Living Large on Lebanon’s Ski Slopes

It’s been a while since I last posted. But ski season is finally at its end in Lebanon, so I finally have a little more free time on the weekends…

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As you might imagine, this snow has been pretty irresistible.

When I say “ski”, “Middle East” may not be what pops to mind for you. Yet Lebanon’s ski season started mid-December this winter, and lasted a full three months. Smaller than the state of Connecticut, the country has five ski stations, one of which still had a couple of lifts open last week. Not bad.

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At the Mzaar ski station near the village of Faraya, it’s a scene like no other. Snow bunnies forgo gloves or goggles in order to show off their fake nails and lashes. The “après-ski” scene starts warming up at noon. Crowds mob the baby slopes while there’s no line at all for any other lift.

I know, it’s not sounding very much like a serious ski scene. There is, however, a small group of elite skiers, and Lebanon has sent skiers to the Olympics since 1948.

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According to the Lebanese Ski Federation, the first skier in the country was a man named Ramez Ghazzaoui. After studying in Switzerland, Ghazzaoui returned to Lebanon in 1913, determined to recreate his Alpine skiing experience on Lebanon’s snowy slopes. It didn’t much catch on. When the French arrived a decade later under the post WWI “mandate”, they brought their love of skiing. The country’s first ski school was established in the Cedars region of northern Lebanon in the 1930s.

Skiing in central Lebanon, where the Mzaar station is located, took a while longer. An hour from Beirut, the village of Faraya sits on the flanks of the Mount Lebanon range, and the peaks of what is now the Mzaar ski station are an additional twenty-minute drive up a narrow road of hairpin turns. Drawn to the beauty of the peaks and undeterred by the challenges of summiting, European visitors in the 1950s hired locals from Faraya to lug their skis to the top of the slopes.

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These holiday decorations remained in place for the entire ski season.

Mahmoud Khalil of Faraya was one of those locals. Paid to do the work without the chance to share in the thrills, Mahmoud decided that he wanted in on the fun. Chopping down a tree in his front yard, Mahmoud hewed his own pair of skis.

Mahmoud passed his passion for skiing on to his three sons: Nabil went on to represent Lebanon in the Olympics, while Tony and Louis became ski instructors. While Tony and Louis share their father’s story on their website Lebanon Slopes, the best way to get the inside scoop is by booking one of them as an instructor. I know, because that’s what I did.

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Tony Khalil, ski instructor at Mzaar

Despite growing up in Seattle, an hour from the snowy slopes of the Cascade mountain range, I had never skied before arriving to Lebanon. After years living far from any ski resorts, my husband Luca was thrilled to end his 20-year skiing hiatus. Our first winter in Lebanon, Luca organized a fortieth birthday bash for me in the mountains: a family weekend where the kids and I learned how to ski and Luca got to rekindle his old love of skiing.

After the first weekend, the kids rarely took an instructor, but as might be expected of a not-especially-athletic-40-year-old, it took me a little longer. Now finishing my fifth winter in Lebanon, I still hire an instructor occasionally (I’ll make it to the advanced slopes one day!). Tony is by far the best instructor I’ve hired. First and foremost for his skiing and teaching skills, but it’s a nice bonus that he has good stories to share during those long lift rides up the slopes.

The first lift was installed at Mzaar in 1959 or 1960 (depending on who you talk to), and Tony says that he and his brothers were “born with skis on our feet.” They learned to ski the way most of us learn to walk—as a basic expectation for getting through life. His brother Nabil went on to become a national champion, and represented Lebanon in the Olympic Games in Sarajevo in 1984.

Nabil’s accomplishment is all the more noteworthy given that it occurred while Lebanon was in the midst of Civil War, which stretched from 1975 to 1990. The airport runway was shelled as the plane carrying Nabil and other Olympians was departing. (Read this incredible article from 1984 for more details.) One of the hotels at the base of the slope was occupied by a militia.

“You see that stretch right there?” Tony said, pointing to a slope nearby as we rode the ski lift. “For the most part we could ski without problems, but in that part right there, we were visible to snipers from the other side. So we just went as fast as we could and hoped for the best.”

