The Unexpected

Prior to my arrival in Lebanon last May, I’d had little experience in the Middle East. Business trips during my first job out of college had given me a few days each in Dubai, Cairo and Bahrain, and everything else I knew about the region was from the news. I wasn’t really sure what to expect upon arrival. I’ve been here now for nine months, and there have been plenty of surprises.

I didn’t expect:

  • That when I dropped off my son for a playdate in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, the other child’s young mom would greet me in snug-fitting track pants and low-cut tank top. Only to be further surprised when her mother (grandma) emerged from the living room wearing a traditional black abaya.
  • That my Muslim friends would warmly wish me “Merry Christmas,” and Christmas decorations would still be up in the third week of January.
  • That street safety is actually better here than in many places in the U.S., with lower homicide rates than New York or Seattle, for example.
  • That the “Lebanese pizza” at Pizza Hut would have ham, when maybe half or more of the population (the Muslims) does not eat pork.
  • That not only is alcohol available, but there are wineries, and even plenty of decent locally-produced wine.
  • That I would learn how to ski while living in the Middle East.

The closest ski resort is just an hour from Beirut, and at the first snow, groups of everyone from young men in blue jeans to middle-aged women in heeled boots (no snow attire, but lots of enthusiasm) take collective buses up to the slopes, and sit around shisha pipes in the snow as if they were bonfires on the beach, playing the derbake, or tablah drum, some of them drinking straight from their bottles of Lebanese wine and Johnny Walker whisky, taking turns speeding down the slopes on sleds.

Those who want to spring the $45 for the lift pass and $10 for equipment rental (and optional $35 for an hour’s lesson) have the chance to ski, and the slopes can be mobbed.

Others come just for the famed “après-ski” scene. This is the lodge-style lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel on a Sunday night. On Saturdays, the tables are packed with muscled men and stiletto-heeled women. Instead of Norwegian-style lodge sweaters, men are in dark Armani shirts, and women have sequined tank tops. The Intercon was ready for them – it was about 85 degrees (25 C) in there. I took off my wool sweater, and the kids ordered ice cream instead of hot chocolate. We were the only ones with kids along on a Saturday night, although I did see a few others with their nannies in a TV room near the restroom. We headed back to our (much-cheaper) hotel early, but I’m guessing the scene lasted well into the night.

Before January, I was always confused when people told me that Lebanon used to be called the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” It’s not exactly known for being a beacon of peace, like Switzerland.

What I remembered was hearing it described as the “Paris of the Middle East,” and its European flair in the few bits of surviving architecture, the cosmopolitan attitude, and the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese that speak French as easily as they do Arabic, make that easy to imagine. Now I get the Switzerland reference. According to Wikipedia, “skiing was introduced to Lebanon in 1913 when Ramez Ghazzoui, a Lebanese engineer, returned from his studies in Switzerland and introduced his friends to the sport in the mountains near Aley in Mount Lebanon.”

It has to warm up (a lot) before I can test the cliché of skiing in the mountains in the morning and swimming in the sea in the afternoon. For now we managed to ski one day, and enjoy a sunny bike ride along the waterfront the next. Not bad. Not bad at all.