Harleys of Arabia: Motorcycles Rumble Egypt

Checking out Cairo, Egypt's Hog scene through the eyes of Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership manager Engy Ghattas. By Charles Levinson

It's Friday morning in Cairo, a blessed splinter of time when the city's normally frenetic streets are quiet. Quiet, that is, save for the rumbling of an oversized V-twin—something writers love to call the "sound of America"—emanating from a garage next to the Peking Restaurant, one of Cairo's two Chinese eateries.

An Egyptian male riding a liberally chromed Harley-Davidson Fat Boy and wearing a chrome half-helmet, a leather jacket and Oakley shades peels out of the garage and disappears from sight, though not from earshot for at least a minute. In a city known for its snarled traffic, maniacal drivers and oppressive pollution, the sight is incongruous to say the least. But it's Friday, and while Fridays in Cairo are a day of prayer and rest for most of the city's 16 million inhabitants, they are, for the 45 Cairene badasses who own Harleys, a day to mount their metallic steeds and ride.

In Harley-Davidson's recently published 100th-anniversary book, Hunter S. Thompson writes, "To see a lone angel screaming through traffic—defying all rules, limits and patterns—is to understand the motorcycle as an instrument of anarchy, a tool of defiance and even a weapon."

Which does not explain the existence of Harleys and their would-be rebel owners here in the Egyptian capital, a city of close to 2 million vehicles and 5000 donkey carts—which do not easily mesh with the freedom-loving, open-road, Easy Rider mystique of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Anarchy, defiance, lawlessness, screaming traffic—that is Cairo, where taxis have plastic Fastex buckles for seat belts, where the rate of traffic fatalities per miles driven is higher than anywhere else in the world, where traffic lights and one-way street signs have all the clout of a substitute teacher, where an acceptable remedy for missing your exit on the freeway is reverse, and where fender benders are so routine that no one even stops the car and gets out.

In Cairo, you don't need a $20,000 motorcycle to tap the suppressed anarchist within. But true to form, Harley-Davidson has proven an outlet for quiet rebellion for one Egyptian woman. Engy Ghattas—the feisty, charismatic, 23-year-old manager of Cairo's three-year-old Harley-Davidson dealership—bucks a laundry list of stereotypes and expectations, be they male-female, east-west or young-old.

It's not all that surprising to find a woman running a Harley-Davidson dealership in the United States, though the few who do still make news. (See the Associated Press story "Two Harley-Davidson Dealerships Run by Women.") But this is Egypt, where if statistics from a recent international conference are to be believed, female genital mutilation affects 85 percent of women. Although things are changing here—the first woman was recently appointed to the Egyptian Supreme Court—Egypt is hardly a bastion of women's lib.

Egypt remains a traditional society by many standards, and Ghattas comes from a traditional family. She has a 10:30 p.m. curfew, does not date and cannot travel to the biannual Harley-Davidson dealer conventions in the United States without a male family member.

Still, Ghattas has proven she has a particular knack and passion for selling Harleys. "Harley runs in my blood," she says. "I fell in love with it. It just turns me on."

Her brother, who runs the family company that owns the Harley-Davidson dealership, says that without his baby sister Harley-Davidson would not have had the success it has. Her superiors at Harley-Davidson corporate concur. One after another, her customers say that Ghattas made the difference in their decision to buy a Harley. "The way she's so into Harley, the way she talks to people, it makes you want to be a part of it," says 41-year-old Essam Ettman, who recently bought a Dyna Super Glide Sport from Ghattas.

Ghattas began showing interest in Harley from the moment her father's company won the contract from Harley-Davidson in 1998. She spent a year at her father's side watching him work. After Harley sales got off to a poor start—they sold only one bike during the first six months—Ghattas' father agreed to let her take over the dealership. She sold three bikes over the following six months, and sales have continued to increase ever since. Now her family is singing her praises and begging her to lend her touch in their slumping Porsche dealership. "It was hard to get my father's permission to take over the store," Ghattas says. "He refused. `It's hard, you'll be alone there,' he said. He figured I'd get bored and lonely. Now they're trying to keep me home on the weekends."

Ghattas is an attractive woman with long, highlighted brown hair. One day she's wearing a stylish, loose-fitting pantsuit and the next day she's wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and jeans. She listens to Tina Turner and Barbra Streisand. She speaks in an unrestrained, matter-of-fact manner unusual for Egyptian women. When she tells you she's 23 your jaw drops, not because she looks so old but because she's so in charge. Behind her desk snapping impatiently into the phone or sitting astride a Fat Boy speaking expertly about connecting rods and crankshafts, she has a Rosie-the-Riveter sex appeal and displays a deft touch with her clients—almost exclusively middle-aged, upper-class, Egyptian businessmen.