Unlike Beirut, where the destruction of war is still visible in buildings punctured by bullet holes, there are few vestiges of the war in Faraya and Mzaar. One exception is at the top of the eponymous Mzaar peak, at 8,087 feet (2,465m), the highest point of the ski resort. On clear days you can see the sea from the summit.

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My husband at the summit of Mzaar with the sea in the background.

Mzaar means ‘shrine’ in English, and the peak was named for a Roman temple that once sat atop the mountain. The temple had been converted into a chapel, but the structure was destroyed during the civil war. All that remains is a bell that skiers love to ring when they reach the summit.

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After five years I finally became a good enough skier to try the Mzaar slope. Okay, truth be told, they opened a back route down from Mzaar this year that is easier than the front descent.

Indeed, the Mzaar of yesteryear would scarcely be recognizable today to Mahmoud Khalil. While there were only three lifts by the end of the civil war in 1990, there are now more than 20. The four chalets that were built in 1960 have multiplied into dozens of hotels and vacation apartments.  Mzaar hosts Red Bull challenges (jump and freeze anyone?) and lingerie fashion shows (yes, seriously) on the snow. (Lebanese Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun scandalized the nation by appearing in a 2014 pre-Sochi photo shoot at Mzaar with nothing but her skis and a pair of pink panties.)

Thousands show up every weekend to join the party. So next winter, if you’re still skiing on the bunny slopes, as cute as those bunnies might be, follow my lead and hire an instructor. You’ll get away from the beginner slope mobs, and have the chance to admire views of the Mediterranean Sea from the peak of Mzaar on a clear day. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Tony, and have the chance to hear a little more about Lebanon’s unexpected skiing history.

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Presidential Elections (no, not in the US!… here in Lebanon)

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Lebanese Flag. Image by Nicolas Raymond

Today, after two years and a half years without a head of government, Lebanon finally elected a president.

All schools and universities were closed for the day. I had a doctor’s appointment at noon – the clinic called this morning to tell me it was better I stayed home. My husband, whose office is a stone’s throw from the Lebanese Parliament building. worked from home. In Lebanon it is the parliament which elects the president. The parliament itself hasn’t seen elections since 2009. Elections were controversially postponed since June 2103, during which time parliamentarians voted to extend their own mandate until 2017.

Today was the 45th time since May 2014 (when the former president’s mandate expired), that the parliament had met to vote on a president. But it was the first time that there was any expectation of someone getting elected.

Lebanese politics are notoriously complicated. Political affiliation is tied up with religion, in a system called “confessional democracy.” Parliament seats are allocated half to Christians and half to Muslim, making the Christians somewhat overrepresented (there hasn’t been a census since 1932, but Muslims are now estimated to be about two thirds of Lebanon’s population). To divide the pie of power, the Speaker of the Parliament is Shia, the Prime Minister is Sunni, and the President is always Christian Maronite.

There are simplistic summaries of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that incorrectly describe it as Christian versus Muslim. It was far more complex than that, a grueling and vicious war during which every party allied with and fought against every other party at some point.  If we are going to simplify, let’s say instead that the war was about power and control, with the multiple militias backed by foreign powers.

Although it took nearly twenty years, it eventually became clear that there would be no winners in Lebanon’s Civil War. (If you’ve ever wondered why Lebanon has been so diligent about not getting sucked into the war in neighboring Syria, that is one clue.) The power-sharing agreement was revisited, dialing down the powers of the president and the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians, and peace was agreed upon. Warlords became politicians.

The end of the war didn’t signal the end of shifting alliances. I once tried to make a chart of political parties and alliances to post on this blog, but it became such a cobwebbed mess of crossed lines that I gave up.

In recent months, previously sworn enemies (and civil war opponents) have created alliances that finally opened up a path for Michel Aoun to become president. Aoun was a general in the Lebanese Army during the Lebanese Civil war, who also had ties to other Christian militias. And was backed at a certain point by Saddam Hussein.

