Inside the Middle East

The Mediterranean's unlikely surf destination: Lebanon

Bianca Britton, CNNUpdated 19th May 2017
Surfing has become increasingly popular among Lebanese locals.
(CNN) — Off the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon lies a seaside town that locals call the "7-kilometer playground."
Known for its sandy beaches, the ancient beach town Jiyeh is a rarity along the country's long, rocky coastline.
There, you'll find a tight-knit surfing community.
While Lebanon may not be an obvious choice as a surfing destination, its popularity is growing. Its waves are modest, but the community's passion is strong.
"People wouldn't believe that in the Mediterranean there is a lot of surf," Paul Abbas tells CNN. Abbas says he is Lebanon's only surfboard shaper.
"We get a decent amount of surfing days and I think we have good quality waves ... and the good thing is we can surf all year-round."
Abbas saw an opportunity in Lebanon's surfing market in 2010 when he became interested by the sport after bodyboarding for many years.
He says he struggled to find surfboards within the region and that most surfers -- who were part of the small community back then -- were forced to import them from abroad.
Frustrated by this, Abbas turned to YouTube to learn how to make his own..
Paul Abbas / P.A. Surfboards
From there, and after more practice, he began to regularly craft more and more surfboards and eventually created his own business -- P.A. Surfboards -- for the growing Lebanese surfing community.
"The boards got better especially as I started to learn about the physics of surfing -- what makes them work on certain types of waves, and I started adjusting my designs," he says.
Since 2010 he's made over 100 boards from his family's home. And while he still works full-time as a technician for a TV organization, he says thanks to Lebanon's surfing boom his creative passion for surfboard shaping may soon become his primary job.
"The number of surfers is really growing fast now and that's one of the reasons why my production is increasing.
"When I started I never would have believed that I could (make a living out of it) -- it wasn't my goal ... But I was lucky to start it when I did because the market (to sell surfboards) is almost full."

From deserted beaches to vibrant surfing community

Surfing isn't new to the region, Abbas says, reminiscing about a surf community that existed in the 1970s before the Lebanese civil war.
He says the beaches became deserted during the war. However now surfing has become increasingly popular among locals -- particularly over the past two years, with its community growing up to 200 surfers.
Surfer Sonia Lynn Gabriel.
Surfer Sonia Lynn Gabriel.
Mohamad Chehimi / Sonia Lynn Gabriel
25-year-old Sonia Lynn Gabriel is one of them. She says while Lebanon's surf can be unpredictable, Jiyeh is her favorite spot -- since it provides the most consistent waves. The beach is 4-miles long, consisting of clear water and shallow reefs -- which generate attractive wave setups.
The country has other popular spots, such as Batroun, Tyre and Byblos. But it's northern Lebanon that produces one wave that locals are especially fond of -- called "Chekka." It only surfaces a few times a year and provides a right-hand wave over a sandy bottom which bounces off a jetty during large swells.
"The way (Lebanon's) swell comes is really random," Gabriel says, adding that sometimes surfers can experience weeks of flat surf.

Change in Lebanese culture

Gabriel says she's seen a change in the way Lebanese people interact with their coastline. "We love that Lebanese people are getting closer to the water. We're noticing that in not only surfing, but in a lot of other watersports," she says.
She adds that, despite Lebanon having a rich coastline, watersports weren't previously a popular part of their culture.
"Lebanese people go to the beach, but they would eat on the beach or smoke Argileh (hooka). They aren't really people who are outdoorsy and would go and do stuff."
Gabriel's favorite surfing spot is at Jiyeh.
Gabriel's favorite surfing spot is at Jiyeh.
Mohamad Chehimi / Sonia Lynn Gabriel
Gabriel says many Lebanese are unaware it's even possible to surf in Lebanon.
"People are just shocked when we tell them we surf here and that in winter we go surfing," she explains. "They see it as something tropical and very exotic."

'It's a sport that really unites people"

Gabriel says unlike other surfing destinations, Lebanon's surfing community is close-knit.
"It's not like in Australia or in Bali (where) there's so many surfers," she says. "If there's a new guy or a new girl we would know because we hadn't seen them in the water before so we would talk to them and welcome them to the community."
Mohamad Chehimi / Sonia Lynn Gabriel
"It's a sport that really unites people," she adds. "It's a really chilled community and the ambiance is really peaceful."

Syrian refugee's determination to become a surfer

Surfing has also piqued the interest of the country's Syrian refugees -- particularly 17-year-old Ali Kassem.
Lebanon hosts more than one million Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) -- a remarkable number for a country of only 4 million.
Kassem was spotted by local surfers wandering out to the shoreline one day with nothing more than a styrofoam board he had raggedly shaped into a surfboard with a knife.
17-year-old Ali Kassem was so determined to learn how to surf that he shaped a piece of styrofoam board into the shape of a surfboard.
17-year-old Ali Kassem was so determined to learn how to surf that he shaped a piece of styrofoam board into the shape of a surfboard.
UNHCR/Hussein Baydoun
Before he got too far out, he was called back in by surfers who then lectured him on the dangers of surfing without the right equipment.
Kassem told CNN that nobody was going to stop him from surfing.
"At first I was afraid and nervous, but at the same time I was excited because I (had) developed a love for surfing without even trying it.
"I really wanted to surf."
He says surfing has changed his life. "I'm free to be myself in the water ... Surfing is my meditation."
In 2014 the International Surfing Association (ISA) formally recognized Lebanon for its surfing. And while no one from the country has yet competed in any international competitions, Kassem hopes to change that by becoming not only Lebanon's first professional surfer, but also the first to come from Syria.