Travel Stories

Lebanon – The Axis of Powder

Lebanon – The Axis of Powder
According to the guidebooks, the most famous inhabitant of the Lebanese mountain town of Becharre is a poet, artist and mystic called Khalil Gibran. Gibran is dead now but he is the author of a very famous book called The Prophet. But to us, the most famous inhabitant of Becharre is a 22 year-old snowboarder called Faoud Imad Kayrouz. Here’s what my notebook said about Faoud after we spent a couple of days with him:

* Is 22 years old
* Has been snowboarding for one year
* Has a six year-old brother, Chris, who taught himself to speak fluent English by watching the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.
* Spent one year ‘having my spirit broken’ in the army
* Trains Chris to shoot rifles and throw grenades
* Works at the Cedars resort putting up new lifts
* Hopes to work in Dubai
* Wants to go to London and visit Sega World, for some inexplicable reason
* Likes Progressive Trance
* Like learning, voraciously
* Reads Tolkein in English
* Like Progressive Trance (he told us this twice)
* Knows the name of ten English DJs
* Is ‘very judgemental’
* Got his friend Steve to send him White Widow and AK seeds from Amsterdam
* Has read Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan and believes in ‘the shamanistic power of mushrooms’
* Would like to live like we do in England
* Has an uncle in Santa Cruz who is a musician
* Thinks America is beautiful, mature and wise.
* Is homophobic
* Owns guns
* Enjoys free climbing
* Nicknamed Red Fox
*Thinks of himself as European, not Arabic

We first met Faoud while we were walking around Becharre trying to find something to take photos of. We’d been in town for about a day, and it had been snowing so heavily during that time that the local resort, the Cedars, was closed and looked unlikely to open during the course of our three day visit. So instead of sitting in our hotel going mad from cabin fever, we decided to walk around the town to see if we could find any rails or urban jibs to shoot. Buried under three feet of snow, with everybody indoors, Becharre initially had the feel of a ghost town. But as we stood there in the street, looking at a half buried truck and speculating as to whether its sidewalls were rideable, over sidled Faoud to see if we needed any help. Within five minutes, he’d found out who owned the van and got permission for us to slide it, gathered a crowd to help us dig out a run-in and landing, and persuaded his friend, Tony the Baker, to turn up with his Range Rover so that he could tow Scott McMorris, Elliot Neave, Martin Robertson and Tim Warwood into the run-in and onto the bar of the truck. As he organised, Faoud was on the phone to his friends, excitedly telling them that a group of British pros were in town. Within half an hour, the ghost town had been transformed and there was a crowd of excited Lebanese locals on hand to help and cheer us on. Not for the first time during our trip, we turned to each other and exchanged amazed glances. Neave laughed hysterically, as he does. ‘What fucking madness is going to happen next?’ he asked me. I couldn’t answer him, because I didn’t have a clue.

In truth, it had been like this almost as soon as we’d stepped off the plane at Beirut airport. Today, Beirut is one of the most emotive place names in the world, symbolising for most British people terrorism, war, suicide bombers and hostage taking. We’d all been a little nervous as we boarded the plane, despite the fact that I knew in the past Beirut had been known as ‘the Paris of the East’, thanks to it’s sweeping art deco architecture and reputation as a city where the cultures of the West collided with those of the East, a melting pot at fierce odds with it’s surroundings. On the plane, I read TE Lawrence’s still savvy description of the place and wondered what it was going to be like now: ‘Beyrout was the door of Syria, a chromatic Levantine screen through which cheap or shop soiled foreign influences entered. It represented Syria as much as Soho the Home Counties’.

It was dark and hot when we landed at Beirut Airport. There we were met by Ron, who runs the website and who had sorted out our trip, and a ski instructor he introduced to us as John, the head coach of the Lebanese Ski Team. Friendly John was almost immediately nicknamed ‘John the Boy’ by James McPhail, to general delight from our team. But it was a little tense, that first meeting, and as we headed to Faraya Mzaar, the ski resort we’d be staying in for the first part of the trip, I could tell that Ron wasn’t particularly impressed with the ‘English journalist’ he’d been corresponding with via email over the last few months. Still, as we drove up the winding road that ascends from sea level to 2000 metres in only 50 short kilometres, we got talking and they tried to explain the civil war in Lebanon to me, saying that it could best be summed up as ‘Muslims fighting Muslims, Christians fighting Muslims, Christians fighting Christians’. In truth, they said, no one really knew what it was about but they were all glad it was over. In that sense, Ron couldn’t understand why Britain had been so keen to fight a war in Iraq. “We know the reality of shelling and fighting. We always saw the UK as pitiful for following America.” Tired from the flight, I didn’t really know how to respond to that. A short silence followed, broken by Ron saying he thought the problem with the UK was that we were letting too many foreigners in. “You’re diluting your country.” At this point, I’d been in the country less than an hour and my head was already reeling. Soon we passed a manned army checkpoint that marked the outskirts of Faraya Mzaar, before pulling up outside the entrance of the Auberge, the small hostel we’d be staying at for the next few days. We went in and looked over the rooms: super basic, with too few beds and ants in the bathroom. There also didn’t appear to be any other guests, although the next morning, at breakfast, the place was overrun with holidaying school kids from Beirut. We ate the first of many Arabic breakfasts (flat breads, eggs, cucumber, tomatoes and cheese spread), drank tea, and headed out to go riding with John The Boy.