It's a Monday in early June and the Harley dealership, located on a tree-lined street in Cairo's upscale Zamalek neighborhood, is empty save for Ghattas and her all-male employees, most of whom are twice her age. A heavyset man with graying hair, about 50 years old, wearing a shirt, a tie and khaki slacks and looking as if he just got off work, strolls in. Ghattas is dressed conservatively, save for the four-inch heels and her blouse's open top two buttons. It's his first time in the store and he cautiously straddles a LE39,000 ($6315) Sportster. "I'm not sure I want to do this," he says as she approaches him.

"I'll make you sure," she replies.

Her confidence is apt. Sherif Begermi, a 48-year-old Egyptian-American jewelry salesman who had never ridden a motorcycle in his life, walks out with the receipt for a LE127,000 ($20,566) Dyna Wide Glide, Ghattas' personal favorite. Within a month, Begermi has also purchased a Harley vest, Harley gloves and Harley goggles, shaved his head Mach III-close and changed his computer's desktop background to a picture of a Harley. He's a poster boy for the Harley culture Ghattas is working to build in Egypt.

"That girl knew how to handle me," he says two days after he took delivery of his bike. "She really made it very easy to buy this bike. She's like a horse that needs to take off."

In fact, Ghattas is dying to take off on the very same bike she sold to Begermi, a Dyna Wide Glide. "It's like a woman who has a very nice body," she says of the bike. However, big brother and father, Egypt's traditional Cerberean protectors of women, say no.

"This will never happen," says Ibrahim Ghattas, her older brother by 10 years. "She can only have the spirit of Harley because riding a bike in Egypt is risky, especially if it is a lady riding." Ghattas, sitting by his side, smiles wearily. "We'll see," she says.

Ghattas got engaged recently. As per Egyptian tradition, once married she is no longer under her family's charge. The decision whether or not to allow Ghattas to ride a Harley will be in the hands of future husband Osama Fahmy, a 31-year-old used-car dealer who spent three years wooing Ghattas and convincing her father of his good intentions.

When I first met Ghattas, marriage was the answer to her Harleyless existence. Her riding a Harley would be a precondition for any suitors.

"The most important thing of whether I get married or not is whether or not he accepts the bike," she said at the time. "It's either the bike and me or nothing. I will not get married except if my husband agrees that I ride and own a bike."

With the news of Ghattas' engagement, I am eager to know if the lucky suitor will indeed be letting Ghattas ride the Harley she has long wanted. For this objective third-party observer whose San Francisco-bred values of female empowerment have found a sympathetic figure in Ghattas, the news is disappointing. "I prefer that she doesn't ride," Fahmy tells me.

Back at the dealership, Ghattas is unfazed. "I have ways to convince my man," she says. At Ghattas' gentle urging, Fahmy has decided he'll learn to ride, and when he does, Ghattas says, she won't be riding pillion for long.

That Ghattas will continue to manage the store and work full time after getting married is another break with Egyptian tradition. Ghattas has turned down four marriage proposals because the suitors demanded she quit work. "The Egyptian men have many needs, more than other men in the world," explains Fahmy. "He needs more care. Men are afraid that a woman who is going to work is not going to take care of her house, and here in Egypt the house is number one, two and three."

But Fahmy and Ghattas both work in the automotive industry, he selling cars, she motorcycles. Her family owns SMG Motors, which, along with Harley-Davidsons, sells Porsches and Mercedes.

"There will be a link, and she can share her mind and help me make decisions in my work," says Fahmy. In fact, the two first met when Fahmy came to the Ghattas-family company headquarters to purchase a used Mercedes—and wound up negotiating the price with Ghattas, a then 20-year-old. Fahmy says he left frustrated at his inability to close the deal, but infatuated and in awe of the girl's knowledge about cars.

"When Engy wants to make a deal she wants to make a good deal, and I also want to make a very good deal, so we could not meet on a price for the car," says Fahmy. "But from that time I dreamt of marrying her."

In what is definitely a first for Egypt, wedding plans include a Harley-Davidson escort by Cairo's Harley owners from the ceremony to the reception.

From a business perspective, Harley-Davidson sales in Egypt have not met expectations. No sooner had Harley-Davidsons hit the showroom floor in Cairo at the beginning of '00 than the Egyptian economy began to take a precipitous turn for the worse. In '00, 3.5 Egyptian pounds (LE) were worth one dollar, and a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy cost LE73,000 ($21,000). Nearly three and a half years later, 6.2 Egyptian pounds were worth one dollar, and that same bike cost LE130,000 ($37,340).

In these economic conditions, Ghattas has managed to sell more than 50 bikes in three years, though sales are increasing each year—four the first year, eight the second year, 19 the third year and 21 through '03. Compare this to the 3000 bikes that Milwaukee, Wisconsin's four Harley dealers sell each year in a city of fewer than 1 million people. And therein lies the challenge for Ghattas. "People in Egypt don't understand what a Harley is all about," she says.

