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People take part in Roller Derby Beirut in this still form a video. Uploaded on Oct. 16, 2016.  (photo by YouTube/Huck)

Yemeni expats find sisterhood, escapism on Beirut roller derby track

Author: Stefania D'Ignoti

Memories of her country ravaged by civil war, cholera and famine, and constant worries over her family cast a dark shadow over Hadeel al-Hubaishi’s life as a student in Beirut. She left her native Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to study at the American University of Beirut on a Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) scholarship in 2014. Little did she know that a civil war would break out in her country shortly after her departure, making it difficult to visit her family.

SummaryPrint Despite bruises and broken ankles, a dozen young women from different countries are determined to keep up the first roller derby club in Beirut.
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Then, at the beginning of 2015, her MEPI friend Nada Ben Jemaa — and Elisabeth Wolffhechel, a Danish humanitarian worker — made her an offer that would first become a distraction and then a passion: to help them establish the first roller derby club in the city.

“At that time, I was looking for a fun activity to do outside academic and work life, so I told them I would join them every weekend,” Hubaishi told Al-Monitor.

In a few weeks, Hubaishi became one of the pioneers of Lebanese roller derby — a contact sport played with two teams of five players on roller skates. The players skate clockwise and clash often. Despite the protective pads and helmets that are part of the gear, the game is rough, with injuries that range from bruises to broken ankles.

Today, Roller Derby Beirut is a team of a dozen girls, mostly undergraduate students from different Arab countries — from North Africa to the Gulf. The multinational group attracts attention for practicing an unusual sport in the region, especially as it is rare to see hijabi women playing rough sports.

“I believe that my hijab or being Muslim or Arab has nothing to do with what I am doing. I am playing roller derby because it is something connected more with my personality and not my identity or appearance. I practice it just because it’s fun and makes me feel happy,” Hubaishi, who wears her hijab under her helmet, said. 

There are moments that she feels uncomfortable with her happiness, thinking about the deprivation and economic difficulties of her family back home. But living away from home, studying and doing internships in a foreign language, she cherishes the joy that comes out of her two hours of practice. The 23-year-old business student said roller derby give her and her fellow players a platform to rid themselves of social pressures — at least for those two hours per week.

Hubaishi is not the only Yemeni national of the team. With four women, Yemenis are the largest nationality in the group. Nada al-Qabili, a 21-year-old public administration major, is also from Sanaa. She juggles her life between studies, an internship at a local nongovernmental organization and keeping track of her parents’ situation back home. “The war and everything that's been happening in Yemen are things that can't be forgotten with sports or anything else,” she told Al-Monitor.

Difficult as it is, other Yemeni players find momentary escapism in roller derby. “It can calm your worries and clear your mind from any kind of stress one has to deal with,” said Afnan Shamsan, another Yemeni player from Taiz, one of the cities in the south of the country most affected by the war. “My parents are currently trying to get out of the country for the summer break so we can meet somewhere,” she added.

Hala al-Sadi, a Yemeni student and newly added skater, stressed how this sport can be a great stress-reliever for people living in challenging moments of life. “It liberates me. I get on the wheels, I skate and I feel the power running through my body,” Sadi told Al-Monitor. “Derby is a sport that needs complete focus and coordination between mind and body. That’s how it helps me not to think of anything else,” she said.

Even her non-Yemeni teammates agree. “It’s an acceptable amount of violence to get rid of all the negative vibes,” Ben Jemaa, the team’s leader, said.

The team has been labeled a feminist “punk” group that advocates Arab women’s empowerment through sports, but the Beirut-based skaters say that their goal is to show how a small group of women living alone in a foreign country can manage to build a community and safe bubble.

'War in my country is on my mind all the time. But when I play roller derby I feel happy and I keep laughing, temporarily distracting me from my personal troubles,” Hubaishi said. ''It gives me a chance to share positive news about my life here with my family back home. It makes them feel happy, which makes me feel good.”

Although Yemen is one of the most conservative Arab societies, these Yemeni players’ families are supportive of their decision to practice this sport. “Regardless of what my family is going through, they were very encouraging and proud,” Shamsan said.

Qabili added, “Even though I ended up breaking my ankle while playing, my parents didn't ask me to quit, which I thought they would after the injury.”

The players wish to establish a roller derby team once they can go back home. “I’m sure many women in Yemen would love to get involved in a roller derby group if someone gives them the opportunity to do so,” Shamsan concluded.

Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/06/FOR SUN yemeni-expats-find-roller-derby-club.html

Stefania D'Ignoti
Contributor,  Lebanon Pulse

Stefania D'Ignoti is a freelance multimedia journalist who covers the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Economist, Forbes, The Associated Press and La Stampa, among others. On Twitter: @stef_dgn

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