February 06, 2017

Why Ski in the Cedars

A slightly over-processed picture (I love Snapseed)

I went skiing in the Cedars this weekend.
The ski slopes in the Cedars are an interesting social experience.

When I first came to Lebanon, many years ago, I had been reading up on the country, and a number of books, such as Kamal Saliba’s House of Many Mansions, talked about a ‘tribal’ society. I never really understood why they would characterize Lebanon as a country of tribes, until my very first ski trip to the Cedars.

It is quite clear from the faces on the slope, that there is some serious inbreeding going on there in the mountains. Stocky built men with broad and meaty shoulders, chiseled faces and aquiline noses.
All of them. And I mean, all of them.

Somewhere some very productive patriarch put his stamp on the entire male population here.
Add to that the military style crew cut, and aviator sun glasses, and you’ve got your typical christian mountain man. Proud men too. The kind of men, that if you’d want to marry their daughters, you better make sure you come from the right tribe (read religion & village), or else they’ll lynch you once upon exiting their house. It sounds scary, but if you don’t mess with them, you needn’t worry.
Somehow, massacres like this don't seem so unbelievable here.

Empty slopes down . . .  The little green patch in the middle is the famous Cedar Forest. 

Of course, their understanding of ‘being messed with’ is slightly more sensitive than most people’s understanding, so tread lightly. Think Deliverance.
One of my fellow skier was talking to the hotel owner, who explained to him how his cousin had dealt with some men from the Beqaa Valley trying to steal his car. “He got his machine gun out and shot them. Dead? Of course dead.” That the cousin is now in jail, probably for many years to come was a side note. Don’t touch our cars, is the message.

My first ski experience, way back when,  was the line-up for the ski lifts (there were 3 then, if I remember correctly. Not much has changed; now there are 4) some 20 years ago. There was no such thing as a line up. Someone just walked to the very front of the line. And if anyone in the back as much as sighed, they’d turn around very slowly, ski jacket open, and a revolver suck in between the belt of their pants. You, of course, think I am making this up, but I kid you not; this was my very first line-up experience, somewhere in the nineties.

That kind of set the tone, and ever since that day, I store my usual assertiveness while lining up in the Cedars, and wait meekly with the rest of the pack, in hopes that I get sort of pushed to the front by the people behind me. This works quite well, and I have never run into any problems.
I even took my dog on the slope in the old days, a sheep dog, that made a concerted effort to keep all skiers together in a group, and ‘herded’ everyone together as they came down the hill.  Not a problem.
“If anyone complains,” said the lift operator,  “tell ‘em Charbel said so.”

. . .  and empty slopes up. (It looks really groomed, but it is an illusion :) 

A social experience, as I said. The Cedars was the very first ski resort in Lebanon, and as such, received the ‘beau monde’ in the fifties. I know people who have had their original chalet since 1969, and although by now an absolute dump, will not part with it. I know of people that snub their nose at Faraya, because they consider Faraya to be where the peasants ski; The Faraya skiers are the ‘common folks’. When Faraya got its first ski lift, that’s when it all went downhill with Lebanon, as far as they are concerned.  

Unfortunately, being the first in the country resulted in a fixed mindset. Why grow if you’re the best?  And as such, the Cedars have forever been stuck in the seventies, including the colorful one piece ski suits, the ski lifts (seriously, there is only one lift to the top), the cafes and hotels at the bottom of the hill, and the snowploughs. Slopes do not seem to get really groomed, and if there is an attempt at grooming the hill, it is done in such an odd way, that it is clear what they think here of groomed slopes; Groomed slopes are for sissies. ‘Real skiers’ do it ‘off-piste’ style.

The hotel I stayed in must once have been the absolute center of ‘après-ski’, the place where it was all happening. But as people moved on, the place did not. A serious make-over some years ago somehow stalled, and never got finished.  

The ski instructors can be morose, they do not take credit cards, they don’t have ATM machines, their rental equipment dates from the 80’s, there is only one real lift to speak of (the other 3 all cater to blue slopes, which are considered baby hills in the business), which operates erratically, because if they do not have enough customers, they do not open, or close early, they have no real slopes to speak off, and the après-ski establishments are grimy.

Yet, it all seems so much more real in the Cedars than anywhere else.
There are no hipsters in the Cedars, no over the top ladies in Dior ski-outfits who do not actually ski, and no restaurants that charge $200 for a bottle of champagne. Heck, they didn't even have white wine. It is the real Lebanon.

So why ski in the Cedars?
Well, I am nostalgic, and I like things that hint at a once illustrious past.
The slopes are (relatively) empty.
And then there is the scenery.

Aaaahh, the scenery. It is absolutely stunning, as you are on top of Jabal El Makmel, 2,829 meters high (that’s what my phone said), and you look over the white lands, Qaddisha Valley, the Cedar forest (park, more appropriately) at the bottom, and the dark blue in the distance hinting at a sea. 

Nothing can beat that.
If you want to see how Lebanon was, maybe not the sixties, but definitely pre-millennium, go ski in the Cedars.

You can clearly see the scar in the landscape that is  Qaddisha Valley

But it seems even that is about to change. There are, apparently, plans, to build a resort on top of the mountain there (more info here). Not everyone seems to agree with it, and petitions are being signed.
We’ll see.

And now I will be accepting lots of angry comments from people who will say I have no idea what I am talking about. That is fine with me. 


Anonymous said...

Another cool blog post Sietske. As a lebanese emigrant living abroad, I didn't know the problem still exists with queue jumping . I remember a time in the 80's when Geagea and Aoun soldiers (who were skiing ) went to war a over a pushing in incident. Looks like not much has changed. Anyways, I too hail from the north ,have light skin, tall and christian . Some of my relations even have blue eyes. I guess we could be related to you Germanics from the time of the crusades. (Most of the crusaders, after their defeat, settled down and mixed with the local christian population of lebanon I have read and which makes sense).

Chirine Ajouz said...

I so enjoyed reading your post! We are Cedars' afficionados and your description of it is on point. My sons who have learnt to ski and spend most of their winter weekends and holidays up there also look down on Faraya (keep in mind that although we are from the north, we are not from Bsharre but they feel like they belong up there...it's their winter home!). It saddens me how it has stopped somewhere long ago in time and hasn't progressed much but what we especially love about it is what you said, it's still real. Having the kids spend time up there is everything for us. It's a time for them to enjoy nature and good old sports without the nonesense of everyday life in Beirut.

Chirine Ajouz said...

I just noticed your last comment in miniscule font and it made me laugh. Yes the people of the Cedars are set in their ways and might be trouble, but they are kind and generous if you treat them properly and with respect. Regarding the waiting in line for the ski lifts, I have personally never witnessed someone with a weapon up there and to me it's just like anywhere else in Lebanon...some people simply don't respect the line as they should. And yes the lifts and equipment might be outdated just like the rest of the whole area, but again, it's real...you are there for the beautiful nature and the sports. And they do have white wine :)

Sietske said...

Glad you liked it. I liked the skiing :) And the scenery.

Theo van de Laar said...

En waar heb je geslapen Siets? Honderd jaar geleden bij Chbat kon je zo heerlijk eten. Ben je trouwens wel eens naar Blaouza gewandeld?

zouxi zaza said...

you can see cyprus and south turkey casts from up there, when the sky is clear enough..i