Salwa Mansour and Karima Algelany are poised on the jammer line, roller-skate wheels braced against the asphalt, eyes narrowed against the sun. Ahead of them is a tight pack of blockers from both teams: half will be helping them race around the elliptical track, the others will try to stop them with spine-jolting body blocks and, ideally, send them smashing into the ground.
Protective pads and helmets are adjusted, mouth guards are in place, the trailing ends of headscarves are tucked into mesh sports vests. There’s a whistle blast and the two opposing jammers – the game’s only point-scorers – skate full tilt into the mass of bodies.
We’re at a basketball court in Corniche El Nahr, east Beirut, and dozens of adults and kids have assembled to watch eight pioneering students – from Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, the UAE and here in Lebanon – lay a new piece of track in the history of roller derby, itself a young, radical sport. A regulation derby bout involves two teams of fourteen skaters, but to drum up support for their fledgling league and attract new recruits, Roller Derby Beirut has split itself into two streamlined teams of four. It’s the first time the sport, which was rebooted in Texas a decade ago and has spread to every continent but Antarctica, has been seen in Lebanon.
“We didn’t know what people’s reactions would be,” says Hadeel Hassan Al-Hubaishi, a twenty-year-old Yemeni business student whose uncontrollable laughter at most Roller Derby Beirut training sessions belies her fighting spirit. She wears a white headscarf under her sticker-covered helmet. Her small frame and the gemstone embedded in a tooth have earned her the nickname ‘Tiny Shiny’.
“You could see the look on people’s faces,” she remembers later, cracking up. “Like, ‘What are they doing? Why do they have all this equipment on?’” The team had decorated each other’s faces and arms with triangles, hash signs, lucky numbers and war paint-style stripes before the game. “We thought, ‘Maybe if we look furious, we will play furiously,’” remembers Karima, a twenty-year-old Egyptian art major. “And it worked. You look in the mirror and you want to go kick some ass.”
The nerves burned off quickly, and there was no need to worry about the crowd, who chanted encouragement and cheered loudly whenever anyone hit the floor. “A lot of girls [watching] really adored the idea,” says Hadeel. “They saw that whoever’s wearing a scarf [covering her hair] is doing it, whoever is just with their hair [uncovered] is doing it, we’re from different backgrounds, and they loved the diversity. It was an incredible moment. We felt so proud. We felt that this is something totally new and we started it. It felt like, yeah, we need to create this. We need to make it bigger.”
Since its resurrection just after the turn of the millennium in Austin, roller derby, which is physically gruelling and dominated by women, has always embodied defiance. The tagline of its governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), is ‘Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary.’ And players, who run their own leagues as non-profits, have committed themselves to making the community body-positive, trans-inclusive and queer-friendly. The sport first spread across English-speaking countries, and the 2014 World Cup featured teams from thirty nations, including Japan, the West Indies and Puerto Rico.
All these teams were forged from passion and grit, but even in this context, Roller Derby Beirut stands out – not because they’ve emerged in Lebanon, where there’s little support for women’s sport (or men’s, for that matter) given the lack of public space and political dysfunction (Lebanon has been without a president for well over eighteen months). It’s not because the teammates were brought up in communities where women are expected to be reserved and discreet in public. It’s because the women of Roller Derby Beirut are even more revolutionary off court.
All but two of the team are studying at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as part of the Tomorrow’s Leaders programme, an intensely competitive scholarship for brilliant, socially engaged students from politically volatile Arab nations, set up by the US State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Even those who aren’t on the scholarship are pushing boundaries: Salwa Mansour, a Lebanese grad student, co-founded AUB’s first gender and sexuality club with fellow Roller Derby Beirut player, Wiem Ben Rim and a few other friends; and Noor Farhat, who studies civil engineering and grew up in Dubai, recently won a gold medal at the Lebanese national fencing championships.
Roller Derby Beirut’s current players are all AUB students – a fact that the team aims to change by welcoming in other young women. The league was initially founded by Danish derby veteran Elizabeth Wolffhechel, in conjunction with an NGO called GAME, and although Lebanese locals turned up to the first sessions in early 2015, they didn’t last long, mostly because they couldn’t afford medical insurance.
Nada Ben Jemaa, a Tunisian MEPI scholar, had tracked down Elizabeth on Facebook after watching the movie Whip It, and was at the very first practice. She fell in love with the sport, and as her scholarship covered healthcare costs, she convinced a gang of her friends to join in, and together they all stuck with it. Elizabeth has since returned to Denmark and GAME provides support rather than steering the league, while the team splits jobs like logo design, coaching, and communication among its members.
For all their energy and radical verve, the players don’t view roller derby as a pioneering feminist feat. Instead, they come to practice with simpler goals in mind; to relieve the pressure that builds up over a week of intense studying, volunteering, campaigning, interning – in a foreign city, often in a second or third language – and in some cases, while worrying about what’s happening back at home.
Hadeel – like another team member, Nada Al-Qabili – grew up in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and is used to paddling against the tide. Her father encouraged her to swim and cycle – usually taboo for girls, especially once they start wearing the headscarf – and at seventeen she travelled to the US for her last year of high school, to the horror of her extended family and friends. “They imagined that I’d be, I don’t know, a drug addict or wandering from club to club,” says Hadeel. “The idea of a girl travelling alone was something we only thought of in dreams or movies.”
She went ahead anyway. “It was a breakthrough. I got to know about other cultures and to not just know about the States from the media, or [think] that because of Palestine and Israel and so on I just hate Americans for some reason. And I got to know myself and my thoughts way better. Now if I’m doing [something] it’s because I’m convinced, not because it’s the way I was raised.”
