This is the story of four bikers who fought on different sides of the Lebanese civil warbut who have now discovered friendship and a common cause in the local Harley-Davidson Club – which they founded.
The 15-year war between 1975 and 1990 divided communities along sectarian lines, split a country and left deep scars.
George Greige is Maronite; Marwan Tarraf, Shia; Jamal Kahwaji, Sunni; and Ghassan Haider is Druze.
But they all share a passion for biking and Harleys, their saving grace.
Reflecting on the senselessness of war and the dangers of power and greed, the four bikers say they fought in the war not out of deep personal conviction, but because they felt they had to pick a side and defend themselves.
“At a crucial age, we found ourselves in an atmosphere of war,” explains Ghassan Haidar. “We had to take part in the war to protect ourselves. Everyone was armed, regardless of their age. So why not us?”
The war involved a mix of local, irregular militias, both Muslim and Christian – as well as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) which arguably also drove a wedge between communities. The different factions were backed by regional and international powers that flooded the country with arms.
“Weapons were available everywhere and in every house,” says Marwan Tarraf, who became an expert at handling guns. “We had them in our homes, underneath our houses. Everyone was armed.”
Christians tended to live in East Beirut while the Muslims were concentrated in the west of the city Beirut.
“There were rumours that people from East Beirut might attack and kill us,” recalls Jamal Kahwaji. Kahwaji was a teenage motocross stunt prodigy before the war. “Nearly everyone armed themselves at that time,” he says.
George Greige wanted to carry a weapon, so his father told him to join the army, which had men from all religions. But “in the army, we heard that Christians were being killed. I’m a Christian. This pushed me to leave and defend the Christians. It was an ideology thing,” says Greige.
Unlike Greige, Tarraf was more pragmatic and joined a party, he says, “just because it was the closest one to my house. I made friends on the basis of the people, not politics. But at that time, you defended the party and its doctrines. And you might even die for it without understanding a thing,” says Tarraf. “Its doctrine might even contradict your own but you just followed everyone else.”
He describes how he found rocket fuel left by the departing PLO and used it to power heaters and so finance his first motorbike.
“When the PLO left Beirut [in 1982], I discovered a storeroom in the university behind our house. I went down to the storeroom and saw that weapons and ammunition had been left there. Two bags contained something that looked like small pebbles. I scooped up a handful and put them into my pocket … A few days later, someone must have lit a fire and I still had some pebbles in my pocket. I threw one into the fire and it exploded,” explains Tarraf. Later, “I mixed them with water and sawdust which made them very flammable. A guy bought the mixture from me and sold it as fuel for bathroom water heaters. With the cash, I bought my first motorbike and began training with Jamal … Jamal was the leader of our group at that time.”
When the war ended in 1990, each of the men struggled to get back on track. But today they’re firm friends and all agree that the war and their role in it was pointless.
In 2006, they founded a branch of the Harley-Davidson Club in Lebanon and began riding together.
“Many people own motorbikes and want to be part of this global community,” says Tarraf, who’s currently the president of the Lebanon chapter. “The club became popular. It filled a social role in the country, not just a recreational role.”
As president, “The first decision I made was to ban anything related to politics or religion,” says Tarraf. “Club members know that these subjects are banned.”
Tarraf and Kahwaji have pooled their talent and resources and now work together in Tarraf’s motorbike garage. Kahwaji’s son, Adam, has also joined the business and is training to compete at motocross.
“My hope in training Adam is that it will open opportunities for him so he doesn’t have to be stuck in this country,” says Kahwaji.
Source: Al Jazeera