THIS IS LEBANON

STORY/PHOTOS

Marius Schwager

VIDEO

Minos Eigenheer

 

 

Intro

Lebanon is a country of complexity – known internationally as a mire of political turbulence, it is known locally as the Switzerland of the Middle East, both for its impressive geography and its capitol’s fast-paced nightlife and diverse culture. Genocide and war crimes may plague Syria to the northeast, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict keep tensions high to the south, but among Beirut’s modern high-rises, glimmering Mediterranean beaches and massive snowcapped peaks, the party rages on.

 

It has been raining for two days in the mountains of Lebanon. The ski areas that happen to be open at the moment—depending on the current economic situation, there are between four and a dozen resorts operating in the country—sit empty under the inclement weather. Glamorous Prada and Gucci ski wear is abandoned for skin-tight dresses and high heels. In Beirut, where every third billboard advertises one of the city’s many plastic surgery clinics, the party begins.

 

Freeride skiing in the Middle East

Bombs in Beirut, ski buddies on the hill. Nothing unusual. This is Lebanon!

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The standard front-page image of Lebanon is bullet holes and bombs, refugees and rockets

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Lebanon — a country of complexity

Life in Lebanon is extroverted, both politically and culturally. People live fast and party excessively—“live like every day is your last” is a common motto. It’s an attitude adopted from a tumultuous history: for thousands of years, amidst innumerable wars and occupations by ever-changing rulers, Lebanese territory has played a vital role in the Middle East. The standard front-page image of Lebanon is bullet holes and bombs, refugees and rockets. As the blue waters of the Mediterranean glimmer enticingly to the west, genocide and war crimes plague Syria to the north and east while the constant conflict between Israel and Palestine keeps tension high to the south.

Today, the diverse culture has led to an equally diverse political system: the country’s constitution states that the president must be a Maronitic Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the Commander in Chief another Christian. Lebanon is an economic powerhouse and political tinderbox.

Lebanon is a country of complexity—it is known locally as the Middle Eastern Switzerland, due as much to its lenient tax laws and liberal culture as its Alps-like geography. While the suburbs are plagued by explosions and gunfire, downtown Beirut parties as hard as any European hot spot.

The name Lebanon comes from the Semitic language root LBN (لبن), meaning “white”, likely a reference to the snow-capped Mountains of the Mount Lebanon region.
Manouche is a Lebanese-style falafel, and drizzled with sesame oil it is one of the many delicios handmade dishes.

Ski Lebanon

Under a slew of warnings from our friends and family and violent reports in the media, photos of huge, unskied lines in the mountains drew myself, Max Forster, Verena Fendl, Teresa Brenner and Swiss filmmaker Minos Eigenheer to the region, looking to explore the turbulent culture and what appeared to be incredible skiing.

Confined by the weather, we spend the two nights celebrating (or commiserating, depending on how you look at it) in private parties on Beirut’s rooftops and bars along the vibrant streets. Outside hip clubs in nightlife district of Gemmayze, lines go on for months. Almaza, a Lebanese beer and the country’s preferred alcoholic beverage, flows as freely as the dance music. In Beirut, looks and prestige are the currency that matters. Luxury cars sneak in the streets, highclass doormen watch for the glamourous stars of the night. The hips of mid aged 50s in elegant jackets, highheels and black miniskirts groove to David Guetta and Rihanna. Flavours of fruity fragrances, cigars and sweat mix.

Since a 15-year civil war in 1975 and a war with Israel in 2006, tourism and some infrastructure has barely recovered. After 6 p.m., electricity can only be obtained through expensive private providers and the ski resorts are eerily dark, running at less than 10-percent capacity. At our slope-side hotel we are the only guests for days, waited upon by a dozen employees, and the only other operating hotel does not seem to be faring any better. Tourist attractions are equally empty: in the ruins of Baalbek, a huge Roman temple complex as impressive as any in the capitol, we count a scant dozen or so visitors in half a day. The number of tourists are increasing, mainly expatriate Lebanese and a growing Arabian upper class, but only a few European and American backpackers brave the journey.

The area’s constant turbulence means constant military presence, including a large number of armed checkpoints along the road. Unbeknownst to our tourist selves at the moment, taking photos is strictly forbidden.
Just less then half of Beirut’s citicens are Christians, making it one of the most diverse cities in the Middle East. With the Christian culture comes a non-Muslim passion for pork—and a whole different facet of the local butchery industry.

Despite the struggling tourist industry, life in central Lebanon—Beirut in particular—prospers. The highest mountains rise directly from the sea to nearly 2500 meters; ski in the morning, go for a dip in the Mediterranean in the afternoon. At Mzaar-Kfardebian, the country’s largest and most modern resort 45-minutes from Beirut, the parade of skiers in European luxury cars come for the social scene as much as the skiing. At 1,700 meters, the area’s parking lot is probably the most exclusive in the region.