The first thing John did, as we stood waiting at the bottom of a draglift, was hand us his card. As we read it, an awful truth sank in. ‘John the Boy’, it seemed, was actually called ‘Jean’. Elliot Neave found this information predictably hilarious, although his laughter died as the chair rose up into milk thick clouds and visibility reduced to nothing. With three lifts open, opportunities for fun were limited, but we soon found a draglift that led to a small cornice, and lapped it for a few hours before heading back down to the hotel. It being the first day, we determined that bad weather such as this would be the perfect time to get a feel for the town. After all, it was bound to be sunny at some point during the next ten days, right? So, as is almost always the case when you hang out with Elliot Neave, we went to the pub.

In actual fact, we headed to the Mzaar Intercontinental Hotel. This was after we’d wandered around looking for any semblance of a town centre, and realised that there wasn’t one. Come to that, there didn’t seem to be any bars or restaurants either, and we soon realised that the Intercontinental was the main hang out in town. Still, it wasn’t a bad place to chill, and the staff were super friendly. As we enjoyed a nice bottle of Lebanese red at the bar, I got talking to Remy, one of the bar staff. He’d been offered a job at a hotel in Edinburgh but turned it down cos he’d been refused a visa. “You know, I’m an Arab, so they probably thought I was a terrorist! Ha ha ha!” At the time, we all laughed at the ludicrousness of the idea, but six months down the line it doesn’t seem so funny. Anyway, to prove there were no hard feelings, Remy drew us a map of must-see places to visit in Beirut. In truth, that first day, sitting in the bar of the Mzaar, alternatively speaking to the staff and the other westerners holed up in there – like Alex and Vanessa, two Aussies we met who were also staying at the Auberge – was how we spent most of our time in Faraya. In the days we’d go riding in the murk, and in the evening we’d escape our snowed-in hostel to hang out at the hotel, drinking wine, eating nice food and smoking apple tobacco through big shish hubble-bubble pipes. Mainly we were getting used to the place, the clientele of which seemed to be made up of rich Lebanese and Westerners working in the Gulf, and the general friendliness. After initial suspicion, usually broken by Elliot, who has the precious ability to find any situation completely hilarious, the locals really could not do enough to help us. We had our first real taste of this on the best riding day we had in Faraya, the day before we left. Up early to blue skies, we’d literally run to the lifts to see the whole mountain gleaming and glittering in that brilliant early morning light. To be honest, it was pretty exciting, cos it felt like we had the whole resort to ourselves. Ron, keen to show us the view of Beirut from the peak of Faraya, had made the early morning effort as well, and as we ascended through the clouds we finally saw ‘The Root’, as the team had taken to calling it. It was quite a sight – the Mediterranean in the distance, Beirut sprawling along the coast. Ron was proud – and took us off on a tour of the resort to celebrate. It was way bigger and more geographically complex than we’d previously thought, and we rued the fact we didn’t have more time. But we had a great day. We slashed powder banks, straight-lined pistes, dropped little rocks, jibbed on roofs, took loads of pictures and generally had a very excitable time of it. On one run I caught an edge in the powder and lost my goggles and hat, thus earning myself the nickname ‘Petey the Punter’ from Neave, who amused himself for the next three days by screaming ‘Peeeeet—–ay!!!!’ at the top of his voice every time I opened my mouth or glanced in his direction. And strangely, even I didn’t get bored of it. Anyway, after I’d dug my headgear out of the snow, we went down to the restaurant with Ron and planned the rest of the trip before returning to the Auberge.

