In the Shadow of Syria: We Went Snowboarding in the Middle East
Would a snowboard trip to Lebanon re-enforce regional stereotypes or confound our expectations?
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Dan Medhurst
I can’t help it. I know I sound stupid, but I can’t stop the involuntary whoops escaping my mouth as I tear down the mountain.
I pump the nose of my board like a surfer gathering speed and dig my heel edge in, throwing up a huge plume of powdery snow that completely obliterates the photographer – and his camera.
“Sorry mate," I half laugh, half shout as I come to a stop. “I turned a little late that time."
“Fucking dickhead," Dan Medhurst shouts back, but I can see he’s grinning through the white mask covering his face.
There’s just no way you can be angry when the snow is this good. Especially when you’ve stumbled across it in the last place you’d expect - the Middle East.
Lebanon certainly sounds like an unlikely place to come snowboarding. Most westerners know this small country, with its volatile religious and ethnic mix, as a hotbed of conflict.
A brutal 15-year-long civil war in the 70s and 80s turned the capital, Beirut, into a byword for violence and kidnapping. And this perception has only been exacerbated by more recent conflicts with Israel (in the summer of 2006) and the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria (which started in 2011).
But as we discover over the course of our time in the country, Lebanon is a fascinating and mysterious mixture. Not everything here is quite what it seems.
Expecting the Unexpected
Flying in on Middle Eastern Airways however, the signs are slightly disconcerting. Officially the Foreign Office travel advice suggests that most of the country - apart from areas near the Syrian border and the South – is perfectly safe.
But it’s still the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve received an automated text from the British Consulate on landing with numbers to call should anything get nasty.
The local newspaper I pick up on the plane, the English language Daily Star, does little to reassure me. “Fears of Terror Attacks Rise Following Raid," reads the headline above a picture of soldiers who've apparently broken up an Islamist cell operating from inside a prison.
But as we land and are ushered by our urbane, fashionably-dressed hosts from the airport into the palatial surroundings of the Phoenicia Hotel, it feels like we could be in any European capital city.
In fact the only thing worrying us as we set off for the mountains the following morning is the fact that it’s raining. This worry evaporates as we leave the sprawling concrete suburbs of Beirut behind - the rain turns to sleet and then to snow as the road rises rapidly upwards from the Mediterranean coast.
The ski resort of Mzaar is on the same latitude as southern Cyprus, but its height (the base station is at 1,850m with lifts rising to 2,465m) ensures that even this far south, there is plenty of white stuff. Their season, we are told, usually lasts from December to March.
In fact, there is so much new snow that our taxi driver is forced to pull over and wait for a four-wheel drive with chains to come down from the hotel and pick us up.
Before it does though a very different kind of vehicle sputters up the hill - a rusting Toyota Corolla driven by two men who jump out to sell us nuts, dried apricots and apples from their boot.
Like their car, the two men look like they’ve been through a lot.
They’re very friendly, posing for selfies with us as we decide on what to buy. But like their car, they look like they’ve been through a lot.
“They’re Syrian refugees," our driver tells us as we pull off. Just two of estimated 1.1 million who’ve fled across the border since the conflict began, who are now trying to eke out a living in Lebanon.
The disconnect between the meeting with these men who’ve lost everything and the surroundings of the InterContinental Hotel Mzaar could not be more extreme.
Syria and its brutal civil war are less than 40 kilometres away as the crow flies. But here, in the large lobby decked out in luxurious alpine style, waiters in Burberry waistcoats will mix you up a mean Martini.
The four-star rooms are similarly comfortable and visitors have a choice of three high-end restaurants.
On the Friday evening the continuous stream of luxury four-wheel drives dropping guests off for the weekend confirms that whatever might be happening in the state next door, there is no shortage of wealth among Lebanese locals.
Middle Eastern Powder
Unfortunately the heavy snowfall means that our first day on the slopes, a Thursday, is blighted by whiteout conditions with only one lift open. But the sight that greets us the following day as the cloud slowly lifts is incredible.
The resort itself is far larger than we imagined. The rising mist reveals three distinct zones - Refuge, Jonction and Wardeh - connected by 17 lifts.
