By Aidan Lewis
Donning leather and helmets (sometimes), they roar along Libya’s hair-raising, potholed roads on carefully polished Harley Davidsons and Kawasakis.
Part of a growing scene, there are now hundreds of bikers in Tripoli alone who come from all walks of life. One is the imam of a local mosque, another a 60-year-old mechanic who lived nearly three decades in Texas.
Riding past – often in groups – on their gleaming machines, they stick out in Libya, where a conservative society still bears the scars of decades of authoritarian rule under former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the revolution and conflict that followed.
They say their hobby lifts moods in a country worn down by years of violence and political upheaval since Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011.
“People do this to have a bit of a break, to live like human beings a little,” said Bilal Khatap, a 37-year-old car dealer who rides a green Harley Davidson.
On a recent Saturday morning, about two dozen bikers congregated in central Tripoli, doing small circuits in front of curious bystanders in the city’s main square before taking a spin on the city’s coastal road.
Some were members of the Monsters — named as such for their appearance after one ride in heavy rain. Under Gaddafi, freedom of association and assembly in Libya was highly restricted, but the Monsters is one of at least four biker groups now active in the capital.
“The Monster group started in 2012” said Maruan Aghila, an embassy employee in a black Guns N’ Roses waistcoat and a skull and crossbones bandana, getting ready for the ride on his Suzuki Intruder.
“Before that we weren’t allowed to have groups. Before that there were very few bikers in Libya,” he said, adding with a smile: “So it’s a positive result of the revolution.”
Most bikers do regular professional jobs, said Subhi Azoz, a café owner who also preaches as an imam in a central Tripoli mosque and rides a mauve Suzuki Boulevard.
Some have imported powerful modern racing bikes, others have rebuilt or adapted older, classic models.
“You can order parts on Amazon, Ebay. It’s really expensive, but it’s possible,” said Aghila.
Although conflict threw Libya’s economy into crisis in recent years, sought after products can still be imported and trendy shops in parts of Tripoli stock fashionable clothes and accessories.
Biker groups have also sprung up in other major Libyan cities including Benghazi and Zawiya. They make local excursions at weekends, and sometimes venture further on cross country trips.
“Every now and again there are security problems on the road and we can’t leave, but normally it’s fine and we can go anywhere,” said Khatap.
Abdu Saghezli, a wiry 60-year-old on a white Suzuki Hayabusa who worked as a mechanic in Texas before returning to Libya in 2007, said militiamen at a checkpoint had pulled a gun on him and tried to steal his bike in early 2015.
Biking in Libya, or indeed driving, is not for the fainthearted. Road habits tend to reflect the country’s wider lawlessness.
In a 2015 report on road safety by the World Health Organization, Libya has an estimated road traffic death rate of 73 per 100,000 population, far higher than any other country listed.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Saghezli, whose brother died in a motorbike accident in the 1990s and who tries to insist that his companions wear helmets.
“If you can drive in Libya, you can drive anywhere.”
Additional reporting for Ahmed Elumami; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky
Aidan Lewis – Reuters senior correspondent covering Libya, based in Tunis. Previously London, DC, Algiers, Rome.