The parliamentarian vote was televised and we watched the first round of voting. I was surprised to see that it was a pen and paper ballot, rather than electronic. The name of each parliamentarian was called aloud, and a glass box brought in front of each parliamentarian for him (or her – but there are only 4 women of 127 parliamentarians) to drop his vote into.

Aoun needed 85 votes to win in the first round. He got 82. All but two of the other votes were blank. Voting moved to a second round, in which Aoun only needed a simple majority, or 65 votes.

It was then that mayhem ensued. Once ballots were collected and counted, it was discovered that there was one more ballot than voters. Invalid. Start over.

Round three, same thing.

The crowd got rowdy. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri quipped, “We haven’t voted in a long time. We’re learning again.”

It was decided that rather than the glass box coming being brought to each parliamentarian’s seat, he (or she) would have to get up and deposit his or her vote into the glass box now at the front of the parliament, where everyone could see.

Finally, 127 ballots for 127 voters.

I hope that next time they consider using the electronic voting system that they apparently have but chose not to use.

While there were again many blank votes (and even one for Zorba the Great), Michel Aoun soon managed to collect the requisite 65 votes.

I was relieved, because we’d been waiting for the voting to finish before going out to lunch, and it had taken over two hours instead of the originally anticipated half an hour. I was starving. But no more had the votes been counted, then a ruckus erupted.

I live in Ashrafieh, the heartland of Christian Beirut, and the celebratory fireworks were deafening. In Beirut, fireworks are often accompanied by celebratory shooting. Sure, they shoot into the sky, but since what goes up must come down, setting foot outside suddenly seemed like a bad idea.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at home. Fireworks soon gave way to celebratory honking. When we ate dinner at 8 at night, we had to shut the dining room windows to cut down on the noise.

As I was writing this, I thought things had finally calmed down, but now it’s nearly midnight, and I hear a new round of fireworks going off.

 

For a visual chronology of the Lebanese Civil War, check out this site.

For a straightforward explanation of Lebanese government and politics, check out Living Lebanon (be sure to click through on the sidebar links too).

And for anyone who wants to know more, I suggest reading Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk.

Burkinis, Bikinis, and the Best Family Beach in Lebanon

It’s been a long time since I last posted, mainly because I joined the flood of expat spouses that desert the duty station for the summer. Since we don’t see family most of the year, those golden months are our chance to spend quality time with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.

I’m not sorry to miss out on the hottest days (more than the temperatures, it’s the humidity that’s a killer in Beirut mid-August), but for those who stay behind, there is plenty to do. Summer in Lebanon is filled with concert series that take place against the backdrops of millennia-old ruins. This summer, pop superstar Sia sang at Byblos, and the Baalbek Festival was reinstated after a four-year hiatus.

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Carcalla Dance Theater performed at the ruins of Baalbek in July.

But Lebanon’s biggest summer attractions are, of course, its beaches.

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San Stefano resort near Batroun.

I thought a lot about Lebanese beaches this August, as I read about the burkini battle raging in France. I got comfortable wearing bikinis after marrying an Italian and spending time on Mediterranean beaches where few women under the age of sixty wear a one-piece. But growing up in Seattle, I wore one-piece suits, and there are still plenty of days I prefer a swimsuit that covers more as opposed to less. During a visit this summer to a waterslide park in the Seattle area, I noticed that some boys wore sun shirts along with their trunks even though the waterpark was indoors, and while plenty of teenage girls were in bikinis, most younger girls and adult women wore one piece suits. A bit more coverage is our cultural norm in the Pacific Northwest.

When I visited southern Portugal as a teenager, I was surprised by how many women went topless—even grandmothers. In Italy, young girls go topless—most swimsuits for girls under the age of five or so are just bikini bottoms. I don’t have a problem with those choices, but they aren’t ones I would want imposed on myself or my daughter.

Although the ban has been overturned by the French courts, this week’s news of another woman in burkini being forced by angry locals to leave a beach in France made me realize that this story is far from over.

