Named after the sand dunes that fringe the Bawshar Neighbourhood of Muscat City, Oman, the Bousher Bike Life Crew were formed in 2010. The crew of about 30 is an ever-revolving door of teenagers aged between 14 and 17, all of whom have grown up on the edges of the desert with a love of quad biking. But as Muscat’s limmits protrude further into the dunes, the crew have taken to riding their four wheelers in the streets.
Amsterdam-based photographer Bas van Est met the crew during a trip to Oman in 2018. Bas was shooting B-roll footage for a separate project when he saw a group of kids gunning their bikes around the dunes, and he started snapping shots. Intrigued and impressed by their skills, van Est later returned to Oman to explore the story beyond the action. His 2020 photo essay and short film Everything is Temporary was the result.
We sat down with Bas to talk about his experience with the crew; his curiosity that started it all, and the young lives behind the photographs.
VICE: Hi Bas. Tell us about your first impressions of the Bousher Bike Life Crew?
Bas van Est: I initially met them for three hours before I had to fly out [of Oman], and I shot a whole bunch of images. Then, just before I left, they said “you haven’t seen anything yet”—and that little statement compelled me to further explore what else they had in store.
The mood with them is one of excitement; it’s finally being able to have the freedom to do whatever they want. I remember in my childhood we’d make things like wooden guns and play war, or hide and seek—but these guys at an early age are given different tools to have fun. So the mood is excitement, freedom, and also a bit of that rebellious feeling of adolescence.
Is that rebelliousness part of what makes them determined to bike around the city?
I’ve talked to them about it and they do agree that their space is being limited and they’re being chased out further and further. But there’s also a different part of the story, which is that they enjoy going on the street because it feels different from the dunes. You know, doing wheelies in the street, maybe even getting close to the police and then taking off again. It’s not all just due to the fact that the space is limited. So that’s something that we try to get to the bottom of in this project.
How did the group initially form?
They were just going to the dunes by themselves, and eventually there were a few riders that had bigger, better bikes, and skills, and they just gravitated towards each other and formed the crew. Then they set up a Whatsapp group, as you do now when you’re just socializing as teenagers. But in this case, they had a common interest that was a level above the regular weekend riders. It’s the things they’ve gone through—whether their bike breaks down, whether they’ve crashed, if they’re being chased by the police—they deal with this stuff by helping each other out. Because they can’t always go to their parents, they turn to each other so they really do feel like they’re in a brotherhood.
You said before that sometimes they crash. Has anyone ever been seriously injured while riding?
One of the guys broke his hip, and even while we were there, another guy flipped their bike. They haven’t hurt badly themselves, but I guess breaking your hip at the age of 14 is not considered a small thing.
What was the aspect you enjoyed most about hanging with the crew?
I guess the most fun was when I saw different aspects of their life. The racing was exhilarating, but in terms of story depth it’s very hard to see beyond showing off, and there’s so much more underneath it. I just wanted to understand the culture a bit more. And the best time I had with them was when they would allow me a little closer into their personal lives. Whether it was having lunch with one of their families, or following along to where they get the bikes repaired. They had their guards up, and rightly so, but that made these small windows into their lives even more compelling.
Tell me more about having lunch with one of their families.
Just one day, one of the crew members had to get something from home and said “oh, you can come in”. So we went inside. I’m not sure if he knew his dad was going to come home, but his dad came in and said “hey, you should eat with us”. So then the maid came out, and she brought out food, and we [Tim the DOP and him] ate with one of the riders, his two friends and his dad. We had some great conversations with his father who was an incredibly well spoken and open minded individual.
The food was incredible and the dad was super open. It was just an absolutely incredible, very short experience. On the flip side, though, as soon as the parents were out of the picture we jumped back in the car, and the kids started talking about all sorts of things they got up to, outside biking, and giving off these tough personas. It was quite interesting to see the two versions.
Bikers are often stereotyped as being rough and aggressive. Do you think these boys break that stereotype, having seen their personal lives?
Definitely. It’s just this period of their lives where they do all these rebellious things, and they do pretty crazy things. They don’t really have respect for the traffic, but at the same time they have the utmost respect for their elders. So it’s like this push and pull between these traditions. That’s how I’ve read it and how I’ve seen it.
And then on the other side you’ve got this new generation that are fueled by social media as well. They see other riders, they see riders from the US, they’re influenced by rap music. If you go on their Instagrams, you’ll see the videos they put up of themselves. It’s like showing off, but in terms of the actual harm that they cause: they don’t do drugs, they don’t drink, they don’t steal. All of the other stereotypical characteristics that we would attach to this kind of behavior, I saw none of them.
The behavior in itself is already quite extreme compared to what their culture expects of them, or what anyone’s culture expects. If I take a quad bike up the street here in Holland and do a wheelie, I’m going to get locked up. But over there, it’s sort of like a freedom.
What do you think the future looks like for them?
I think they’ve all come from very good homes, so they’re going to get some great opportunities. They do get up to some really hectic stuff—you know, we were in a car driving 200 kilometres per hour—and they do go on exchanges and probably drink and do drugs in other countries. And drugs are in Oman too. But I think they’re all part of such a strong culture and they’ve had such good foundations that they will do well, regardless of all these small temptations.
Follow Ban van Est on Instagram, along with writer Gabriela Caeli Sumampow