They may not be the heated gondolas you’d find in Zermatt or the super-fast detachable chairs of Val d’Isere, but they’re relatively modern and work smoothly. At least when they decide to turn them on.
Because most of the resort’s clientele are weekenders up from Beirut, only two-thirds of the chairs and drags are running today. But according to Fadi Freifer, one of the InterContinental Hotel’s managers. “On a busy day you can have 30,000 people on the slopes here. It gets really packed, with 25,000 cars in the carparks"
Today though, we won’t get to explore all of the 80 kilometres of runs Mzaar has to offer. But neither Dan nor I are particularly fussed.
We’re hardly going to ride the pistes anyway when the snow off the sides is so good. And with so few other people around we take lap after lap down the gently sloping hillsides without crossing many tracks other than our own.
“Honestly I had no idea it would be like this," says Dan as we ride straight onto another chairlift with grins on our faces and powder caking our jackets. “I thought it would be hot and we’d be scratching around to find patches of snow. I can’t believe this is the Middle East!"
The whole thing does feel slightly surreal. It’s strange hearing lifties speaking Arabic; the run names are a bizarre mixture of French left over from the colonial days (‘Piste Rouge’ is one, ‘Ecole’ is another) and traditional Lebanese names (‘Nabil’ or 'Jabal Dib'); and even though, living in London, I’m used to seeing burkas on a daily basis, the sight of a niqab-wearing woman riding a chairlift still makes me do a double take.
I can’t stop the involuntary whoops escaping my mouth as I tear down the mountain.
At the same time a lot of it is instantly familiar. Skiing was apparently started by the French colonists in the 1920s (“they used to take donkeys up to the top of the slopes," Freifer tells us) and has remained primarily an activity for the upper-middle classes.
Many of them rip around on the latest Salomon skis or Burton boards, looking for all the world like they could’ve stepped off the slopes of St. Moritz or Vail and are as likely to speak English or French as they are Arabic - most Lebanese are fluent in all three, and often switch between them mid-sentence.
Lessons From History
The same is very much true down in Beirut. Perhaps in part because of its large Christian population (more than 40 per cent of Lebanese are Maronite, Orthodox or Catholic) Beirut has always considered itself to be more European than the surrounding capitals.
Famously known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ in the 70s, it still has a reputation as the party capital of the region. You might struggle to buy alcohol in some of the Muslim quarters, but most Lebanese drink and their local beer, Almaza, is excellent.
This party-friendly attitude, combined with the religious and ethnic mix of the locals gives the place a very cosmopolitan, international feel.
Of course this very same religious and ethnic mixture was at the root of the tensions which exploded in the 1970s and 80s. Militias fought viciously for more than 15 years, reducing much of central Beirut to rubble.
Although the war came to an end in 1990, the physical scars it left are still very much in evidence. Next to our hotel stands the decaying concrete hulk of the Holiday Inn. Once one of the city’s most prominent landmarks, its commanding position over the surrounding Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods made it an ideal spot for snipers. Several pitch battles were fought over its 26 floors, and the bullet and shell holes are still visible from the street.
Likewise our own hotel, the Phoenicia, was also a highly sought after prize. The so-called ‘Battle of the Hotels’ was one of the earliest clashes of the civil war.
The hotel is still highly sought-after today, but for different reasons. Taking the lift up from the luxurious lobby, it seems unbelievable that these opulent rooms and corridors were once the scene of bloody skirmishes, or that militiamen rested their rifles on these windowsills.
Rebuilt in 2000, the Phoenicia has not only been restored to its former glory, but has gone on to become the top place to stay in the city.
It's hard to believe that these corridors were once the scene of bloody skirmishes, or that militiamen rested their rifles on these windowsills.
It's a favourite with Gulf Arabs, who come to Lebanon to cut loose in a way that’s not possible at home, and also the hotel of choice for “every foreign president and all the rock stars" according to Maria Jabbour, the Communications Manager.
“We had Axl Rose when Guns n’ Roses came to play, we had Pitbull staying, we had Tony Blair, we had Lil Kim - she asked me to go and help pick out her outfit. We have everyone." Maria says, and she has the impressive collection of selfies to prove it.