Determined to move abroad again for university, Hadeel won a place on the MEPI scholarship programme a couple of years later and moved to Beirut in late 2014. Just a few months after she started her course, a Shia rebel group in Yemen seized the Presidential Palace and Saudi Arabia responded with a brutal blockade and airstrikes that devastated the country: more than sixty per cent of Yemen’s population is now in need of basic humanitarian aid. For Hadeel and Nada, everything changed overnight.
“It’s terrifying when I talk to my family and see that something could happen at any moment,” says Hadeel. Within weeks the Saudi military campaign switched to a political and peace- building phase they called ‘Recreating Hope’, but airstrikes continued. “Recreating hope? How, exactly?” Hadeel asks. “I have no idea. It’s still the same: bombing every day in neighbourhoods, in schools, in mosques. The whole city is dead because there’s no electricity and all I’m thinking about is, okay ’til when? It’s been eight months. Until when will this continue?”
When summer break came around, not only was Sana’a airport closed, but every country in which Hadeel had friends and family, including the US, had now closed its doors to Yemenis. The fact that she had spent eight months being vetted for a US-sponsored scholarship didn’t help. Eventually, the airport in Yemen reopened, with tickets from Jordan now selling at triple the usual price and planes stopping to be searched for several hours in Saudi Arabia. Hadeel made it through all this, and when her plane finally landed on home soil and she saw her family cheering, she broke down. “I started crying. I didn’t know if I’d be able to see them again.”
What followed was a crash course in adapting to life in a war zone: the day after Hadeel arrived, she and her sister waited in line for eight hours to fill the car with petrol, only to abandon it after dark and return home by taxi. At night, there were explosions: one so close that it made her whole bedroom glow red. “My mum would open the door slowly to check on me and tell me not to worry,” she says. “[My family] were afraid for me, because for them, they had got used to it. My nephew was telling me, ‘Hadeel don’t be scared, the airplane is far away.’ It was like, wow. He’s three years old, for god’s sake.”
Hadeel is majoring in business – with a minor in public administration, which prepares students to work in government or non-profits – and she tries to link her work back to what’s happening in Yemen, picking humanitarian projects for strategic planning workshops, for example. “My interest in the beginning was more tackling child marriage, education, or the empowerment of women,” she says, “but this year, it’s all shifted to humanitarian [help] because we’re talking about no water, no electricity, no food.”
She’d like to set up a roller derby team in Sana’a some day, when the need for more urgent aid has subsided; she thinks that girls would be into it, especially if conservative families were placated by female-only practice spaces. “It would be a great chance for girls in Yemen to actually do something fun,” she says.
It might help in other ways, too. The sport demands a level of risk-taking, assertiveness, and positivity; it demands you get back up after being violently slammed to the floor. “I link what happens to me in roller derby a lot to my life,” says Hadeel. “If you made a mistake, just do it right next time, or at least try. No matter how bad the fall is, just get up and keep going. You’ll laugh about the next one.”
The sport is growing across the Middle East: there are already leagues in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the region’s first team, Egypt’s Cairollers, was founded amid the revolutionary fervour of 2011. Other members of Beirut’s team also say that they’d like to take roller derby back to their home countries, like Bahrain and Tunisia, and while the idea of a team in Sana’a is an exciting one, Hadeel knows that it’s going to be a long time before things are stable enough in Yemen to start thinking about sports, or going back for anything longer than a short trip.
Five months of civil war in Yemen has wrought as much destruction as five years of fighting in Syria, according to the International Red Cross. But unlike Syrians, Yemenis are trapped, and those who are able to leave face an impossible conundrum. “I don’t want to choose between my future and my country,” Hadeel says. “I’ve always wanted to go back to Yemen and start a life there, and be part of the change that’s happening, but my family are telling me, ‘Don’t come back. Think of your future. There is no life here anymore, and us, who are stuck here, we want to leave.’”
She tries to push all this out of her mind back in Beirut, as she prepares for second- year finals alongside her teammates, who have their own pressures to deal with. Many are challenging conventions simply by being here; unmarried women living away from their families, studying subjects like computer science and public administration, and engaging with wider struggles, from peace journalism to LGBT acceptance in a country that only decriminalised being gay in 2014.
The scholarship, which specifically targets students whose families can’t afford to pay for higher education, is a life-changing opportunity that comes with high expectations: scholars are required not only to excel academically but must also be involved in a certain amount of extracurricular activities. In the last few months, Hadeel has been volunteering with Teach for Lebanon, the Beirut Marathon and the National Democratic Institute.
“To keep up with everything, it’s kind of hectic,” says Hadeel. “Sometimes it gets overwhelming, because I’m homesick or I hear bad news about my country or I’m worried about my family, and it’s kind of tough. [I tell myself], ‘Hadeel, you need to focus and study, so shift your thoughts because tomorrow you have an exam, life just keeps going.’ I try to be more rational and not so emotional.”
I ask if roller derby can feel like one more burden at these times; another part of life for which Hadeel and her friends have to summon energy. When she’s down, she says, she might skip meetings and club events. But she never skips derby.
“Sometimes I’m in a state where I want to do nothing and I’m just frustrated or sad because of the situation,” she says. “I’ll be on my way to practice, not saying anything to the other girls, just putting on my headphones and walking. Then I reach and put on my skates, and it changes without me even realising.
“I start skating and I end up being the one laughing the most and the one being loudest and the one running around. I don’t think about it, it just happens, and it makes me feel better. At the end of the day I’ll be tired, get a juice and go back home, thinking, ‘I did something with my day. Take a cool shower and just go ahead and do your studies. Life is fine.’”
This article originally appeared in Huck 54 – The Defiance Issue.