Part of the fun of staying at the Auberge had been trying to work out what the manager’s deal was. He was a Lebanese lad in his mid-twenties, and he seemed to spend most of his time asleep at his desk or awake on the sofa watching TV, only glancing up to grunt at us when we came in or left. What was his deal? Was he rude? Could he speak English? Did he just not like us? We couldn’t work it out. We were still mulling it over on our drive down the valley to a traditional Lebanese restaurant with Ron and Jean, although I was quickly engaged in another slightly uncomfortable political chat with the taciturn Ron as we left Faraya the resort. He certainly doesn’t suffer fools gladly, Ron, as illustrated by him looking at me like I was a fucking idiot when I asked him if the snowfall was ‘normal’ for this time of year. Still, it was illuminating talking to Ron about Lebanon’s situation. As we passed terraces of red and green apples, he said it was difficult for such a small country, and told the same joke about their Syria neighbours that the Scots tell about the English. Come to think of it, he was especially disparaging about the Syrians, who at that point had been occupying Lebanon for the last twenty odd years. He explained how the political situation in the country was largely dependent on how the major powers such as America and Britain see the strategic importance of the place because, ultimately, “…we have no oil, no power.” Do Lebanese people trust the Yanks? “No, we do not trust them. They do what is good for them for now. That’s why there is peace in our country. It’ll change”.

Down in Faraya Village, the meal was amazing – hummus, garlic sauce, tzatziki, olives, gherkins, tomatoes, cucumber, eggs, flatbread, the first of many, many kebabs I would eat in the next three weeks – and it was nice to speak to Jean about his life over a couple of beers. Later, we drove back to the resort through the middle of this crazy electrical snowstorm, skidding all over the place as we watched the lightning hit the mountain and make the lights flicker further down in the valley. We were a bit drunk when we got back, so we decided to go speak to the guy at the desk who, it turned out, was also called Ron. He’d been asleep again when we came in, but quickly awoke when we approached him and explained that he was asleep because he had in fact been as stoned as a bag of monkeys. ‘I am an expert in this shit!” he proudly proclaimed, and dragged us down into the basement bar for a drink. As the wind and snow howled outside we spent the night drinking with Ron, who turned out to be hilarious company. Later, McPhail and myself had an anguished debate about whether an account of a night spent getting pissed with a random Lebanese fellow would be of any interest whatsoever to anybody reading this story in the magazine. James felt not, but on balance, I felt that it was important to convey the sheer randomness of an evening spent drinking Red Arak – a drink with the kick of absinth – with Ron and debating the merits of UK and Lebanese youth culture. Ron was particularly interested in whether we smoked hashish, and dubiously reckoned that “ninety percent of people in Lebanon’”smoked the red Lebanese hashish he was so proud of. Later, as the snow whipped down, he tried to fuck with us by showing photos of the Auberge from a previous winter when it had been completely buried by snow. As the snow was three feet deep outside and still only lapping at the windowsills, we found this information quite hard to process. “You’re going to be snowed in! Five metres! You have to stay here with me!” screamed Ron delightedly as the last of the Red Arak went down. These words were ringing in my ears as I drunkenly set my alarm for eight the next morning.

Our misadventures with Ron the Second the night before meant that I had one of the worst hangovers of the year as we skidded down the road to Beirut, on our way to the town of Becharre, four hours drive away. In contrast, James McPhail had never been more animated, and kept up a running commentary at the wondrous scenery we passed as drove through the higgledy-piggledy chaos of Beirut, past the huge Mediterranean waves that crashed onto the shore, back inland and finally wound our way up more steep and beautiful valleys to Becharre.

On our first morning in Becharre, the day we would meet Faoud, we were surprised to find it still absolutely dumping down with snow. So in the morning, we headed out to walk around the town to see if there was anything we could do. It being halfway through the trip by now, James and myself were beginning to panic about the lack of shots we had in the bag, so were at the ‘anything will do’ stage. So when we found a deserted house with a rail outside into a huge bank of snow, it seemed perfect. We began to clear the snow from the steps when suddenly an extremely old lady appeared and asked us if we wanted to ‘play’ on the stairs (this, incidentally, was one of our favourite things about being in Lebanon – they always referred to it as ‘playing at snowboarding’) and would we like any coffee or food? Soon, her son appeared and began to help us clear the snow from the stairs and move a gate that was obstructing the run-in. You certainly don’t get that in Meribel. Neave hit the rail a few times before we decided to move on, but as we left, Rosa, the old lady invited us in for some lunch. So Elliot and I removed our boots and gloves, went into the kitchen and sat around a little diesel pot boiler stove while Rosa brewed us coffee and made us eggs, mash and chicken for lunch. Nathan, her son, came in and we talked for about an hour. Rosa had 12 grandkids and Nathan had lived in Australia for years. They explained that, quite unusually for Lebanon, Becharre was a Christian town. Like Ron, they were also fatalistic in the extreme about the situation in their country. “Eventually”, said Nathan, “…someone’s political interests will be the same as the people’s and then things will go back to how they should be”. They were slightly incredulous that we felt it was acceptable to travel the world only able to speak one language, and fascinated that we weren’t at all religious in the West. “The Americans would probably say they were religious,” I said, and was quickly chided by Nathan. “They just hate Muslims. That doesn’t make them religious.”

