BEIRUT: On a summer day in 1965, five teenage boys in Beirut were introduced to “the first surfboard” in Lebanon. Anwar Rayes, the only member of the group who still lives in Beirut, affectionately remembers the surf crew as the “Original Five” to bring surfing to Lebanon.
That first surfboard was brought over from Australia by Charles Boutagy, “the heartthrob” of the group, Rayes recalls.
“We would take turns every three waves. The board was passed along even if you fell off - it counted as a wave,” Rayes says, wistfully looking at an old picture of himself with the board.
“We were hooked. Within four months we had each ordered our own board. We had to have them imported because there were none in the country.”
The original five - Rayes, Boutagy, Rendel Clark, Charly Abbyad and Russell Kay - would spend the better part of a decade falling in love with surfing and building a deep bond and community around their love for the sport. Most of their surfing days were spent at Acapulco Beach Club in the coastal area of Jnah, whose 5 kilometers of sandy beaches attracted tourists from different corners of the world.
The original five would frequently bribe lifeguards on duty with cigarette cartons to push swimmers to one side so they could freely “catch some waves,” Rayes recalls.
“How lucky we were to have good waves, clean sand, the friendship and camaraderie. I felt that from day one until this moment. How lucky this group of boys was to have experienced that. It was remarkable,” says Clark, who now lives in the United States and is still in close contact with Rayes.
The tide turned once the Civil War (1975-90) began, forcing the boys to leave the country and go their separate ways. The chalets that once peppered the famous coast and sandy beaches became shelters for squatters and have since been replaced by ramshackle and illegal concrete additions.
Whatever had swelled for Lebanon’s surf culture in the ‘60s washed away with the war. But gradually, over the last 10 years, the sport has experienced a revival.
Lebanon’s surf culture has come a long way since the days of sharing and importing surfboards. The surf community can now be seen on beaches including Batroun, Tyre, Chekka, Jbeil and Damour.
Surf forecasts for Lebanon can even be found on websites like Magicseaweed that predict swells for surfers who want to plan their trips across the globe.
Many surfers favor Jiyyeh for its consistent waves, where Ali Elamine, a pioneer of Lebanon’s surfing industry, opened his surf shop and certified surf school in 2012.
Elamine set up Surf Lebanon “to gather surfers so they have a base to come to and if more people want to learn they know where to go.”
Elamine, who grew up in California, says the sport has grown significantly in the country since he opened up shop. “When I moved out here in 2011, there would only be three to seven guys maximum out in Chekka. Now, if you’re surfing out in Jiyyeh on a good day, there will be 30 to 40 guys out.”
Elamine, who is also the President of the Surfing Association in Lebanon, says there is currently a team representing Lebanon in the final stages of the Olympic trials. If they are successful, it will be the first time Lebanon is represented in Olympic surfing, which will take place in Japan in 2020.
Lebanon is also home to the first surfboard shaper in the region. Paul Abbas started making his own surfboards at the end of 2009.
“I made my first board out of necessity because I couldn’t find one in Lebanon, but I fell in love with the process so I kept doing it,” Abbas says. Overtime, his business, P.A. Surfboards, now located in Nahr Ibrahim, grew as the demand for boards grew. Abbas attributes the increase of surfers to the opening of surf schools and surf shops.
“Just having boards and surf accessories available has opened the sport up for a lot more people. ... In 2010, there were maybe 50 surfers, now there are around 300 and a lot of them are beginners,” he says.
Despite being a male-dominated sport, Elamine says that there are some “hardcore” female surfers in Lebanon who show up regularly.
Thirty-year-old Lebanese-American Hannah Mazkour was embraced by the surf community when she moved to Lebanon four years ago.
“Unfortunately women are not empowered by their families to go out into the sea and do an extreme sport,” Mazkour says.
But Mazkour is optimistic about female turnout.
“There have been many more girls in the last few years. When I first started here, there were maybe five of us. Now there are a lot more girls learning and taking an interest in the sport,” she says.
The burgeoning surf culture notwithstanding, one of the biggest hurdles facing the sport is the privatization of Lebanon’s beaches, according to Elamine.
Many beaches are owned by hotels and most of Lebanon’s coast has been claimed by private developers who charge exorbitant entry fees, rendering beaches inaccessible to much of the public.
“Here, the sea is only for the summer. It’s all about tanning and how you look. In October, when school starts, beach season is done. A lot of people don’t know that winter here is actually the high season of surfing,” Elamine says, adding that winter storms generate the most ideal waves.
Sea pollution is also a major obstacle, with Abbas saying it’s the biggest threat to his business and the sport at the moment.
But throughout the surfing’s ebb and flow in the country, one thing has remained consistent: respect for other surfers, the community and above all, the water.
“We stay humble in the water; we don’t have any of this religious political stuff going on in the water. Everyone has their own views outside of the water but not when we’re in the water - it’s more about what you can do on the wave,” Elamine says.
This attitude echoes the days when the original five once ruled the waves of Lebanon.
“You could go out and be pushed by a force that you weren’t paying for. You were surviving, being bashed by waves, being knocked around. You were out of your element,” Clark says. “There’s an element of thankfulness, you were grateful for what the sea has given us.”