Going Big in Beirut
It’s not only the hotel that has emphatically turned the page on Beirut’s chequered past. Maria and her colleague Natalya are determined to show us all that’s best about their city and why it has a reputation as one of the best places in the world to party.
After dinner we’re invited to the flat that Sary El Khazen, one of Lebanon’s top interior architects, shares with his boyfriend Mohammed. It’s outrageously furnished, sort of Patrick Bateman meets Vivienne Westwood, with all manner of modern art on the walls - which, if they could speak, look like they’d have some secrets to share.
Already several gin and tonics to the good, we move from there to the 27 Club, a pop-up bar themed around, you guessed it, the 27 Club. It quickly fills with locals who look like they could have stepped off the set of Made in Chelsea. This is, Maria tells us, the place to be seen this winter. We sit in the Janis Joplin booth, just next to the Kurt Cobain area.
It’s a surreal experience, made rapidly more surreal as the liquid drains from the 5-litre bottle of Grey Goose our hosts have given us for the evening. The next few hours pass in a blur of dancing, shots, trips behind the bar (the owner insisted!), more shots and oaths of eternal friendship.
Somehow it’s decided as we stagger out at 3am that the night is still young. Which is how we find ourselves taking a taxi to the outskirts of town, and descending the rusted metal staircase of a what can only be described as a bunker.
Pounding techno fills the dancefloor, illuminated only by the glowing gold bar at the far end. The dark, industrial room feels like it could have been lifted straight out of Berlin or Hamburg. There are no lights, not even strobes.
Instead, periodically throughout the night the roof opens, peeling back like the doors of a missile silo to reveal the stars above. Or in our case, the sunrise.
Thankfully, walking around the centre of Beirut slowly the following afternoon proves a great way to cure a hangover, as well as get a feel for the city.
Once again, we see the evidence of past conflicts, but as in the hotel district it’s always surrounded by brand new buildings or bustling construction sites.
There are new luxury shops in the centre of town which give way to older, prettier streets in the Christian quarter of Ashrafieh, where hipster cafés rub shoulders with run-down bric-a-brac stores.
It's a similar story if you head west into the Sunni Muslim quarter of Hamra, where families flock to the famous Corniche, the pedestrianised area along the sea-front, to play football, cycle or just sit and smoke shisha.
It’s all incredibly peaceful, but then why shouldn’t it be? If my time in Lebanon has taught me anything it’s that very little gets in the way of enjoying life here.
There’s no doubt the war in neighbouring Syria - and the problems that have spilt over the border - have had an affect on the tourist trade. Maria tells me that the country as a whole has seen a 35 per cent fall in the number of Western visitors.
But Beirut and its surroundings feel not only safe, but positively welcoming.
Nothing’s Going to Stop Us
It’s definitely a mysterious and fascinating mix, Lebanon. Middle Eastern and European. Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia. Brand new buildings and old war-damaged ones. Rich clubbers and poor refugees. But somehow the whole thing hangs together, and those who live here are justifiably proud of it.
“It’s one of the last bastions of old Mediterranean civilisation," says Warren Singh-Bartlett, a British journalist who’s called the country home for years. “Turkey, Greece, Libya, Egypt, all used to have these multi-ethnic, multi-religious populations and now there are very few left, except here."
It’s not like the underlying tensions have all been resolved. Far from it. As the Daily Star reports on the day we leave, the war in Syria is exacerbating local animosities, with different factions joining in on different sides.
But you’d never know it as a tourist. There are few people more friendly than the Lebanese, from taxi drivers to strangers on the ski lift, everyone is keen to help. And there are surely few people more willing to go out of their way to show visitors a good time.
The Lebanese are famous not only for their abilities as businessmen, but also for their ability to carry on with business as usual, regardless of what’s going on around them
As Fadi Freifer tells us: “Lebanese people love life, we like to drink and we like to ski and we like to go out. And nothing, not even a war next door, is going to stop us."
Do Our Trip:
MEA (Middle East Airlines - mea.com.lb) fly from Heathrow to Beirut from £295 return.
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