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Freedom in chrome and steel

To a growing number in the Mideast, the roar of a Harley drowns out the anti-West warnings from their leaders.

October 14, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — 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 California-like weather.

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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 the Harley."

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.

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