The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

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Cruising with the Hogs

Posted by vmsalama on November 29, 2004

Harley-Davidsons are more than motorcycles, they’re a way of life. So watch out Cairo. That dull roar of thunder is a band of bikers coming your way.

By Vivian Salama

Business Today Egypt

A handful of Cairo’s successful businessmen have shown up at Harley-Davidson’s Zamalek showroom early on a Friday morning. There’s not a suit or tie in sight, only black leather, denim, bandannas and a round of personalized Harley-Davidson vests.
My jeans and t-shirt give me away as the novice in the room. Sipping coffee, I’m feeling a little lost as we watch a documentary on all the hot new paint jobs on the 2005 Harleys. Having never ridden a motorcycle, I’m not only a newcomer to Harleys, but anything with two wheels.

The coffee is done. Cairo’s Hogs, or the Harley Owners Group, are ready to come out and play, and they’re bringing me along for the ride.

“You have to feel it to understand it,” says one rider. And for one morning, I’m part of the brotherhood.

Niazy Moustafa gets stuck with the amateur. Harley pushes the concept of freedom on the open road, but there is only so much freedom you can have when you’ve got a journalist on the back of your bike.

Weaving through the streets of Cairo feels like a video game. Moustafa courteously cuts through cars, dodges families crossing the streets and avoids getting squashed by city buses. Finally, we’re out of central Cairo and flying down the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road.

At first, it’s the noise that fascinates me. Harley-Davidsons roar like thunder.

“These bikes make a lot of noise,” says Olivier Masson, 50, a 10-year Harley veteran whose day job is the general manager of the new Four Seasons Cairo Nile Plaza. “But we don’t call it noise, we call it music. Every bike has a different sound, and they sound very different from one to the other.”

Then there’s the speed. It’s almost like you’re flying the bike feels like it’s gliding over the road. We race by cars full of passengers who look at us “like aliens,” as Moustafa describes.

Best of all is the view. Cairo looks different from the back of a Harley. As we speed by the Pyramids, I feel like I could reach out and dust them off.

We arrive at our destination, a small coffee shop called Safari, just before the Cairo-Alexandria toll station. As we sit down for juice and coffee, the riders spend more than an hour discussing paint jobs, engines and, of course, accessories 60 percent of Harley-Davidson’s sales in Egypt are from the accessories you buy, not the motorcycles themselves.

We take a few photos, but the men seem to be getting restless. We finish up and hit the road.

A dramatic moment comes shortly after leaving Safari. One of the riders, Ahmed, hits an oil patch and spins out of control. Immediately, all the bikers pull over and, without thinking, run to his aid. My heart is racing. Ahmed quickly gets up and together the riders walk over to calmly assess the damage.

It just so happens that one of the bikers, Omar, has joined the group by car due to a bad shoulder. And so, like a scene out of a biker flick, Omar hands Ahmed his keys, takes his leather vest and helmet and hops on the bike.

“Accidents are inevitable,” says Harley rider Bruce Malinski. “But obviously they’re not that bad. We’re all still here!”

Then it hits me that these guys are not a bunch of boys out on a joyride. This is something much more. These men share a similar passion. They love their Harleys, and they love each other.

“I think one of the nicest things about riding a bike, whether it be riding a Harley or a Honda or whatever, every kind of bike rider feels that freedom,” Moustafa tells me. “When it comes to Harley, there are certain things about the bike. It’s a real bonding experience. The people who go, go to have fun, it’s like a big family.”

Queen Harley

Harley Davidson first roared into Egypt in the late 1990s. Engineering Automotive Company, with its experience selling Mercedes Benz and Porsche, pitched and won the right to Harleys.

At the time, Harleys had no showroom of their own, so the bold-looking bikes were sold side-by-side with luxury cars. Engineering Automotive Company’s chief executives, Shawky and Maurice Ghattas, were looking for someone to focus exclusively on selling the motorcycles. So, one year after Harley Davidson first arrived in Egypt, Maurice Ghattas asked his daughter, Engy, who was only 19-years old at the time, to give it a shot.

“I was crazy about bikes but I never had the guts to work on it, so I said OK and he gave me a trial,” says Engy Ghattas. “We made a deal; if I break even in five years I will continue in the business.”

Five years later, Ghattas smiles and says it only took two years to break even. Today in Egypt, there are some 80 Harleys on the road. The brand now has showrooms in Zamalek and Mohandiseen.

“When I go to America, first the people get surprised that there are Harleys in Egypt, then they get more surprised when they find out a girl is in charge,” she says.

Make it two. Ayten Swelim, 23, helped to start up the Harleys Owner Group. Now in their third month of operation, Swelim is secretary of HOG, and responsible for communicating with members and coordinating events.

“The Harley culture is all about riding in a group. This is what HOG is trying to do,” says Swelim. “There are more than 800,000 riders all over the world in the HOG chapters, so being a HOG member here in Egypt, you are a member of a worldwide community.”

“When I go to the Harley dealers conferences in America, they think we’re still riding camels in Egypt,” jokes Ghattas. “So I tell them, ‘No, we’re riding Harleys now!”

The truth is that only about half of us have the freedom to ride a motorcycle. Ghattas and Swelim might enjoy riding themselves if not for the paternalistic view of the Egyptian government. While it is not illegal for women to ride motorcycles in Egypt, they are never issued motorcycle licenses.

Ghattas definitely doesn’t agree with the law, although she admits that it’s probably safer considering the hectic conditions on the streets of Cairo. “My father and my husband do not like me riding, but I want to get a bike of my own anyway,” she says.

As a newlywed, Ghattas confesses that business could have been better this year were she not preoccupied with her wedding. “We have very high expectations for 2005,” she says. “Harley-Davidson increased their selection of bikes. They have beautiful, breathtaking colors in 2005. I think it’s going to get everyone’s head going around.”

Ghattas says Harley-Davidson’s approach has come a long way since it first hit the Egyptian market. “It started as a collector’s item in the garage. We are changing this idea. Now, they’re dying to have the bike, they’re dying to ride the bike because it’s an experience. The fun doesn’t stop after you buy the bike, it goes on when you ride the bike. It’s not like anything you buy.”  (click here to read more…)


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