The Rollergirls of Cairo

First Published in INK Global Magazine September 2014.  Tearsheets below:

A plateau of late afternoon sunshine breaks over the top of the small stadium and quietly illuminates the green, acrylic court below. A wall of chairs towers over the court from one side while on the opposing wall, a grand dusty sign reads “International Cairo Stadium”.

Stepping into the arena, the girls assess their surroundings. “Not too bad.” Says one, slowly putting on her bandana. Others in the group smile and head towards the courtside seats, ready to kit up.

With the holidays finishing, it has taken this group of young women 3 months to find a new venue for their sport and their excitement is palpable.

These are the CaiRollers: Egypt’s first and only roller derby team. The World’s fastest growing female sport is now beginning to pick up speed in Cairo. With around 22 Egyptian members, the team has come a long way since its inception 2 years earlier when two Americans, Angie Turk and Shanekia Bickham, founded CaiRollers.

At the start, the group mainly consisted of members of the Cairo expat community, but now it is young Egyptian women who make up the majority.

28 year old Nawal Ahmed was one of the first to join the group after hearing about CaiRollers through Facebook. “There were only one or two Arab people in the beginning, the rest were all foreigners.” Says Nawal. “Now it is almost all Arab girls!”

As time progressed and the expat contingent slowly began leaving the country, the “fresh meat”, as the new recruits are endearingly called, drew in increasing numbers of young Egyptian women. Nawal recalls her first training session, still fresh in her memory.

“It was a tiny track, and there were around 7 or 8 girls. I was so excited; I loved skating when I was younger. When I put on the skates, they were so heavy because I had not skated for years.” Says Nawal. “But then, after half an hour I started racing with them, I was falling, I was learning. It was so much fun. Since then I have never missed a practice.

Two years later and Nawal has progressed from “fresh meat” to instructor, teaching the latest crop of women in the dos and don’ts of roller derby.

The basic gameplay involves two teams of five skating in their pack around the track. The five are made up of a jammer and four blockers. If one pack’s jammer is able to lap the opposing pack, points are scored, and it is the job of the blockers to stop the opposing teams jammer from passing them.

With this being their first practice in over 3 months, the girls are raring to go and quick to kit up: elbow pads, mouth guards, knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and skates all essential equipment. With a long piece of rope, two members carefully mark out the oval roller derby track while the others begin skating around, tentatively at first, before muscle memory kicks in and their speed increases. A couple fall over as trained, taking a knee down to the ground before righting themselves again and continuing round the track.

Twice a week the group would meet up and train in the art of roller derby: blocking, sprinting, jumping, hitting and falling. It’s not a sport for the faint hearted, with bruises and more serious injuries common, despite the protective gear they have to wear.

“It’s bad ass!” Says Lina El Ghobashy, who first heard of CaiRollers on the radio. “You play, get injured, but continue playing!”

Lina smiles to reveal a gap in her teeth, an apparent ‘war wound’ from an earlier roller derby bout. “Well, I gave this girl a hit and when she was falling, her elbow went straight into my mouth.” She explains with a shrug of the shoulders. “I had taken out my mouth guard just before, so I was penalised for that as well! A broken tooth and a penalty!” She laughs with faux indignity. “Don’t worry, I’m seeing a dentist later today.”

Since starting, CaiRollers have managed to organise three official match-style bouts, their popularity increasing with each one. Around 130 people watched their last match, dubbed the “mother of all bouts”. Since no other roller derby team exists in the area, the group is forced to split itself into two teams, the last bout: Isis Crisis vs. the Killa’patras.

In spite of the obvious physical dangers and relative obscurity of the sport, the vast majority of CaiRoller’s members have received nothing but support from family, friends and even complete strangers.

“The first few months my mother was worried when I was coming home covered in bruises,” explains Lina, “but soon she understood what it meant to me and is now fully behind it.”

Some, like Nouran El Kabbany, one of the newer recruits, take great pleasure in the shock value roller derby provides to her friends and work colleagues. “Just this morning a colleague saw my helmet and asked about it. I explained the game and her face was like ‘Woah! Is this here in Egypt?’ I felt so proud at that moment that I am a part of this.”

Yet more than simply fun, fitness and the occasional shock, Nouran thinks roller derby has had an all-encompassing effect on her life, an opinion echoed by many of the other members.

“Roller derby has changed my life for the better. It has given me greater self-confidence and the realisation that you are never too old to do something completely new.” She explains. “I find myself practicing every time I’m on the road. Derby is a life style, not just a game.”

Lina concurs, noting the peculiar contrast in her daily activities. “I mean I’m a pharmacist; it feels like you’re entering a totally different world. In the morning I’m in a suit with my glasses on and now I’m with skates being aggressive. I love it.”

Both Lina and Nouran consider the polar opposite duality of their lives to be a thing of beauty, and with CaiRollers’ prominence growing with every practice, bout and ‘fresh meat clinic’, an increasing number of local women are being given the opportunity to experience it first hand.

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