Harley-Davidson, the great symbol and totem in American culture, is lost on most Egyptians. Among Egypt's 65 million people, there are plenty who are financially able to buy a Harley, but convincing them to do so is another matter. Realities of driving in the world's most densely populated city aside, the perception in Cairo is that a motorcycle is for delivery boys and people who can't afford a car. Ghattas is working to change that. While her Harley-Davidson dealership has only been open since '00, H-D's relationship with Egypt dates back to the 1920s when King Fouad I purchased a fleet of Harleys for his royal motorcade. The tradition continues to this day. Current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has 120 Harleys in his quiver, and his motorcade invariably includes no fewer than four Harley-Davidson escorts, two in front and two in back.

There are other Harley-Davidson dealerships in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates has two. Saudi Arabia, chock-full of petrol dollars and American oil execs, has four. Kuwait, Oman and Israel each have one, and a dealership will be opening shortly in Qatar.

Egypt's Harley owners are financially successful men with graying hair and growing paunches, and most have spent a good amount of time in Europe or the States. I only met one with a tattoo. Omar Farraj, owner of a company that manufactures circuit breakers, had a heart and a girl's initials inked into his right shoulder when he was 13. Despite the tattoo, Farraj says, "I always ride safe and I never speed in residential areas." Another sign of the times: Farraj says that if he is wearing Harley gear, airport security, otherwise wary of Middle Eastern men, wave him right through.

Ghattas serves breakfast and coffee at the store on Friday mornings. Riders come, eat and hit the road. For many it is the only time all week they ride, as Friday is the only day when driving in Cairo is anything other than a nail-biting, cab-cursing free-for-all.

Those with time on their hands head for Alexandria or, even better, the Sinai Peninsula. Sinai's sparsely populated, barren-desert mountain passes and tropical coastline make it a prime destination for road-trippers. Ghattas' tone has softened with regard to her role as a gender pioneer in the time I've known her. I suspect my constant prying into the issue has prompted her to give it more thought than she has in the past. And I also suspect that she is wary of my intentions with regard to the issue. There is a sense among many in this part of the world that Westerners are always looking for an excuse to paint Arabs as unenlightened, oppressive misogynists.

"My father goes with the old traditions that he believes make a girl come up with good manners," she says. "I don't wear short skirts and go to bars. My family is not like that. That doesn't mean we're stupid, veiled or backward. I'm just a girl, but a girl with manners."

Furthermore, some would argue many parents don't want their child to ride a motorcycle, be it a son or daughter. That being said, it's hard to imagine a successful businesswoman in the United States giving a damn if dad said not to ride a motorcycle. She'd flip him the proverbial bird, drive it to Thanksgiving dinner with a Hells Angels boyfriend (or girlfriend) on the back and park it next to dad's wood-paneled minivan.

The concern regarding a woman riding a motorcycle in Egypt seems to be an outgrowth of the instinctive male inclination to protect the supposedly weaker sex. She could hurt herself. She would attract lots of attention and be subject to verbal harassment, a not uncommon problem for women in Egypt. With the women in danger, the men will have failed as protectors.

"When you find your daughter or little sister is being threatened or harassed, your male image is being threatened," says Dr. Madiha Safty, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.

As the son of a former bra burner, my inclination in the face of such adversity would be to ride all the more. But here in 5000-year-old Egypt, people take pride in the slow pace of change.

"Look," says Ghattas, "change doesn't happen overnight. In the past women didn't go outside their homes. Now they're in government posts, getting educated. Now a woman has a Harley-Davidson store in Egypt. This is a positive direction. In a couple of years maybe I'll convince my husband to let me get a bike. Maybe I will let my daughter ride a bike. I don't need to have everything right now."

Photos by Claude Stemlin
Engy Ghattas, the 23-year-old manager of Harley-Davidson Cairo, in her office above the dealership. She can sell them, but she can't ride them, her family says.
Three Cairene Harley owners navigate the gnarled traffic in Cairo. The city's approximately 50 Harley owners attract stares from fellow Egyptians, few of whom grasp the appeal of a rumbling Harley-Davidson. Many Egyptians think motorcycles are for delivery boys—and those who can't afford cars.
Two Cairo hotel doormen are among the drop-in guests at Cairo's Harley dealership. Egypt's Harley owners are typically financially successful men with graying hair and growing paunches.
Most of Cairo's Harley owners get out of town on occasion, riding through the city's outskirts where it's more open and there's less traffic—all of which means they can ride faster than in the city.
An American tourist stops by, perhaps toget a little flavor of home.
Now if she can just ride them...