Lebanon’s (off) road warriors bond over dirt bikes

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Lebanese dirt bikers meet outside a gas station in the Chouf mountains before returning to Beirut. (Photo: Marc Abizeid)

By: Marc Abizeid

Published Friday, April 11, 2014

Once a week dirt bikers gather from across Lebanon to discover a new part of the country on two wheels. The Sunday ritual has become a chance for working class youths to forget their grievances, set aside politics, and bond over their love of riding.

A dozen dirt bikers in their 20s roll into a small parking lot across from a mosque in the town of Shheem, some 40 kilometers south of Beirut in Lebanon’s Chouf mountains.

There’s no doubt the residents of the town heard the pack coming. Heavy vibrations from the exhausts of their Hondas rattles everything along the main road, setting off car alarms and agitating old people who looked to the ground as they shook their heads in disapproval.

A boy no older than 10 descends slowly from a steep road on a green moped, smoke emerging from its tailpipe, to check out what’s going on.

“Is there a problem?” he asks, sensing this ragtag group of bikers has come for trouble.

“There is no problem,” one of the riders responds. The boy briefly observes the crowd, sends a text message, then chugs his scooter back up the hill.

Minutes later a second group of almost a dozen more riders from the area shows up to guide the pack of mostly Beirut bikers on the next leg of their journey.

They now number over 20 confessionally mixed, but politically muted, working class thrill seekers, drawn together over that shared urge to ride. It’s not so much the dirt bike that unifies them, but the opportunity to unwind from the daily grind in a country stacking with problems.

“I work every day and take off Sunday for the sole purpose of going on a ride with this group,” Hussein Khalil Chehade, 25, says. “We don't get involved in sectarianism, and we don’t touch politics. We're all human, and that’s the most important thing -- no matter what happens, these are all my brothers.”

After greeting one another, the riders climb back into their saddles and kick start their bikes. The sound is explosive. A couple of riders rev their engines as their comrades signal for them to stop, conscious not to disturb villagers enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon.

A large, bald man in his 40s leans over his balcony several meters above the parking lot where he shouts and gestures to express his discontent with the noise. But barely anyone notices. Most of them were already in third gear and well on their way up the mountain.

“Of course the noise we make is bothersome for many people. I can't deny this,” 20-year-old Omar Traboulsi says. “But there are also people who get excited when they see us. They clap for you, give you the thumbs up.”

Lebanese Pro Bikers taking a break in the Chouf. (Photo: Marc Abizeid)Lebanese Pro Bikers taking a break in the Chouf. (Photo: Marc Abizeid)

This is Traboulsi’s first ride since a crash left him with torn ligaments in his leg a little over a month ago. But neither that accident, nor having just worked a graveyard shift at his job’s 24-hour call center, were going to prevent him from missing this week’s journey.

“I worked from 12:30 am to 7:30 am, went home, changed my clothes, woke up another rider, and came,” he explains. “You feel different when you’re not able to ride, like something’s missing. You get hooked on it. You feel like the bike is calling for you to get on and go.”

The ride has been an almost weekly tradition since Traboulsi and his friends from Beirut’s Tarik al-Jdide neighborhood got together with their compatriots in Dahiyeh a couple years ago, branding themselves the Lebanese Pro-Bikers.

From the very beginning there was an understanding that no one brings up politics or religion. It’s the unwritten rule that allows a group with members from politically divided communities to make the project succeed.

Still, some admit having felt apprehensive at first with the idea of mixing with people outside of their sect and political affiliation.

“In the beginning I thought maybe it would be strange since I’ve never in my life done something like this,” Traboulsi says.

“Because of the situation in the country you might think that maybe we wouldn't get along, but when you ride with us, you realize that’s not the case at all,” he adds. “We are the living proof.”

Chehade, from Dahiyeh’s Chiyah neighborhood, nods in agreement.

“If anyone wanted to start a problem, he would no longer be welcome to ride with us,” he says. “The people here come to have fun, not to get confrontational.”

There was a single incident they could remember when a conflict arose between two people over a political issue. But they quickly forgave each other and moved on.

The group may have started out as a collective of riders from Beirut, but through word of mouth, and Facebook, others from different parts of the country joined in, a testament to its openness and non-sectarian nature.

“We only have one condition for joining,” Traboulsi said. “You have to be respectful.”

Nohad Sarieddine, 22, from the Aley village of Sawfar has become one of the newest recruits after picking up his Baja last month. This is only his second trip, but says he has no intention of quitting anytime soon.

“I had saved up a little money working here and there, and started asking around if anyone wanted to sell a dirt bike, then I came across this group,” he explains. “They’re the ones who really got me excited about riding.”

After following the guides from Shheem up past the neighboring town of Aanout, we veer onto a dirt path that turns into a steep, rocky trail leading into a valley divided by the Awali river, which also separates the district of Mount Lebanon from the South.

The riders, who plan the trips over WhatsApp ( a popular free texting app), have discovered most of the South, passing through multiple villages down the coast along the border with Palestine, and back up north in a loop. Fighting in Tripoli had prevented them from travelling to the North, but with the situation improving, they say that could soon change.

They spend a couple hours riding around the banks of the river and flying their bikes over jumps before uncovering a creek fed by a waterfall hidden under trees inside a ravine. After a quick dive, the boys from Shheem turn back towards their village while the rest of us continue up the opposite side of the valley, led by Sarieddine.

We are briefly held up by three gunmen wielding kalashnikovs who block the thin mountain road with two pickup trucks and a Grand Cherokee. They check a couple IDs, determine we pose no threat to whoever hired them, and let us on our way.

After riding on for several kilometers through the Chouf we stop for a bite at a sandwich shop ahead of our descent to Beirut. As they stood outside waiting for their orders, about 15 middle aged men on Harley Davidsons roar by. Their massive, twin cylinder hogs produced a level of noise that easily drowns out the sound of the 250cc Hondas.

The dirt bikers are cheerless. “Stupid,” one of them grumbles. “Those guys are stupid.”

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