Photo by Marwan Farran
So, check it out, my friend Jay and I were skating downtown L.A. and this cop tells us we better stop or else we'll "be eating through a straw for the next month." We were like, "Fuck you, pig" (in our heads). This happens about every 10 fuckin' minutes in L.A., so me and Jay decided to find the cheapest place to fly to in the world and go skate there. After checking good places like Greece and Italy, we ended up with some shithole called Beirut. We didn't know much about it, but figured it would at least be warm. And there's no way it could be any more uptight the Stars and Bars, DOOOOOOOD! Our board sponsor, Sector 9 (thanks, dudes) had just given us some mini-gun decks with wide trucks and soft wheels. We also had a prototype hill deck and trucks, so we were looking for long hills, clean pavement, empty pools. Any canvas where we wouldn't get harassed. Dropping out of the sky into Beirut, it looked like our dreams might be realized. Lights dotted large hills that rolled down to the sea. Skate paradise from 30,000 feet. We left customs at 3:00 a.m. and set out toward downtown. The streets were empty and quiet, but from the looks of the buildings, a ton of shit probably happened here. There were bullet holes in every building, so we got the cab driver to take us downtown, where everything was rebuilt and there were long hills waiting to be bombed. We jumped out of the taxi and took advantage of the pre-morning emptiness. The streets were clean and wide. Hills wound down at the perfect degree, and the pavement was so smooth that world land-speed records were only a stopwatch away. Under cover of darkness, we skated until we could skate no more. The morning light brought rush-hour traffic and that sent us to bed. Traffic is maybe the main thing that makes skating Beirut a gnarly experience. One time, Jay and I jumped into the middle of the main north–south freeway. We skated through the streams like Frogger. When we popped out, a hippie Swedish backpacker dressed like the American Taliban was standing there with a cross look on his face. He goes, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but what exactly do you think you're doing?" and Jay laughs and calls him Johnny Walker Lindh. Then he says something like, "I don't know if you guys fully comprehend where you are. This is Lebanon, and it's a dangerous country. There are terrorist groups like Hizbullah that kidnap tourists for sport. They HATE Westerners. You guys should really try to fit in more, and don't skateboard," etc., etc. We asked everyone we saw about Hizbullah (or is it Hezbollah?) and were told to check out a neighborhood they run called Burj Al Barajneh. When we got there, it seemed like any other Beirut neighborhood, save a few noticeable differences. There were pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini everywhere, and a lot of guys in fatigues everywhere. There were also video cameras posted at the main street leading in. Things looked pretty bleak until we found a nice gap right next to a waving statue of the Ayatollah that looked a lot like Sean Connery. The gap had a little lip that launched you over a grass hill, and if you had the speed, you ended up in the street 15 feet down. This was one of the best discoveries on the trip, but it didn't last. We had been skating for half an hour when we whipped out the cameras to document the occasion. In less than a minute, three large, well-dressed men were on top of us. One of them asked us (in English) to stop filming, and to please relinquish the film. We did. They thanked us and moved along. When they had rounded the corner, our photographer, a nice kid from Southern Lebanon, explained that they were Hizbullah and filming was forbidden in Burj Al Barajneh. Whatever. They didn't tell us to stop skating. We took our time exploring Beirut. There were just too many places. We found an actual skate park on the south side of town. This place was legitimate. There was a full vert pipe, rails, launch ramps and boxes. A large fence surrounded the property and was flanked by an army guard turret. We started climbing the fence, when out of nowhere came two large men with scruffy beards and black leather jackets. They started going nuts in Arabic, so we looked to the photographer for help. He translated: "You can't go in there." And we asked him why not. "It's off-limits," he said. And again we asked him why. The park was made of raw steel. What were we going to do? Bend it? We kept asking them more questions, but after finding out they were the Syrian secret police we were told to fuck off (they literally said, "Fuck off"). Our translator buddy told us we should fuck off because the Mukhabarat, or Syrian secret police, were not to be messed with. Screw that, we just wanted to skate the pipe, and couldn't figure out why Syrian policemen were in Lebanon. It's like a Mountie telling you not to skate Miami Beach. Fuck it. We had heard from a few different people that two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatilla, had good hills, so that's where we went. Other people told us to be careful, that the camps were violent and lawless. It was sounding better and better. The biggest hill was fun. Long and winding, it provided plenty of space to get speed before laying on a thick powerslide. The only problem was the litter and rocks that filled the street. There was a building on the right that was totally destroyed and the rubble would roll into the road. The people in the camps watched our skate exhibition. Soon the kids joined in and took turns wiping out. That was the funnest part of the trip, because the kids were really friendly and cool to hang out with. Beirut had great skating: all sorts of rails, gaps, hills, and open spaces. After a while, though, we were feeling stressed by the city, so we hopped in our car and rolled out to the country. Signs pointed toward the Bekaa Valley, which sounded as good as any country locale. The mountain from Beirut drops sharply into the valley. This provided a steep section of hill at least three miles long that we literally flew down on our boards. We took turns driving each other to the top and then picking each other up at the bottom. The air was icy and the blacktop was newly paved. You've never skated such a long stretch of mountain road.
When we got back in the car to enter the valley, we turned off on the first narrow street and followed it through apple trees and grapevines. After a few miles, we ran into an old truck mounted with a machine gun. An older man stood straight up and looked really, really pissed off. He squeezed off a couple of rounds in the air and we thought that would be a good time to do a three-point turn and get the raging fuck out of there.
Continuing down the main road, we arrived in the city of Baalbek. Pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini and some other turbaned chief from Burj Al Barajneh were all over the place. There were also yellow and green flags with some Arabic and an M-16 on all the light poles. We saw an old Roman castle in the distance. It looked nice. The road in front of the castle was an ideal little slope with an old piece of metal acting as a launch ramp. We busted some air and skated around the castle. Everywhere, it seemed, was something to grind. It feels a lot better grinding a 2,500-year-old castle rock than your post office's curb. When we had our fill of the castle, we moved into the heart of town.
Here we found an empty river that had been cemented in. There were chunks of debris, but having soft tires made it all okay. We would get as much speed as our boards could handle, then fly from one lip to the next. After a few runs, a black car pulled up and beckoned us over. Again, we were asked to turn our film over to Hizbullah. Apparently this whole town belonged to these Hizbullah dudes. We were bummed, but there was nothing we could do, and they didn't seem to care about skating. Apparently, we were lucky––our photographer later explained that he had gotten us out of spending the next few weeks in interrogation.
Our last jaunt was to the south of Lebanon. Some people claimed that there were old abandoned houses with pools. Not needing to be told twice, we made it down in record time to find out they were all full of shit. There were some nice hills, and the feeling was certainly different than Beirut. We noticed loads of baby-blue-helmet-wearing Sikhs. At the end of one rolling slope, we ran into a whole mess of them in their UN truck. One came up to us and yelled, "Stop! What are you doing?" And we said, "Skating some sweet hills." Then he said, "No, no, no, no! You shouldn't be in this area at all." And we asked why. And he said, "Oh no, no no. Veddy dangerous. Israeli troops shoot missiles into the area. Hizbullah fires back. Israeli jets fly bombing raids and hit houses. No, no, no—this whole country is dangerous. Too dangerous for fun." Er…wrong. Lebanon is a skate kingdom. I don't know who these Hizbullah dudes are, or why Israel keeps bombing them, but if things were cooler over there and that skate park was open, Beirut would be paradise. They may take your film over and over, but they'll never tell you to walk your board in public places, and that is rad.