Glitz and glam aside, tension between the area’s ethnic and political divisions still erupt in occasional military conflicts. Hezbollah rules in the south as the unpredictable extension of the Iranian dictatorship, and to the southeast the Golan Heights has been a source of conflict between Syria and Israel for decades. The civil war in Syria has also affected the country since 2011, with 700,000 refugees or more (no one really knows the exact number) waiting within Lebanon’s borders for a peace that has yet to come.

During weekends, Mzaar’s parking lot often becomes the social hotspot—simply walk around for a few minutes and you’ll see Prada and Gucci outerwear, and you may even get invited to indulge in some nargile, the Lebanese version of a hookah. Supervision of a soldier included.

Mzaar

On our second day in the country, we explore the ski area in Mzaar, fighting icy hardpack while waiting for the sun to soften the snow. Amidst the mix of jeans and ‘80s rental equipment alongside expensive designer ski wear, our colourful outfits mark us as tourists, and soon a group of young snowboarders approaches. Ali, Ziad, Lubna and the rest of their crew welcome us warmly, urging us to join them on their favourite run.

Apart from their crew, few others take advantage of the inviting slopes dumping off the 2,456-meter Dome du Mzaar, the resort’s highest point. As ice turns to corn, Ali and the crew lead us on an hour-long hike to a steep, cliffed—and completely empty—line known as Grand Coulee, where we opt for a sunny run dropping to the small village of Bakiche.

The run is long, soft five star corn. Perfectly untouched with a comfortable steepness and playful waves. And as we finish in the quiet hamlet and set up a group picture with our new friends, we realize the house behind us looks like a sieve, riddled with bullet holes. We ski on, and the group tells us of abandoned plans to build a private ski area in Bakiche before the war; the resort of Mzaar provides some safety from unrest in the Beirut basin, and soon we pass gated communities with direct resort access—someone in Lebanon, it appears, is prospering. We hurry to head back up the ridge for a rare, clear view of Beirut. The city’s bubble of smog hangs as a stripe just above the horizon, and stars sink behind Beirut, diving into the ocean. Yellow ochre suburbs wrapped around mirror-glassed skyscrapers sprawl from the sea to the mountains. Beirut is densly packed, city life is fast and loud.

Later, over aprés beer and stories of far-flung ski adventures, we ask about the abrupt transition from excellent skiing to war zone to luxury mansions. It’s the norm in the country, Ali tells us, and has been ever since his father moved to Mzaar to ski decades before. We are dumbfounded. “Skiing during a war?” I ask. “Yes!” he says. “Nothing unusual.” Bombs in Beirut, ski buddies on the hill. “This is Lebanon!”

Video: Mzaar Freeride

God’s trees

The Cedars, Lebanon’s highest ski resort, lies an hour-and-a-half north of Beirut. At the end of the Quadisha Valley, it sits in a large bowl bordered by 3,000-meter peaks and a small forest of cedar trees. Known as the Forest of God’s Cedars, the copse of roughly 375 trees—some of which are 3,000 years old—is one of the last remaining stands of the nation’s official emblem and its oldest and most historically renowned resource. The valley was once home to ancient Christian monastic communities, and the caves they used to avoid persecution still dot the valley.


At 1,500 meters the Quadisha opens up into a second bowl, with two chairlifts and two T-bars. What looks like a two-hour hike above the lifts accesses Lebanon’s highest mountain, 3,088-meter Qutnat as-Sauda, and from the parking lot we spot an inviting line on the other side of the valley—800 meters of cliffs and steeps, dumping out into a few small villages. We put on our skins and climb up to a col, winding along a mellow ridge. The views are rich in contrasts: to our right is the picturesque Holy Valley falling into the ocean, to the left the desert-like Bekaa Plain stretching into the distance, and behind us the towering mountains that mark the border with Syria.

In the distance we see skiers approaching—a group of Lebanese soldiers on a training exercise. A soldier named Achmed is pleased to chat with us, but wants to keep going because of wet boots. “Tired…it’s been a long day,” he tells us, as the troop skin off towards rest and dry footwear. Max, not quite sure about our exact location, fears that we are too close to Syria. “Aren’t there supposed to be land mines near the border?” I ask him playfully. Another group of soldiers appear in the distance. “Do you know that a Swiss skier was accidentally shot last year?” I continue. “Why don’t you head up to that saddle, you’ll make a good target for the Syrians!” Silence—good friends can take a little black humour.

Consisting of 375 trees—some more than 3,000 years old—the Forest of the Cedars of God is one of the last remaining stands of the country’s once-legendary resource. Backlit history near the aptly named Cedars ski resort.