In Lebanon, standard beach attire depends on where you show up to swim. There are a few public beaches, but most are private, with resort establishments set up similar to the lidos of Italy: lounge chairs, sun umbrellas, lifeguards, a restaurant, often a swimming pool (or two), and sometimes a hotel.

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Edde Sands, a posh resort near Byblos.

Lots of these private beaches are quite posh, and entrance fees are priced accordingly. Some are distinctly designed to be a place for Lebanese in the 20-40 age range to see and be seen. High heels, make-up and jewelry with a bikini are just not for me. Other spots are more kid-friendly, but still have entrance fees that can cost up to $40 per adult and $25 per child ($130 for a family of four!). And that’s before you even get into the shish taouk sandwiches, French fries and cold beers that our family tends to order. It feels exorbitant for a day at the beach.

So I was happy when, on a recent weekend, a friend proposed meeting at my personal favorite, Al Jisr beach. It boasts one of the widest swathes of sand that I’ve seen in Lebanon, a huge swimming pool, and entrance fees of a mere $13/ adult and $7/child. And, no one looks at your funny no matter how much (or how little) your swimsuit covers.

Which brings me back to the battle of burkini versus bikini. Even in Lebanon there are places where sporting either may be uncomfortable. I know of one posh beach resort where a few customers complain any time a woman shows up in a burkini. (I’m happy to report that their complaints go nowhere.) And I myself wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a bikini to Beirut’s public beach Ramlet el Bayda. But this picture taken on a beach near the northern city of Tripoli recently went viral, precisely because it captured the laissez-faire attitude of most Lebanese. (Photo by Jad Ghorayeb, who has lots more great shots of Lebanon on his Instagram feed.)

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His shot is way better than my iPhone snap at Al Jisr:

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I wore a bikini to Al Jisr, and was one of many women there wearing one. There were also plenty of women in one-pieces, and several more in burkinis. Everyone out to enjoy the warm weather and play in the sea with their families.

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You can see one lady swimming in a burkini, in between her two children with red and blue water wings.

It was actually one of the few times this summer that I have worn a bikini. In March, I discovered a cancerous spot on my skin and had it removed. Most of the summer I alternated between tankinis (covering my midriff), or a bikini with a short-sleeve sun shirt over the top.

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Me, ready for a day in the sun.

I’m only in my early 40s, so maybe I’ll need to move to a long-sleeve sun shirt in the future, something like this:

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Sun shirt for sale at swimoutlet.com

I think it´s safe to assume that this sun shirt would pass muster on any beach in France, but who’s say, given that the line drawn in the sand seems to keep moving. After activists (and slacktivists) posted countless pictures of Western women wearing long sleeves and head coverings on beaches across Europe:

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Vildana Maisa/Twitter

the deputy mayor of Nice declared that nuns in habit wouldn´t be allowed on the public beaches either.

What’s next, a wet suit ban?

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These Speedo wetsuits are designed for triathletes.

There are many reasons why I think that Al Jisr is the best family beach in Lebanon. It’s cheap, it’s clean, the swimming pool is big and the lifeguards are alert and, as I discovered after one of the kids suffered a minor injury playing “soap soccer” on our last visit, they even have a doctor on duty.

But Al Jisr is also a place where you can sport a bikini or cover up fully without anyone batting an eye. And after this summer’s burkini brouhaha, I am more grateful than ever for beaches where I can wear whatever I want.

Check out my earlier post on Beirut Beaches.

 

Beirut in a Snapshot: Garbage, Glitz and Refugees

I got a fancy single lens reflex camera for my birthday, and am so excited to be learning how to use it. My goal is to take better and better images to accompany my writing. I’ve done some traveling lately both in and outside of Lebanon, which has given me lots of opportunities to practice, but I also wander around Beirut from time to time, camera in hand, trying to capture moments.

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Not far from my house, I saw these overflowing trash bin – which were really not that bad by current Lebanese standards, given that the country is in the midst of a garbage crisis. What struck me about these bins in particular was the billboard behind it – an advertisement for a summer concert by AVICII, the world-famous Swedish musician known for his club music. The juxtaposition of glamour and grunge. As I was clicking away, a Syrian refugee holding her child walked into the frame. And there I had it – garbage, glitz and refugees – the complexity of Lebanon encapsulated in a single frame.

