Will outlaw motorcycle gangs threaten Lebanon’s booming biker scene?

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 by: 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.”

Rebels biker rides in formation through the Beiruti suburbs. Photo by: Alexandra Talty

But over the past 15 years the number of motorcyclists has jumped from 700 to nearly 5,000, according to Tarraf. Talar Partiyan, the former director of HOGs, believes that two-wheeled vehicles have seen a surge in popularity because of the traffic that plagues the small country. As for the propagation of motorcycle clubs—which barely existed on an official level ten years ago—some say that the establishment of a Harley dealership has led to an increased interest in group rides.

But even movement inside Lebanon is constrained. Until 2000, southern parts of the country were occupied by Israel, which meant that for many Lebanese, the south was off-limits or only accessible with permission from the Israeli government.

Even now, two-wheeled vehicles must obtain a permit from the government to drive through the crusader port of Sidon. The city outlawed all two-wheeled vehicles in the late 1990s following a spate of motorcycle assassinations by armed groups. Lebanon’s main highway cuts directly through the city, meaning that in order to access the southern part of the country, motorcyclists must secure a permit before riding. As a workaround, Tarraf hires a tow truck to ferry him and his bike through the city for $10. Once outside of the city limits, he gets back on the open road.

The outlaw club draw looks from BMW SUVs and packed microbuses. Photo by: Alexandra Talty

Tarraf insists that Lebanon’s bikers are apolitical. “You can be whoever you want; you can be a Hizbollah supporter or a Lebanese forces supporter, but don’t bring it here.” He has kicked out members for discussing politics during meetings or on tours. Most groups, including the Rebels, have a similar policy.

During the civil war, Beirut was split down the middle with the so-called Green Line separating the Muslim west from the Christian east. Afterwards, Tarraf began riding informally with a group of bikers, some of whom he had fought against.

When they came together in the 1990s, it was like discovering a whole new country on the other side of the line. Reaching across sectarian and religious lines, the men were brought together by their love of motorcycles and the open road. An award winning documentary, Wheels of War, portrays their camaraderie.

By the early 2000s, the nascent scene had grown to around 700 but there was still a stigma attached. “You wouldn’t want to marry your daughter to a biker,” Tarraf says.

Much has changed since then. These days, Lebanon is the first country in the world to have a female director of HOGs, Talar Partiyan, and the only group that doesn’t allow women is the Rebels. Partiyan says, “I hate it when they say it’s a guy thing. It’s a hobby like basketball.”

One day I went for a ride with the Rebels on their quarterly camping trip to Jezzine. I rode on the back of Istambouly’s Harley-Davidson Road King as we weaved through the grinding traffic. The sunny weather was perfect for riding but tensions were high that day as elections for local representatives in the south were being held.

Istambouly signaled speed bumps and slowdowns to his troops. There are nearly twenty gestures used by all Lebanese motorcyclists, one of which indicates potholes on both sides of the roads.

As we left Beirut’s sprawl, traffic subsided, and we trolled in formation with AC/DC and Metallica on full blast, the Rebels drawing looks from packed microbuses and BMW SUVs alike We rode through three military checkpoints on the two-hour journey, a standard number of roadblocks in the country. The boys were waved through.

A pit stop invited the attention of the secret police, but after a quick explanation, we were left alone to drink Almaza beer and stare into a verdant valley. As we discussed the logistics of the trip, Istambouly topped off his beer with Stoli from a half-pint bottle that is perpetually stored in his leather jacket.

On the fourth pit stop of the ride, the crew looks out into a valley of the Chouf mountains while sharing beers and a cigarette. Photo by: Alexandra Talty

Growing up in the Beiruti suburb Jouniyeh, Istambouly remembers seeing crosses in all of his classrooms. Nearly all of his friends were Christian. With a population of over four million, Lebanon has 18 official sects.

“When I started riding and I started realizing I have Muslim friends with me on the road [who were] better than Christian friends, that’s when I stopped caring [about religion],” says Istambouly.

Now his Sergeant-At-Arms—his second in command—is Muslim. As Istambouly often says, brotherhood comes before everything else.

Weeks later, at the Thursday night “Rock and Roll Pizza Party” at Fuel Bar, a decidedly-American hangout in the hip Mar Mikhael neighborhood, the sudden arrival of the Hells Angels are the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Men and women relax outside the bar on their bikes, while bar-goers line up for free pizza. It’s been six weeks since the infamous group’s arrival. Bikers are still hesitant to speak openly of the Angels, although they are happy that for now, the outlaw group is gone.

The Rebels’ Sergeant-At-Arms, Mac Barazi, 35, stands away from the noise and asks a biker friend for a cigarette. The friend, who belongs to another club, punches Barazi and makes him promise that this is his last one for the night.

Barazi recently recovered from a rare form of cancer. The former mixed martial arts fighter prides himself on his strength and initially kept the diagnosis secret. He lost all of his friends outside of motorcyclists. Recalling the painful time, he says, “my brothers stood behind me.”