
police if she was caught in Saudi Arabia driving a Harley, or any other
motor vehicle, for that matter.
She still loves to ride on back. "When you sit on the bike, everything is in front of you," she says.
Talal, the Harley fanatic from Riyadh, came with his wife, Sara, 25,
who goes riding with him wearing a pair of mirrored sunglasses and a
brown head scarf covering all but her face. It wouldn"t have been as
fun without her, he says.
But clearly she"s not as much of an enthusiast as he is.
"He treats the bike like his baby," she says.
Talal says he gets to live out a fantasy on a bike. Whenever he rides,
he says, he feels like a movie star from old biker films, especially
the 1969 classic "Easy Rider," starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda
as two nomads drifting across America in a quest to be free above all
"People hated the way they were because they were so free and they weren"t afraid of doing what they wanted," Talal says.
Luckily, modern-day Lebanon is perhaps a bit more tolerant than the
Deep South of America that figures in "Easy Rider." As the tour began,
few paid the Harley fans any mind as they gathered in the midmorning
sun to greet one another and show off their shiny trophies of steel and
rubber in a parking lot next to Beirut"s blue-domed Mohammed al Amin
But plenty of heads turned as the riders rolled out around 11 a.m. to
travel the country in squads of 25, machines roaring, the glares of
drivers on their way to work and the pious headed to church and mosque
reflected in the mirrored sunglasses, shiny black helmets and polished