Lebanon’s garbage crisis is fading from international news, but the stench of rotting garbage wafting through the air every day doesn’t let the locals forget it. Solutions are possible though, and I hope that more politicians will find inspiration from the transformation of Saida’s notorious mountain of garbage..

into a city park.

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(c) UNDP Lebanon

International experts were brought in, and under the supervision of UNDP Lebanon, the garbage was carefully processed, properly disposed of when possible, contained and buried when not. A lovely public park was built over the space.

There is a nice launch video here (there are some subtitles in English partway through) that gives a good idea of the enormity of the project and all the work that went into eliminating this mountain of waste.

Of course, this park didn’t get make nearly as much news as the garbage disaster preceding it. I know about the project because my husband helped support it through his work for UNDP.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s hope the Saida transformation can inspire more change.

Is It Safe (or even Sane) to Travel to Beirut?

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Beirut Souks decked out for Christmas

Since my May 2015 post on safety in Beirut is my most popular ever, I wanted to post an update on the situation. Some of you are reading because you know me personally, and like to stay in touch and worry about me and my family living here. And some of you are reading because you’re planning a trip to Beirut – for work, or to visit your spouse’s family for the holidays. (And maybe someone somewhere is planning a trip for pure tourism, but I have to admit, that seems highly unlikely.)  You may have seen the U.S. State Department’s most recent travel warning, issued December 11th, and are wondering if you are in your right mind to come visit.

As I wrote this week for the Wall Street Journal Expat blog about hosting visitors, “If I thought we were at risk, I wouldn’t have my kids here.”

I acknowledge that the peace Lebanon does have is fragile. And it’s true that a bomb could go off at any time. There hadn’t been a bomb in over a year, and on the same day in November that I had scheduled a tweet linking to my post on safety in Beirut, there was a bomb. (I pray I’m not jinxing anything now by writing about the topic again!)

On the other hand, if I were living in the U.S., a guy with a gun could walk into my movie theater or my kids’ school and start randomly shooting at any time. There have been hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. in the past year,* and one bombing in Lebanon in the same time frame. If I were living in Paris, I would have risked getting caught in the horrifying massacre that took place two days after Beirut’s tragedy. All terrible things, but not a reason to run away from Beirut or Paris or Aurora or Newtown.

I don’t embrace danger, but I also refuse to be paralyzed by fear.

Life holds no guarantees, but we can confront our fears rather than let them rule us. The Lebanese do an amazing job of demonstrating that principle, and in this regard, I hope to keep taking my cues from them.

My mother-in-law sent worried messages to my husband when the U.S. travel warning made the news in Italy. He sent back pictures of us having dessert on the terrace of the newly-opened Cheescake Factory here in Beirut. I’ll leave you instead with a few more images of Beirut decked out for the holiday season.

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Creative lighting at a posh clothing store in downtown Beirut. I love it!

 

 

*Mass shootings are defined as those in which 4 or more people have been shot (either wounded or killed). ShootingTracker lists 353 mass shootings in the U.s. in 2015 as of December 2nd, and Gun Violence Archive has recorded another 8 since then.

Beirut’s Sursock Museum and the Art of Resilience

After nine long years, Beirut’s Sursock Museum reopened this weekend.

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

The museum houses modern and contemporary art in a setting as elegant as the artwork within: an Italianate villa located in a well-heeled district of Beirut.  First opened in 1961, the Sursock was long the reference point for contemporary art in Lebanon, hosting an annual salon, or exhibition of emerging artists, as well as a permanent collection of renowned painters from the region. The museum managed to stay open through most of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, but closed in 2008 to undergo seven long years of renovation.

Emblematic of the resilience of the Lebanese themselves, the museum reopened this weekend, amidst a garbage crisis, a political crisis, and a refugee crisis of historical proportions.

Fittingly, the museum’s director, Zeina Arida, has curated opening exhibitions that share a theme of identity.

