January has been my month of doing new things in Lebanon: everything from walking on the corniche (I know, I know: two years in Lebanon and never a walk on the Beirut corniche? Shame, shame!) to attending a hip-hop concert, which featured a mixture of Lebanese and Arab-American artists.
Trying to find Black & White was the inspiration for my post on whether one can say “in Monot“. What I failed to mention then was the fact that by attending this concert, I and a good chunk of friends and fellow hoppers made it decidedly less cool. We were (are) all too old, and definitely too un-hip.
My group strategically invited a number of younger friends along for the evening, but even so, I think our average age was in the upper 20s – a bit high for hip hop. The next morning, I imagined the event promoter and the club owner getting together and shaking their heads, asking: who were all those old people, and what can we do to keep them from coming back?
So that was one new thing. But perhaps the biggest new thing, in terms of risk to life and limb, was going skiing last Monday. I had the day off; H has a flexible schedule and the self-punishing desire to spend the day with someone who hadn’t been on skis since 1998.
Early Monday morning I began to panic. What was I thinking, agreeing to get back on skis? What if I fell? What if – worse! – I looked bad? I used to be a graceful skiier, and I dreaded the fall back to grinding turns and awkward pole’ing.
H sms’ed to say that he would be a bit late arriving, and I started to google, looking frantically for skiing tips. Thank goodness for the internet: I found a wonderful, reassuring page with lots of good advice. It didn’t save me from the indignity of H insisting that I start my day with a run down Faraya’s “baby” slope, but it did help me when we moved on to more challenging (i.e., not flat) runs.
When I returned home that evening, glowing with delight and happily in one piece, I decided to do a bit more research on Lebanon’s ski history. And naturally, I started with my favorite all-issues-archived-online magazine.
A January/February 1966 ARAMCO World article called “Ski Lebanon!” had this to say about how the Lebanese ski tradition developed (and no, M, the author of this article, William Tracy, does not seem to have been a spy):
It was a Lebanese engineer returning from studies in Switzerland who introduced skiing to Lebanon in 1913. But it was not until the 1930’s that a group of dedicated French and Lebanese young people began to ski in earnest. “We used to spend three hours climbing a slope,” recalls Dr. George Zabouni, president of the Club des Chalets, Lebanon’s biggest ski club. “Then we’d make one descent and it would be over. Now we make 30 runs a day.”
Dr. Emile Riache, president of the Lebanese Ski Federation, makes the same point. “For 20 years we had no mechanical tows. How could we really improve our technique with one run a day?” He mentioned, as an example, the effort involved in climbing 10,000-foot Mt. Hermon of Biblical fame. For one admittedly breathtaking, 20-minute descent, it took five hours of climbing …
Yes. 300 minutes climbing, 20 minutes skiing. I would have found some other hobby.
When Tracy wrote his article, Faraya was new:
For Beirut, the newest and the most convenient ski area is Faraya-Mzaar. Only 39 miles away on good if hair-raising roads (and even closer next spring when a new highway will be finished), Faraya is actually within sight of Beirut. On clear days, skiers, moving up the mountainside on the silent chair lift, can look down nearly 8,000 feet and see the outline of the buildings in the city. They can also look down on a snowy plateau at the foot of the ski lift and see a 70-room hotel that would rank with the best in New England or Sun Valley, a youth hostel, a restaurant, a snack bar, a ski shop, a swimming pool with cabanas and 27 furnished chalets. Faraya is primarily the creation of Shaikh Selim al-Khazen, board chairman of the company that developed it and the man who saw the possibilities of skiing many years ago and kept the idea of development alive by sponsoring an annual skiing banquet in the village of Faraya. Skiers who wished to attend had only to climb the nearby summit and ski down once.
Notice “the” chair lift? Apparently the resort had only one lift (and several T-bar tows) until quite recently. It is silent, or silent-ish, although takeoff and landing produced some “oof!” and “ouch!” ing on my part.
Having recently done a bit of research on Lebanon’s economy in the 1950s and 1960s, I was interested to learn that by the mid-1960s skiing was being seen as part of the wave of Lebanon’s economic future. The Aramco World article puts a good spin on it, but the reality is that the country turned to tourism because its reliance on the trade, banking & services aspects of its strong tertiary sector was already proving dangerous. Here’s the positive version:
Charles Helou, President of Lebanon and a former director of the National Council of Tourism, has placed the tourist industry high on the list of priorities for his country’s progress. He has formed a high-level committee made up of representatives from the ministries of public works, interior, and education; from the army and from the ski federation. Michel Khoury, Helou’s successor as director of the tourist council, is committee chairman. The government, according to Joseph Kairouz, president of the Banque du Credit Populaire and promoter of a new project at The Cedars, “has realized that tourism can be our number one industry, a key source of national revenue. And it has suddenly dawned on our businessmen that the jet age has brought us within reach of the middle class European vacationer.”
I usually think of Charles Helou as the name of a grotty garage on the edge of Saifi, but before he gave his name to the site of cheap trans-Lebanon transport, he was indeed the country’s president, and apparently one of the few in government then to push for diversifying the national economy.
My 1965 copy of Travel Lebanon had similarly complimentary things to say about skiing in general and Faraya in particular. Notice the price of a room at the Inter-Con? Don’t you wish you could pay those prices today :)?
In the past year, Faraya has greatly improved its facilities and now sports an ultra-modern hotel. Price: single w/ full board 35 LL.
And what may be the funniest description of Faraya comes from the 2001 Lonely Planet, which says:
Faraya Mzaar is the Achrafiye of the slopes and half the people hanging about in the cafes, restaurants and clubs are too busy partying to actually strap on skis.
Well, H did warn me that Faraya is Frenchie-land, but those who came on Monday came to ski – and some of them were darn good. I’m looking forward to my next jour de ski, and dreaming of the time when I too will schuss down the slopes au parallèle.