Lebanese adventurer rows 4,000km from Marseille to Beirut in humanitarian drive

Ara Khatchadourian discovered a love for gruelling sporting challenges when he was 40

Lebanese rower Ara Khatchadourian. photo: Jamie Prentis
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It had been more than three years since Ara Khatchadourian had seen the Lebanese coastline, the country where he spent his childhood years.

On Tuesday he stepped into Lebanon again – not at Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport but from the boat he had rowed nearly 4,000km from Marseille to the Lebanese capital in a charity fund-raising drive.

“I've not realised what I've done. Every time I do something like this, I need two months to realise what I've done,” the Lebanese-Armenian adventurer tells The National in his first interview since arriving in Beirut only a few hours before.

Mr Khatchadourian's Rowing for Peace quest began on May 27, in which he sought to contribute to the fight against poverty, wars around the world and discrimination against people with disabilities.

His lowest point was off the Italian coast when his boat broke and he had to pause for a couple of days.

He describes his effort as a humanitarian mission – but it is not his first. Previously he ran in 2018 from France to Armenia in a Running for Peace fund-raiser, covering the distance of 107 marathons in the process. He also climbed Mount Everest in 2016 in memory of all genocide committed in the 20th century including in Armenia, from where his ancestors came.

But Mr Khatchadourian, showing off his heavily calloused hands, says the rowing was the hardest and the conditions, waves and current in the Mediterranean Sea brutal. He talks of blisters and almost constant discomfort.

“You know happiness when you have passed this kind of challenge, pain and difficulty.”

Mr Khatchadourian, 58, left Lebanon aged 19 as the country was engulfed in its brutal 15-year civil war. He went to Marseille in southern France to join an uncle and worked as a jeweller.

“When I arrived in France, I didn't speak French, I had $100 in my pocket. I said I must work a lot, I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week.”

But it wasn't until he was 40 that he began to become interested in sport and running, including the Beirut marathon.

Than more extreme adventures came. What followed was a series of ultra marathons, Ironmans and long multiday runs in France. He discovered an interest in climbing, which led to summits of Kilimanjaro, mountains in the Bolivian Andes, the 7,134 metre Lenin Peak, and – of course – Everest.

“I began small, I liked it. After, I said I must do these things for humanitarian causes.”

The row for peace had been several years in the making – he used to come to Lebanon every year – but the Covid-19 pandemic then the fatal 2020 Beirut port explosion put a dent in the plans.

“The city … it's the people that are most important for me.”

Mr Khatchadourian's journey ended at a naval base in Beirut, in sight of the port where the explosion took place killing more than 200, injuring thousands, and levelling large parts of the capital.

He says he has raised about $10,000 for charity. There are two main beneficiaries of the fund-raising; Achrafieh 2020, a grass-roots organisation based in the Lebanese capital that supports the local community, and T’Cap21, a French organisation that supports people with Down syndrome.

Mr Khatchadourian says the decision to support Achrafieh 2020 came after he saw an interview on French TV with Akram Nehme, who heads the organisation.

“After Everest, in 2018 I ran from France to Armenia. When I'd ran 100 marathons, I said 'what am I going to do for Lebanon? I would like to do something.'

“This time it's not only for peace, but to help an NGO. We have raised around $10,000. I would like more, because I said – 4,000km, I need $10 per kilometre. There's still time. I'm going back [and forth] until I have $40,000,” he jokes.

Updated: August 23, 2023, 6:08 AM