In “Picturing Identity” photographs summon the past of the Lebanese people.

"Muslim Sheikh", from The Fouad Debbas Collection

“Muslim Sheikh”, from The Fouad Debbas Collection

In “Regards sur Beyrouth” paintings evoke the history of the local landscape.

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

And a multimedia exhibition entitled “The City in The City” explores modern-day Beirut. The piece that most struck me in this exhibition was a map created by Mona Fawaz and Ahmad Gharbieh pinpointing visible security deployment in Beirut in 2009: it was cluttered with symbols for checkpoints, army tanks, military vehicles, barbed wire, road spikes and more. (If you can’t make it to the museum, the map and its background essay can be accessed on the website Academia.edu, with free registration to the site.)

Head of programs, Nora Razian, has designed a robust public program of tours, talks, walks, workshops, films and family programs to accompany this last exhibition. I was lucky enough to get a spot on a night walk entitled “The Streets Beneath the Streets,” led by the writer Lina Mounzer. The stories she narrated on Friday night, as she led our group from one hidden corner of the Ashrafieh neighborhood to the next, centered on the famine the country faced during World War I, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 persons in Mount Lebanon alone, 500,000 in Greater Syria. According to the BBC, “As a proportion of the total population, more people died in Greater Syria than anywhere else in the world during the First World War.”

Commonly attributed to a blockade by Allied forces seeking to cut off supplies to the Ottoman empire, the reality of the famine was a far more complicated scenario, also involving environmental factors (such as a locust invasion that carpeted the countryside, some say knee-deep), wartime mismanagement and war profiteering. (This article touches on some of the heart-rending details that Lina shared with us, accompanied by equally harrowing images.)

Foreign influences, environmental degradation, profiteering….

Lebanon’s present has disturbing echoes of its past, and serves as a reminder that only by studying history can we grasp how things might change or remain the same.

All of which circles me back to the reopening of the Sursock Museum, its exhibitions and public programming. Yes, the garbage crisis remains unresolved, with hills of refuse blighting Lebanon’s landscape and clogging its riverbeds. It’s true, Lebanon’s longstanding political crisis (including a 15-month-and-counting presidential vacuum) has deepened the garbage crisis. And while the number of officially registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon has dropped in recent months, there remain more than one million, for a staggering statistic of 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Much of the system in Lebanon seems to be held together with aging Scotch tape, threatening to peel off at any moment.

Yet the Sursock Museum, Zeina Arida, Nora Razian, Lina Mounzer, and all the others involved with the Sursock’s reopening and public programs, are the embodiment of resilience. They remind us to step back to see more clearly who we are and where we came from, so that we can better see where we want to go next.

Culture is not a luxury.

Culture is part of us. It’s what constitutes a person, it links generations and gives meaning to history. Knowing one’s culture is knowing one’s self. Identifying and preserving one’s heritage allows reaching out to the others.

-Zeina Arida, to the Prince Claus Fund

For details about the Sursock Museum and upcoming events, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SursockMuseum

Quaffing Lebanese Wine

The weather remains above 85°F (29°C) every day, but for the Lebanese, beach season is over.

Now is the time for hikes and mountain lunches and other fall activities – such as grape-harvesting. Yet one more surprise when I moved to Lebanon. The country is home to a prospering wine industry.

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Wine production in Lebanon dates back to Phoenician times (3200BC to 883BC), and was an important part of their trading. According to Wikipedia, the Phoenicians “either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.”

So the Phoenicians brought wine-production techniques to the Romans, who turned around a brought their love for wine back to the region when they arrived around 64BC. It was under Roman rule that Lebanon’s greatest cultural attraction – the temple at Baalbek, dedicated to Bacchus, god of the grape harvest and wine – was built.

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The Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

In the 1860s, Jesuit priests in Lebanon recommenced wine production, and the industry blossomed during the French occupation (1923-1946). It is said that the French soldiers just couldn’t imagine life without “un coup de rouge” (a glass of red). As with just about everything else in the country, the industry lagged during the civil war, and only five wineries were operating at its end.

