Words by Jade Bremner | Photos by Bryan Denton
If it wasn’t for the view of dilapidated buildings, some lined with bullet holes, others with gaping cavities caused by bombs, I could easily be at any surf spot in the Mediterranean.
The sun beams down on me as I paddle to the point through the warm, clear sea; surfers welcome me to their break. There are whoops and cheers as each surfer, male and female, catches a wave. It’s one of the friendliest line-ups I’ve ever seen. But I’m not in Spain or France, I’m 20 minutes south of Beirut, in the small town of Jiyeh.
Just four hours from the UK, Lebanon’s reputation has been tarnished by its tumultuous past, but tourists (especially adventurous surfers) shouldn’t strike it off the travel list just yet. With government travel advice clearing Beirut for visits, this fast-paced, chaotic city is without a doubt my favourite place in the Middle East. Packed with striking old colonial buildings that sit side by side with mosques and Baroque architecture, there’s a decent art movement, funky cafes, lively clubs and now a blossoming, friendly surfing scene.
"There are whoops and cheers as each surfer, male and female, catches a wave. It’s one of the friendliest line-ups I’ve ever seen."
I meet local surfer Karim Flouti on Jiyeh’s 7km stretch of sandy coastline. He discovered surfing in his home nation 10 years ago by accident. “I’ve been lucky enough to travel, I grew up in the Canaries, and also spent some time in California," he says. “I didn’t know there was surf in Lebanon, so for me it was a surprise. I would come every summer, and I would get bored because there was no activity for me."
But everything changed when Karim found a hidden beach with empty sets rolling in. He knew he had to find a board. No one was importing equipment to Lebanon, so he got creative and used one from a Quiksilver shop display window. “The people in the shop said, ‘You surf? Here, we’ll sponsor you, take the board’," laughs Karim. “The board was like cardboard, but it was better than nothing."
Back then, there were only a handful of surfers in Lebanon, including Mostafa Al-Hajj, the man local surfers consider the godfather of Lebanese surfing. “I used to watch Baywatch with my friends," explains Mostafa. “They were all looking at Pamela Anderson, but I was interested in the boards, how people were carrying them and how they wore the leash."
"I used to watch Baywatch with my friends. They were all looking at Pamela Anderson, but I was interested in the boards…"
To make things harder, Mostafa was born partially blind. But since as long as he can remember, he’s been drawn to the sea, and fondly recalls the day a French traveller gave him a Bic surfboard to try in Lebanon 16 years ago. “Sometimes I think I can talk with the wave," he explains, before we paddle out to the point locals have named after him.
Mostafa is eager for newbies and beginners to feel welcome. “Come, I’ll show you," he says, as he explains his break. There’s a forgiving rocky base at Mostafa’s A-Frame. Waves here are created by wind swell, but I’m told can range from a couple of feet to 30 foot walls. During my visit, they’re around five feet, clean, and beautifully peeling to the right and left.
Sharing waves with around 10 other surfers, there’s plenty to go around. “Yalla yalla," calls Mostafa, as a glassy, clean wave rolls towards me. I paddle, just about catch it and get to my feet. I hesitate on the turn, clumsily get my footing, the wave closes out and I tumble into the sea.
My head pops up to see a wall of white water coming towards me, and another. “Use the channel," shouts one surfer. I paddle to the right and I’m clear, and, thanks to the current, I find myself back in the line-up surprisingly quickly.
"“Yalla yalla," calls Mostafa, as a glassy, clean wave rolls towards me."
It’s rumoured that people used to surf in Lebanon during the 1960s, but, despite regular waves comparable to Sri Lanka, Lebanon’s troubled past hasn’t allowed the sport to flourish. That is until four years ago, when Lebanese-Californian surfer Ali Elamine arrived in town and created Surf Lebanon.
Two minutes from the Golden Tulip Hotel in Jiyeh street, travellers will find a surf shop filled with new boards, wetsuits, fins, wax and all the gear you could ever need. On the beach below, Ali has created a brightly decorated hut with dozens of rental boards, where locals can sit and watch the surfing and sunset. “The surfing community only started to grow when Ali came," explains Karim. “He opened it up when he started shipping boards over. We used to struggle – if we damaged our board, we wouldn’t know how to fix it. And if you broke a fin, it was a disaster. Where would we get another one?"
Ali and Karim joke about their first meeting, when Ali saw him on the beach with his Quiksilver board. “I asked him, ‘What are you doing with that?’ It was the kind of board that Kelly Slater used in the 1990s, and it wasn’t right for these waves," says Ali. Now there are around 100 surfers in Lebanon. Some have really embraced the traditional surfer look, with dreadlocks in their hair, driving VW campervans. I chat to surfer girl Lana Allam, from Lebanon's mountains. She is hooked on the sport to such a degree that she’s at the beach almost every day.
“Oh no, my mum is calling Ali," she shouts as we sit outside the surf shack. “If she can’t reach me, she will call the other surfers, because she knows I’m at the beach." The list of people Ali has encouraged to surf is impressive, with others keen to join in.
“I saw a kid run into the sea earlier this year, just in board shorts, carrying a piece of foam," he says. “I thought he was going to drown, so I called to him and asked what he was doing."
“He’d been sitting watching us surf for two months and had carved a makeshift board from Styrofoam. He knew where people paddled out, how to pop up on the board and everything. His homemade board was dangerous, so we gave him a wetsuit and let him borrow ours until he was good enough to have his own."
"His homemade board was dangerous, so we gave him a wetsuit and let him borrow ours until he was good enough to have his own."
I meet the same young surfer on the beach, Ali Al-Qassam is beaming, Ali has just given him a new board. “He’s a goofy footer and now he hassles and calls us off waves," laughs Ali, who believes it’s only a matter of time before there’s a pro surfer from Lebanon.
I sit under the warm sun with a handful of other surfers, we chat and watch the waves, some of them smoke shisha and the sweet smell permeates the air. Some guys are clowning around, singing, joking. Mostafa runs off, and comes back with a cooking pot of addas (hot lentils flavoured with lemon and mint). He offers it to everyone until they are full. Another surfer remembers a Lebanese saying: “You eat how much you love me." Everybody laughs.
“Surfing is life," Mostafa tells me, and in that moment it’s clear how much it means to him. In a damaged economy, with limited prospects for young people, a partially blind man has few options, yet here on the beach with his friends, he has everything he needs. The sea gives him energy, and surfing is another reason to celebrate life. “My life’s work is the sea," he says. “If I didn’t swim in the sea every day, I wouldn’t be alive."
Board rental at Surf Lebanon in Jiyeh is $20 per hour/ $50 per day. Visit facebook.com/surflebanon1 to check the surf forecast and book a session.
Visit the Surf Lebanon shop on Old Sea Road, on the corner of Mujama Mostafa’s turn-off, El Jiyé