Neave and I left to find the others, our heads ringing with the incredible hospitality we’d just been shown. They were standing around a half buried truck, wondering whether it was rideable, when along sidled Faoud. Later, after the session was finished and we were walking back to the hotel with Faoud, we told him that we were all humbled by the welcome we were receiving from the town, and he told us it was a matter of pride for them to offer us such a welcome. Tim in particular shook his head in disbelief – at one point during the session, his film camera had run out, so he’d gone into a house and asked another old lady if he could use a plug point. Shrugging her shoulders, she unplugged the TV her eighty year old husband was watching, ignoring his startled protests, and plugged the camera in to charge it. Later, in a bar owned by another of his friends, Faoud told us about the town: about how they were so sick of war that the village had it’s own militia. Control of the town, apparently, meant control of the local water supply, so strategically it was very important. Each man had at least six guns, and within six hours, he told us, they’d have a thousand men ready to defend their town. Military training is handed down within the family, and the town apparently has tanks, RPGs and assault rifles stashed. Only a few days earlier, Faoud had been teaching his younger brother, Chris, to throw hand grenades. “Each man can hold off one hundred men because we know the terrain so well. Do I have a rank? I am a Squadron Leader”. As Faoud spoke, I had to remind myself that he was younger than Martin Robertson.

The Kindnesses of Becharre
The next day, we met Faoud early in the morning and again went around town trying to find things to ride and shoot. By now, news of our presence in town had spread to the point that wherever we went, we had a thirty strong crowd of smiling on-lookers following us and attempting to either feed us, invite us into their homes or, at the least, bring us out a jug of coffee. After a while, the kindnesses and friendliness we were being shown by the entire town of Becharre got so ridiculous that I just began to write each incident down as a list. Here’s how it reads in my notebook:

*On the way to ride in town, we passed a random woman in the street who said her kid had picked up Tim’s board, which we thought might have been nicked the night before. He went with her to get it and she wouldn’t let him leave until she’d fed him hot food and made him coffee.”
*At the shop, the girl behind the counter sorted out James’ dodgy finger and spoke to Elliot about travelling. She wouldn’t let us pay for the drinks we tried to buy.”
*As we were piling snow onto the road to try and make a landing for Scott and Martin’s acid drop, the guy in the digger who was attempting to clear the roads of snow actually lifted his plough up so he wouldn’t ruin our landing, leaving us all slack-jawed in astonishment.”
*Later, as Elliot did a nice Method off a wall in the middle of town, an old woman tried to bring us all coffee and asked James to move in with her.”
*At the same place we met two girls who had heard there was ‘an English writer’ in town. They’d tracked me down to ask for careers advice and what I did at University. When I said English Lit. they announced they were going to move to Beirut to study English. Didn’t quite know what to say.”
* Each time Elliot landed, crowds of kids ran to remake the landing and carry his board for him back to the top of the run-in.”
*Afterwards, a young guy called Nasim took us to his mother’s house and fed us coffee, sandwiches and chocolate. They wanted us to stay and hang out for the rest of the day – and then invited us for breakfast in the morning.”
* Later, when I was walking home after checking my email, Tony The Baker drove past in his Range Rover. He dragged me into his shop and gave me a box full of cakes and pastries to take to the others.”
* I think the thing that stoked us out the most was the kid who said to Elliot that he hadn’t realised what was possible on a snowboard until he’d seen the boys yesterday. “You’ve made me look at my town in a new way,” he said.

On out last night in the town, we went over to visit Faoud and his family. They too were horrified that we could all only speak English. By this point, the whole trip was making us question our idea of what’s important, mainly because of the different perception of our lives Faoud and his friends have. For Faoud, the UK represents freedom and opportunity, the chance to make the best of your life. In contrast, the envy I felt for the closeness of the community in Becharre and the strength of Faoud’s family unit as we were seeing it made me wonder exactly who was missing out on what. It was also less easy to be cynical about the West. At first, Faoud and his friends had been referring to the Extreme Channel and cable channels such as Nickelodeon with such reverence that we thought they must be taking the piss. But, as Faoud explained that Chris (his six year old brother) had taught himself to speak English by watching cable, and that they’d all been inspired to try snowboarding because of shows they’d watched on Extreme, it began to make more sense. Perhaps Gladys, Faoud’s mother, was right, when she said that the reality of the situation is that, for our generation, there are no longer any boundaries and we now have to make our own challenges, whether it be us travelling to Lebanon without being able to speak the language (here she looked kindly at me), or them watching the Extreme Channel and dreaming of the day they can spin off-axis and ‘play’ at snowboard 360s. As long as we continued to meet in the middle and share our experiences as we were doing now, she suggested, things would surely work out. I was glad to leave Becharre, and Lebanon, with that pleasing sentiment in mind.

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