A graffiti artist, a financial analyst, an investment banker, and a surfing/skateboarding/snowboarding instructor and business owner are currently in the Maldives getting ready to represent Lebanon in the Asian Surfing Championships between July 8 and 17.
Together, Alfred Badr, Lena Abdelnour, Lena Allam, and Chris Dirany have formed Lebanon’s first-ever homegrown surfing team and have flown to the Maldives with the clear mission of putting their country on the world surf map.
They each got introduced to the sport in their own unique way, and never knew there were surfable waves in Lebanon before they actually hopped on a board and tried for themselves.
Lena Allam, a 29-year-old investment banker who has been living in Dubai for the past two years, grew up in Deir El Qamar, south-east of Beirut, and fell in love with surfing when she was a child, watching a Disney movie.
“It was thanks to Lilo & Stitch, the Disney cartoon. In Lebanon we don’t have surfers, so I never saw a surfer on the beaches in Lebanon. So I think the idea came to me when I was watching Lilo & Stitch and I was always replaying the same part of the movie where they surf this big wave and I used to get like super excited,” Allam told The National.
Allam’s fascination with surfing grew from there. She would write school projects on Hawaii because of its vibrant surf culture and it was always a dream to get on a surfboard and catch a wave. That dream finally came true when she was 18 years old.
She initially tried windsurfing but didn’t enjoy it before she eventually got in touch with a surfboard shaper and began taking lessons in Batroun in Lebanon. The first surfboard Allam bought was a decorative one hung up in a Quiksilver store that wasn’t intended for sale.
Allam started surfing in Batroun before exploring other spots. She says Chekka, which is further north, provides “world-class waves” in the winter, but it means surfing in a wetsuit in heavy, stormy conditions.
She then discovered Jiyeh, Lebanon’s most popular surf spot, by coincidence when she came across a comment online about a man named Mustafa who surfed at a location near his house in the seaside town south of Beirut.
“I went to Jiyeh with my mom and we asked around: ‘Where can we find this Mustafa guy who is surfing around here?’" Allam said. "People there, they don’t understand what surfing is. It’s very niche, it’s very unheard of, specifically in Lebanon. So I started also surfing in Jiyeh. The wave there is very consistent, it’s called Mustafa’s A Frame.”
As an only child, Allam says her parents always worried about her but they fully supported her passion for surfing, driving her up to Batroun from Beirut every weekend, in cold, rainy weather so she could catch some waves.
She has surfed in many places around the world, from Portugal to Sri Lanka, from Italy to the Maldives, but says there is something special about surfing at home.
“I think the Lebanese community and the lineup is very different to abroad, because first, everyone knows each other, second, there is not a lot of expats, so the community is still the same," Allam said. "You feel at home, you feel very welcome, it’s a very nice vibe to be around."
A platform for future generations
With a 10-hour day job and unfavourable conditions for surfing in Dubai, Allam has been preparing for the Asian Surfing Championships at wave pools across the UAE and has been taking her board up to the rooftop pool of her building, paddling for hours to get her shoulders in shape.
Her competitive experience is limited to one small competition held in Umm Al Quwain a couple of years ago, where she secured second place, but she’s keen to be part of this pioneering group for Lebanon, as a first step to bigger things for the country in the surfing world.
“The Lebanese Surfing Federation worked hard to secure a place at the Asian Surfing Championship for us to start accumulating points and being able to experience this contest vibe that we never got to experience and kind of push also other people to join later on,” Allam said.
“This is what we’re trying to do, it’s not about us. I mean for me I’m 29, I work 10-hour work days, I’m on the desk, I can’t move much. So it’s not really about us, it’s about opening the opportunity and providing this new platform for other and younger generations to join this community and start practicing and be more serious about it.”
‘Surfing is therapy for me’
Lena Abdelnour started off as a skier from the age of four. She then picked up snowboarding at 14 but was only introduced to surfing at 23 when she met her future husband Karim, who told her there were surfable waves in Lebanon.
“I am a surfer 100 per cent made in Lebanon. First chance I got I went into surfing and first session I got hooked,” said the 31-year-old, who works as a financial analyst in her family-owned private equity firm.
“And ever since, I surf, whenever there is a swell I go surfing, before work, after work, sometimes I do sunrise and sunset same day.
“It’s my favourite sport. There is no other sport that had this special impact on me. For me, surfing is more than just a sport. It’s been there for me through ups and downs, it heals you, it’s a therapy for me. So that’s how I became a surfer and hopefully I get to surf until the last day of my life.”
In 2016, Abdelnour won the Lebanese Snowboarding Championship and was listed as a qualifier for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, but like Allam, she has no competitive experience as a surfer; the Maldives will be her first.
“Look, it’s great for Lebanon. We get to put Lebanon on the international surf map," Abdelnour said. "We’re a good team. Maybe we’re not going to match the level of Japan and Indonesia and other countries who have been competing for so long and they live in countries where surfing is more available to them and conditions are more challenging and all that.
“I won’t say I have high expectations to win the championship, but we’re setting already a bar, that for girls who will compete in the future, they will be more inspired and more encouraged and can say, ‘there are those two girls who went there and they did it’. So it’s going to pave the way for other boys and girls to become better.”
Abdelnour also believes this step taken by Lebanon can encourage other Arab countries to follow suit.
