The booming sound of thunder dominates the streets of Beirut. You hear them long before they enter your field of vision. The mammoth beasts, hungry for more stretches of road to devour in a hurricane, roar into vision. But these riders are not the shaggy-haired, 1% biker warriors straddling their Harley Davidsons into battle. They’ve done all that. Now it’s quite the opposite.
During the Lebanese Civil war from 1975 to 1990, barriers were erected across Beirut. Barriers which blocked the streets and formed a motocross playground in West Beirut, but also barriers across the population. Barriers between families. Barriers between friends. And barriers within people’s minds. Lebanon was broken into zones, strict battle lines that could not be crossed under any circumstance.
During the Civil War, the Muslim enclave was in the west of the city. The east belonged to the Christians. The two enclaves were separated by a fortified wall. The population were forced to take up arms to protect themselves. Weapons crept into people’s homes. They became the norm, an accepted part of reality. Young and Old. Some joined the army. Everyone took up weapons.
Death was becoming a daily occurrence. Standing in plain sight for all to witness. Jamal Kahwaji remembers seeing an ambulance from one of the Lebanese factions loading up the dead. They were leaving the wounded where they fell but carefully loading up the corpses to be transported. He asked his friend why they were taking only the dead. His friend told him that they could send the foreign ID cards from the dead to the foreign governments they worked with and they would be paid for each ID card they sent.
Ghassan Haidar recalls having to tell his friend’s newlywed, pregnant wife that her husband would not be coming home. He was in the morgue. Israeli snipers had killed him. The weight of war was a heavy burden on the young men across Lebanon.
Men were dying in the name of their faction or party, dying for doctrines that they had no hand in writing and no interest in upholding. The end of the war didn’t bring an end to the turmoil. In 1991, after the militias were dissolved, the arrests kept coming. Young men who had already had their youth snatched away, were still being hunted. Those who had fought on the losing side were being hunted for the part they had played in a war they didn’t want, by an enemy they never chose.
This lost generation of men had learnt nothing since they were 15 years-old except for how to fire a gun. There had been no room for education during the war. They couldn’t get jobs. Those who were able to emigrate did. The barriers between the population remained even once the walls had been pulled down.
But collaboration and friendship could be found in the most unlikely of places. In 1997, Ghassan, Marwan Tarraf and George Griege bought their first Harley Davidson motorcycles. Only 15 people in Lebanon had a Harley at the time and three struck up a friendship. They met other Harley owners. When the walls came down, it was like a whole new part of the city had opened up. George would invite Ghassan and the others to East Beirut and show them the roads, Ghassan would do the same when George and Tarraf came to his part of the city.
Their first long trip together was to Jordan. 17 bikers loaded up their hogs and drove from Beirut to Jordan. Some of these men had been in armed conflict with each other only years before. Now they were brought together by their passion for motorcycles. By 2006 the first Harley Davidson motorcycle club in Lebanon was born.
Led by Marwan, one of the first rules was there was to be no discussion of politics or religion. The members were connected by more than that. They had all shared the experience of war. They had all lived through it and had come out the other side with their lives.
In Beirut, the sounds of gunshot have been replaced by the loud thud of an approaching swarm of Harley Davidsons. Now when you ask Marwan about the prospect of another war in Lebanon, he proclaims that he is not afraid of another war.
The people of Beirut fear barriers. The barriers which separated the Lebanese population is worse than any war. Wars have an end. But segregation between the children of Lebanon seeps into the fabric of society and this is a far greater fear. Lebanon still has barriers that need tearing down, but people like Marwan, Ghassan and George and their motorcycles are bringing unity to a fragmented city.