Saturday, April 30, 2011

Harleys in Sinai

Harley owners storm the desert By Schams Elwazer, CNN

April 8, 2010 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)


CNN's Schams Elwazer takes her maiden trip on a Harley Davidson

Inside the Middle East joins the first Harley Owners Group rally in Egypt

200 bikers ride the American icon on a 460 kilometer route

(CNN) -- It was my first time on a Harley Davidson and I'll admit I was more than a little nervous.

I had only known for two minutes the man in whose hands (and riding ability) I was entrusting my life. It didn't help that camerawoman Raja Razek kept whizzing past at up to 160 kilometers per hour on the back of another Harley; my heart skipped several beats as I watched her contort into frighteningly precarious positions to get the best camera angles.

We were in Sharm El Sheikh in south Sinai to cover Egypt's First International HOG (Harley Owners Group) rally for April's edition of Inside the Middle East.

Ahead of the 7 a.m. start time, the sight was surreal -- 167 Harley Davidsons, a classic American icon, chrome glinting in the rays of the Sinai sunrise. A slice of pure Americana in Egypt as 200 people prepared to cruise through the 461 kilometer route.

The excitement was palpable as everyone made final tweaks, tightening bolts and wiping down mudguards; all decked out in the finest biker gear -- the ubiquitous leather jacket, bandanas, studded boots, designer sunglasses and even some chaps.

Video: Harleys in Sinai The smell: a heady cocktail of leather, exhaust fumes and asphalt, topped off with strong doses of testosterone and adrenaline.

At first we couldn't get over how un-Middle Eastern the whole thing seemed. But this faded. We could see blue glass "evil eyes" on the handlebars (good luck charms). Flags from all over the region flapped in the hot wind; bikers came from Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the UAE, and a handful of Europeans and Americans.

Then we hit the road, led by a full police escort.

"It's the closest you can get to flying," says Indjy Ghattas, a young Egyptian woman who is not only one of the few women riders in the country but is also the Harley Davidson dealer in Egypt and the organizer of the whole event. "It's the sound of engine, the vibration, the feel of it."

The roaring sound of a large pack of Harleys revving up and hitting the pavement is rather intimidating for the uninitiated. You don't hear it as much as feel it coming up through the ground.

We snaked along the winding road out of the city and into the ancient land of Moses. The terrain is vast, rugged and beautiful; the mountains streaked with lines of green, yellow, red and black.

Fifty-five-year old Egyptian-American Sherif Begermi is a veteran biker and looks the part -- white goatee, denim jacket with patches from various Harley events, and a stars and stripes bandana.

"When we first started riding [in Egypt], people didn't know what to make of us," says Begermi. "Police would stop us to ask us 'what are you?' Not 'who are you?' but 'what are you'?"

As we rode through Sinai's villages, I'm not sure the stunned but amused-looking onlookers knew what to make of us either. Sheepherders, women walking their kids out of school, men coming out of mosques. Everyone stopped in their tracks and smiled in wonder. A few waved.

Even a herd of camels on the side of the road stared in confusion at the sight of these strange shiny monsters roaring through the terrain.

At a stop for gasoline, we caught up with some of the riders.

Lana Medawar rode on the back of her husband's bike all the way from Beirut -- a 1200 kilometer trek. "I'm planning to learn how to ride myself, not only be a passenger behind my husband."

Ghattas says the passion is slowly catching on with women. "When I have a woman buying a bike I'm like the happiest person on earth."

Mohamed Fahmy rides with daughter Sherifa in the backseat in a pink Harley T-shirt. Asked if she plans to ride, both smile as dad says "Soon - hopefully not too soon... She wants to take my bike."

In contrast to the stereotypical image of HOG riders as outlaws, this event feels like a family affair and HOG enthusiasts say it is part of what makes Harley unique.

"Harley Davidson is a culture, it's a community," says Ahmed Mourad as he pays a gas station attendant. "Other motorcycles are only motorcycles."

Swiss-Egyptian Sherif Loutfi says he rode Japanese bikes (what HOG riders like to call "riceburners") for a decade but switched to the Harley three years ago. "They call it a mid-life crisis," jokes Loutfi.

Halfway through the ride, we stop for lunch near of Saint Catherine's monastery at the foot of biblical Mount Sinai and everyone takes a much-needed reprieve from the kidney-rattling ride.

Leather jackets come off to reveal back braces. Conversations turn to day-jobs. Most of the riders are "weekend warriors," spending most of their days as upper-middle class businessmen; jewelry dealers, hotel managers, bankers and other white-collar professionals.

As fun as the ride is, one must take note of the fact that this is a hobby for the well-off. Even the cheapest Harley costs more than the average Egyptian makes in a year. Many riders we met own more than one bike and acknowledge the fact that, financially, this is a relatively exclusive club.

But Ghattas says Harley culture shouldn't be measured in dollars. "It's not a cheap hobby but it's not as expensive as people think."

"It's more than just an expensive toy," she says. "It's a dream."

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