“The same happened for us, because Saudi Arabia was one of the first Arab countries to join surfing and we’re like, ‘If Saudi Arabia joined, why not us?’ So I hope we’re going to inspire other countries from the region to join too,” she said.
Saudi Arabia sent a team of men and women to the ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador last month and will also be joining Lebanon in the Maldives for the Asian Championships this week.
‘We’re going to write history’
Chris Dirany tried many different sports before he decided to make a living in the world of board sports at the age of 16.
“When I started surfing, the first wave I took, it changed my whole entire perspective of life. It gave me a new sense of freedom that you cannot find in any other sport. From surfing I went to skateboarding, and then to snowboarding,” said the 27-year-old Dirany.
“I’m into the three communities really well. I invested all my time into this for the past six to seven years. I teach snowboarding, I have my own skateboarding school, and for surfing, I’m actually an instructor at Surf Lebanon. I also sell boards online, this is how I make a living.”
Dirany became an active member of Lebanon’s surf community and admits the 2020 Beirut blast and the financial crisis back home have forced many of his fellow surfers to scatter around the world in search of better opportunities.
“The community is a bit – I won’t say divided, we’re still friends – but they’re not here next to us, they’re not surfing around us,” he added.
Dirany hasn’t competed in surfing competitions, but has experience contesting snowboarding and skateboarding events. He believes going to these Asian Championships in the Maldives is an important step for multiple reasons.
“If we start doing that for the first time that means we’re going to write history,” he said. “We’re going to put Lebanon on the surfing world map.
"When we put our names on the surfing world map, a lot of people that surf will want to visit Lebanon and want to try our waves as well. So that can boost the economy and make it like a tourist space.
“Our main goal is trying to make heats, of course that’s the number one goal. And to actually get more experience and make connections with the other competitors, to actually get into the vibe of competition and hopefully we’ll be surfing our brains out.”
Sharing the knowledge
Alfred Badr was born in Ivory Coast, where his family had moved to during the war in Lebanon. He picked up bodyboarding there at the age of eight and didn’t start surfing until he moved to Lebanon for university when he was 18.
Keen to pick up surfing, Badr was told there weren’t any suitable conditions for surfing in Lebanon but he still held out hope.
“I started looking at the water all the time and during winter time specifically I could see there was movement in the water and I was convinced that I could actually surf,” he said.
He would drive up and down the coast to see if there were any waves breaking and soon started surfing on his own in various spots.
Badr is a graffiti artist and was speaking to The National from France, where he had just wrapped up a big art exhibition in Toulouse before heading to Seignosse on the coast to train for the Asian Surfing Championships.
He is aware of the gap in level the team will experience in the Maldives but is eager to see where Lebanon stands among the continent’s best.
“I think no matter what we’re going to enjoy this,” said Badr. “No matter the result, just the fact we’re doing this as a team coming from Lebanon, building this together is going to be a great experience for us.
“This is going to be a stepping stone, for me I can compare it to graffiti and to what I do because we don’t have that many people doing it in Lebanon and I’m also part of the first generation pioneering in graffiti as well. Every time I travel and I do those exhibitions and I come back I have a lot to give back to the community and this makes the scene and the community grow.
“So I’m definitely looking forward to see how us going to the Maldives and experiencing this is going to push people to do more when we come back and what we will learn I will be able to transmit this in a way, that’s for me the most important thing. It’s about having more people be interested in raising the level and getting them to push harder.”
Lebanon’s godfather of surfing
The surfing community began to grow when Ali Elamine, an American-Lebanese from Huntington Beach, California, arrived in Lebanon and properly introduced the sport to the locals.
He founded Surf Lebanon and worked hard to register the country with the International Surfing Association, which finally happened in 2014.
Now the president of the Lebanese Surfing Federation, Elamine is proud that four homegrown surfers will be representing the country in an international competition for the first time.
Yves Bright, a Californian-Lebanese, was the first surfer to represent Lebanon internationally when he took part in the ISA World Surfing Games in 2019.
“I wanted something more authentic, because he’s kind of like what I am, a transplant. It doesn’t work, it doesn’t have the proper meaning,” said Elamine, who Dirany describes as the “godfather of surfing in Lebanon”.
“This time around, I think in reality we’re not going to be in the top bracket of surfing, but the cool part about it is they’re all born and bred here, they all learned how to surf here, it’s homegrown. It kind of gives it more meaning I think, to me it does at least. That was my ultimate goal when I started this whole surfing journey here in Lebanon, is to have someone from Lebanon representing Lebanon.”
Elamine’s plans of creating a surf tour from the north to the south of Lebanon were delayed because of Covid and the financial crisis but he says soon the federation will set up a three-stop circuit with competitions in Batroun, Jbeil and Jiyyeh.
There is no current government support for the federation and the team actually set up a GoFundMe page to help finance their trip to the Maldives.
“Competing in a world-class wave with world-class surfers from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, China, is definitely a humbling experience,” he sad.
“I was telling them, ‘Try and enjoy this process. We don’t know what we’re getting into. You don’t, I don’t, but you do your best surfing when you’re having fun. So try and enjoy it and have fun. We all know it’s a long shot for our team to win it, so let’s enjoy it’.
"We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We don’t have points, we’re not in the ranking system, we don’t have a qualifying athlete who’s on the verge of qualifying, we’re literally starting from the ground up. So any step upwards that we do is an achievement for us.”