Rolling hills

Distances are hard to judge in the rolling hills, and eight-hours into our planned two-hour hike we reach the top of our line at sunset. While the burning Arabian colours couldn’t be more picturesque, the snow requires full concentration and good edges. We skitter down the 45-degree slope on-bone rattling crust. The mountains in central Lebanon may receive plenty of winter precipitation, but powder is a rarity.

We follow suit, dropping into the valley under the light of the full moon and pass through several vineyards separating us from civilization. Despite the violence and political turbulence, agriculture has been a major part of Lebanese culture since the Phoenicians, and the people here have been making wine for 5,000 years.

Grape vines are everywhere amidst walls and small canyons, making our path difficult and tensions high. Max thinks we’re about to be shot, Verena is scared of barking dogs and Theresa wants to kill me for my sarcastic remarks about our special moonlight vineyard tour. Through it all, Minos, our Swiss filmer, stoically carries his 15-pound tripod.

We eventually stumble upon a road and a nearly-empty mountain village. We see lights in one of the houses and ring the bell, and a surprised older man opens the door. Colourful outerwear, skis, helmets and goggles on our side of the door; a Lebanese farmer, barefoot in an undershirt, on his side. We both need a moment to process the situation.

He helps us call a taxi and we sit down with the family to share some tea, coffee and overwhelming hospitality. The man immediately sets up some old foldable sofas around a stove in the centre of the room, the only heated one in the house. Red carpets cover the floor and the walls are bare. He prepares Arabian coffee on a gas stove in the corner. We share our story, explaining what we are doing here at this time of night, in the cold. The father speaks fluent German; he spent 10 years in Germany during the ‘70s as a migrant worker, and the kids’ English is nearly as good as ours—most Lebanese learn a second language in school, with French and English being the most common.

The taxi arrives, and we wave goodbye before heading towards the hostel, where Antoinette (the hostel’s “mum”) and a home-cooked Lebanese dinner await. A rich selection of meze, or traditional Arabian snacks, lies before us, followed by stuffed fruits, meat and vegetable stew, falafel, hummus and tabouleh, all served with Arabian bread. It is as rich a dining experience as it is diverse, and only six dollars per person. I ask Antoinette how long the meal took to prepare. “The whole day,” she answers.

Verena and Max start on a two-hour hike in the backcountry bordering the Qadisha Valley. Eight hours later, after multiple run-ins with Lebanese military, the crew finnaly reached the top of the line. Luckily the snow was better than their moods.

The last run

Under the sweltering Arabian sun, the snow turns to excellent corn. In the distance the Forest of God’s Cedars and the dune-like hills of the Bekaa Plain hang above the shimmering blue Mediterranean. This is the last run of our Lebanese ski adventure, and our helpful and spontaneous guide Anton is negotiating with The Cedar’s management: yes, they are going to open the highest lift. A good thing, as we’ve already spotted our run—a 900-meter slope, smooth as an ironed sheet and peppered with cliffs and playful features to the sides. A great finish to a beautiful trip.

Four million people currently live in Lebanon; 14 million Lebanese expats live around the world, and as the political situation remains tense and wars and terror attacks continue most have no plans to return anytime soon. However, those that remain show a hospitality and kindness belied by the violence the rest of the world associates with the country: Anton, the helpful ski racer; Nasip, the 12-year-old who showed us his favorite groomed run; the snowmobiler who acted as our personal two-stroke taxi. We have been so heartily welcomed by these people, receiving as much genuinely friendly attention during our two weeks here as we would in an entire season at home in the Alps.

“See the world as if you were to live forever, and live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

When I arrive home, an online newspaper flashes a new headline: “Lebanon: Rocket explodes in Beirut.” I contact a friend in the city and he reassures me that everything is okay, that the bombs exploded in a suburb and not in the crowded downtown. “Don’t worry so much,” he says. “Enjoy your life and come back to ski with us next winter!”

It is an attitude we encountered often in Lebanon, and it best described through a Lebanese proverb: “See the world as if you were to live forever,” it says, “and live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

 

 

Appendix

Thanks for reading this feature to the end. Hope you enjoyed. For any further information, suggestions or media purposes please contact us.

Want to read this story in print? For a German version try to order a copy at Planet Snow 02/2013, for an English version hop to The Ski Journal Issue 7.2 and order your copy there (worldwide delivery).

Thank you

Down Skis for the support!

Aux Cimes du Mzaar for the accomodation.

Ski Mzaar and Les Téléskis des Cèdres for the additional ski tickets.

Our deep gratitude to the boys and girls at Republic of Snowboarding and all the amazing people we met.

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