When the Hells Angels arrived in Beirut this spring, they showed up at the Four Seasons, located in the upscale neighborhood of Zaytouna Bay, whose clean and empty streets are sprinkled with high-end hotels and swim clubs. The unlikely setting was the site of the Harley-Davidson Owner’s Group (HOGs) annual general assembly. Given Harley-Davidson’s appeal to the upper middle class, the Four Seasons was not an unusual location for a HOGs event, but few expected the presence of the world’s most notorious motorcycle club.
Marwan Tarraf, the 47-year-old founder of Lebanon’s first Harley dealership, recognized the outlaws instantly because of their signifying tattoos and heavy chains. Approaching three “full-time” Angels, whom he assumed were Germans of Lebanese descent, he asked why they were there. When Angels expressed interest in opening a chapter in Beirut, he explained a few things about the country to them.
“It would be like going to Somalia and trying to start an outlaw group,” Tarraf tells me. “There are militias with 10,000 armed men in them. The rulers of those militias are basically ruling the country.”
From a spate of trendy repair shops to the plethora of biker bars, motorcycles are having their moment in Beirut. What began as a few men in the 1970s and 80s drawn to the abandon of the road and the freedom of a world outside of politics has now become a subculture in its own right.
If the Hells Angels want to open a chapter, we will face them
But some fear that as the scene becomes more mainstream, it could become a victim of its own popularity. With the rumor that the Hells Angels want to open their own chapter, some fear all two-wheeled vehicles could be outlawed, like they were in one Lebanese city where armed groups used motorcycles to carry out killings. Or will the scene, which has flourished outside the confines of Lebanon’s sectarian system, become yet another partisan activity?
For now, Lebanon’s only true outlaw group is the Rebels MC. And they are not taking the news of the Hells Angels lightly. “If they want to open a chapter, we will face them,” says Tony Istambouly, the president of the Rebels Motorcycle Club in Lebanon. Wearing his leather club jacket and ruffled hair, Istambouly perpetually looks like he just got off his Harley. Lebanon is Rebels’ territory, he says, and if the Angels tried to open up a chapter, his club would consider it a personal affront.
A software engineer with a penchant for daytime drinking and chain-smoking, Istambouly points out that the Angels are most likely looking for club business, like trafficking women, something that the gang was recently charged with in Germany. Lebanon is too small a country with too many well-armed players for a foreign club to begin dabbling in the illegal.
“Rebels forever, forever Rebels,” says club President Tony Istambouly as he explains the significance of being a ‘one percenter’ or outlaw motorcycle club. Photo: Alexandra Talty
Lebanon’s largest and most well-known paramilitary group is Hizbollah, a political party with a military wing. However, many parties, religious factions, and family groups have their own armed followings. These are all in addition to the Lebanese military and police force. For an international motorcycle club associated with organized crime, Lebanon is small pond with a lot of powerful, gun-wielding fish in it.
In Australia, their home base, the Rebels club has been associated by police with gang violence and drug smuggling, but in Lebanon they are adamant that they do not engage in any illegal activity to generate income.
Despite its newfound popularity, Lebanon is not ideal territory for motorcycles. In addition to poorly maintained roads, military road blocks, and higher-than-average traffic fatalities, riders have been unable to tour outside of the country thanks to the civil war in Syria and a closed border with Israel, following the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war. Bike enthusiasts are forced to ride a ferry from Tripoli, Lebanon, to Bodrum, Turkey, in order to access “mainland.”