Slowly growing through the 1990s, wine production has taken off since the turn of the millennium, expanding from the traditional growing areas of the Bekaa Valley, to Batroun, Mount Lebanon, and even near Jezzine in southern Lebanon. An estimated 7 to 8 million bottles are produced annually, with much of going to the export market (primarily Europe). A drop in the wine glass compared to, say, France’s annual production of 7 to 8 billion bottles, but a respectable figure nonetheless.

The wineries and their leafy rows of grapes make for gorgeous settings to spend a couple of hours or a day, and our family has visited several: Massaya, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, Ixsir. We loved our weekend lunches at Ixsir and Massaya Bekaa, while my kids’ favorite parts of the visits were the underground tunnels at Ksara and the train ride through the vineyards of Kefraya. Ksara and Kefraya are Lebanon’s biggest players, accounting for roughly half of the country’s annual production, but there are currently around 40 producers in this postage-stamp country.

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Kefraya’s vineyards

A week ago our family had the opportunity to spend a day with the gracious owner of Cave Kouroum and his family. Located in the village of Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley, this lesser-known winery has been an important player in the industry for decades, first as a grape middleman and eventually producing its own wine. We toured the winery, which has an impressive capacity of 7 million bottles of wine. The wine-maker is taking it slow, however, and the estate currently produces 700,000 bottles annually.  Our group especially enjoyed the estate’s Petit Noir and 7 Cépages.

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Two lovely Lebanese wines: Cave Kouroum on the left, Iris Domaine on the right

This past weekend we worked our way backwards in the production line, from the processing of grapes to their harvesting. This time we headed to the hills near Bhamdoun, where we joined the owners of Iris Domain on their final day of the grape harvest.  Owner Salmad Salibi explained that the recent heat wave (thank you sandstorm) meant that the different varietals of grapes had ripened all at once, so there was an urgency to their harvesting. To that end, paid laborers had started the hard work at 6 a.m., so guests like our family who rolled in at 8:30 or 9 and later had the chance to clip just a few crates worth of grapes before cutting the kids loose to explore the vineyards and fruit groves, while the adults snacked on man’ouche and sipped the winery’s excellent red blend.

You don’t have to be well-connected to enjoy a vineyard visit. The website Beirut.com has a comprehensive listing of wineries in Lebanon with links to their contact information. Several are regularly open to the public, while others accept visitors by appointment.

To try all the wines in one place, head to the upcoming Vinifest, October 7-10 at Beirut’s Hippodrome. This wonderful event brings together winemakers from around the country, offering tastings with bottles (as well as olive oil and snacks) available for purchase.  (Tickets L. 25,000 and can be purchased at the entrance or ahead of time at Antoine.) With around 40 producers showcasing their wines, take my word for it that it’s impossible to try them all. But my husband and I have had fun trying.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

Lebanon is no Napa. (Nor is it even close to say, the wine-growing region of Columbia Valley in my home state of Washington.  I have yet to meet a winemaker here in Lebanon that has heard of Washington wines, despite the fact that Washington State is home to more than 850 wineries and produces 180 million bottles of wine per year.  I’m allowed a little hometown pride, aren’t I?)

But enotourism in Lebanon is on the rise. Chateau Khoury has opened a restaurant, while Domaine des Tourelles and Cave Kourom are developing theirs. Chateau Belle-Vue hosts both a restaurant and a hotel. Wineries near Batroun in Northern Lebanon have worked to develop a wine trail.

The Romans may have left Lebanon ages ago, but clearly the devotees of Bacchus remain alive and well.

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Resources for the wine lover in Lebanon:

  • Special reports on Lebanon’s wine industry and developing wine tourism were recently published in Executive magazine.
  • The 2012 Zawaq guide to Lebanese wine has tasting notes for over 100 wines. The bilingual (French/English) book is currently 40% off on Antoine’s website.
  • Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wines (2013) offers tasting notes by the owner of Jezzine’s Karam Winery.

Facebook tends to be the best place to find out about events and visits at most wineries in Lebanon, with more current information than the winery websites.