Building castles in the sand on Lebanon’s glorious beaches

BEIRUT: It’s child’s play, right – the bucket, the spade, the conical mound, the seawater filled moat, into which the main body of the castle inevitably starts to crumble?

But it’s also an art, and in Lebanon, for the fourth consecutive summer, sandcastle building is a competitive sport – albeit an amateur one.Sandcastles in Lebanon is an initiative founded and run by Rita Maalouf, who upon returning to Lebanon from the U.S. four years ago decided to be a doer rather than a complainer.

Observing that the country’s coastline had changed and that the stretch of beach between Blat and Jbeil where she had built sandcastles in her youth was now dominated by the plush pink loungers of the Edde Sands resort, Maalouf decided to take action, not in opposition to the coastal development, but in tandem with it to highlight the value of Lebanon’s sandy beaches and bring Lebanese together in a classic seaside activity.

“I was used to going to that beach when it was public, and it was a huge beach with a lot of sand ... We used to go there and make sand sculptures – just us family. [When I returned] I realized everything is closed and we couldn’t get there anymore,” Maalouf explains.

Then, she says, one day a friend led her onto the Jbeil beach through a public entrance. The pair walked down the beach toward Blat, passing along the waterfront in front of the new coastal resorts. Maalouf felt anxious: “We felt guilty,” she says, “because we knew [when we were] crossing we were walking into one [resort] and [then] into the others.”

However, when she asked around later, people told her: “No, you are allowed to go – it’s the municipality entrance.”

“I figured I wanted people to know about [this],” she says. “The whole beach is actually public [for] the first 10 meters [from the sea]. Of course you don’t want to ... annoy these resorts, but you can still enjoy [the beach].”

Maalouf’s brainchild to this end was a sandcastle-building competition – a half-day event during which teams would create, using only sand and water, a sculpture of their choosing.

Indeed, Maalouf even enlisted the cooperation of a private beach resort in running the inaugural competition.

“The first year we did it in Blat. It was with the help of Bay 183, and they let everyone in for free,” she explains.

The turnout that first year was only 20 to 25 people, Maalouf admits, and most of them were friends and family who she had convinced to come.

“They really didn’t know what they were getting into, but they didn’t want to fail me. So they came. But then they had a blast, and they all said, ‘We never imagined it was so much fun.’”

Taking this positive response as encouragement, Maalouf ran the competition again in 2010 and 2011.

“I did it the year after and I had 60 contestants, and then last year I had 80,” she says, adding that she actually had to turn people away in 2011 due to a lack of space.

Over the years the sand edifices produced at the Sandcastles in Lebanon event have ranged from fairy-tale castles to a recreation of an Egyptian pyramid. Sharks have materialized along the shoreline next to a living room replete with couch cushions and a DVD player. One team created an enormous Converse shoe, while another conjured from the sands a swimmer frantically struggling to escape a crowd of swarming crocodiles. Others have turned sea turtles into sand turtles, while many have skillfully crafted mermaids and female nudes, which at the end of the day are left to tranquilly bathe in the moonlight.

In both 2010 and 2011, the competition was held in Jbeil with the cooperation of Edde Sands.

This year, under the patronage of Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, Maalouf is not only expanding the initiative – events will be held in Beirut and Tyre as well as Blat Jbeil – but also forgoing private sector cooperation in favor of using public beaches only.

Alongside highlighting Lebanon’s remaining public beach areas, space is a major factor in Maalouf’s decision.

“I think we can handle a lot more [contestants this year], especially as I am not bound within a limited area [because I am not working with a resort],” she says.

As for the competition itself, the formula is simple and very relaxed, although Maalouf says that ideally teams should register beforehand so she can estimate the space and equipment needed.

Otherwise, entry is free of charge; teams are usually comprised of four people although bigger or smaller groups may participate; and a bucket, a small spade and some basic sculpting tools (a plastic knife, fork and straw) are provided.

If you’re in it to win it though, Maalouf has a few suggestions: Bring a big shovel to hasten progress and decide on your sculpture or castle design ahead of time, bearing in mind that you’ll have a 3-meter square space in which to work.

She is also keen to point out that you’ll be working in the sun for four to five hours straight, so a hat, a T-shirt and plenty of water are essential accessories for castle building.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re neither an architect nor an artist, as the competition is designed for sand sculpting amateurs, with prizes not only awarded for the best sculpture but also for the most original and most difficult designs.

This year at Jbeil well-known sculptors Antoine Berberi and Naim Doumit return as judges, and so far prize sponsors include Quicksilver and Roxy. In addition to the judges’ award, both participants and passersby can choose their favorite sand sculpture in “The People’s Vote” category.

But, Maalouf explains, the prizes are just tokens. The real rewards of the competition are the friendships forged and awareness raised.

Sandcastles in Lebanon offers people an alternative and new way to interact with the coastal environment, one which, Maalouf believes, may break down social barriers.

“It’s very hard mixing people from different areas because they are so used to different ways of attending the beach,” she says.

“But I think this is a common way to have people join [together].

“You know, you don’t have to wear a swimsuit to go to the beach – you can still do something with the sand,” Maalouf adds.

However, for Maalouf, “the most important thing [to highlight] is that we are losing our sand.”

Both pollution and exploitation are damaging Lebanon’s beaches.

But, Maalouf contends, “when people realize that we can actually use [our sand] as an attraction to our country, or we can enjoy it, we wouldn’t allow people to suck up the sand in front of our shore and say it’s not a priority.”

What’s more, she believes that when people actually get down to working in the sand and they come upon garbage, it will highlight in a very tangible way the need to prohibit the littering and dumping on Lebanon’s beaches.

This year’s Sandcastles in Lebanon competitions will take place in Blat Jbeil on Aug. 12, Ramlet al Baida, Beirut on Sept. 2 and Tyre on a date yet to be announced.

For more information or to register your team visit SandCastles in Lebanon on

Facebook or contact Rita Maalouf at or on 03-111-854.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 02, 2012, on page 2.




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