Up Close and Personal with the CaiRollers of Cairo, Egypt
Do you think you've got challenges in your league? Is finding practice space really hard? Are shipping costs for gear getting you down because there's no decent skate shop in your town yet?
Those challenges are nothing next to what the Cai Rollers face. They are the first roller derby league to set up in Egypt, and take all those challenges and many more to the next level.
DNN's London Bureau Chief, Lex Talionis, decided it was time to find out a little more about what the CaiRollers are up to, and why they're doing it. Here is his conversation with league founder Indie Hannah (formerly of the London Rollergirls) about the challenges of starting and promoting a roller derby league in the Middle East, why the league thinks it all matters so much, and how you can help them out.
Who are the CaiRollers? Many leagues in far-flung places are conglomerations of ex-pats with little local involvement. Something tells me that's not the case for you...
Nope, CaiRollers are as diverse as the city. Right now, we have about eight skaters, one coach and two volunteers who make up the foundation and are all working equally as hard to get this league going. Skaters include Egyptian natives, Egyptians with dual citizenship who are third world kids having grown up around the world, and some ex-pats from other parts of the world including America and Argentina. Our volunteer--hopefully future refs--are equally as diverse from Africa and America. Our belief and value systems range from Muslim to Christian, Agnostic to Buddhist. We range from teachers and nonprofit workers to female entrepreneurs.
How long have you been trying to get the CaiRollers together?
The two founders, Shaneikiah Bickham (Naughty Venn Close), and me (Indie Hannah) are both former rollergirls just prior to moving to Cairo in August 2011. Naughty was formerly Shanibal Lector and scrimmaged with the Big Easy Rollergirls in New Orleans. I played for the London Rollergirls. We met the first week that we both moved here at an orientation party because my husband Tom was wearing a Naptown Rollergirls shirt (Tom used to NSO for Naptown and he is responsible for introducing me into the world of derby). Boom-we met and instantly started “fantasizing” about a roller derby team in Cairo, Egypt.
Both of us loved derby and neither of us were officially retired. However, over the next 10 months an acclimation process for a new country, culture and job happened. It took over and used all of our energy and focus. When the acclimation became solid (and ongoing), our next focus became derby. A couple girls told me they would play and encouraged me to start it. I went into Shaneikiah’s classroom and told her of the nudge and she said, “okay, let’s do it.” We did an initial recruitment and immediately had 13 skaters ranging from coworkers and friends to friends of friends. Out of the 13 interested, we had 8 girls buy gear over the summer.
In summary, it was an idea that was incubated for nearly a year. However, once we made the decision to seriously start a roller derby team in Egypt, we had a month to recruit before summer break. It was crucial to get it kicked off before summer because many of us are teachers and travel and Egyptians travel over summer (to escape the summer heat and for Eid-a Muslim holiday). And also to collect gear over the summer to bring into Egypt. We started practicing in September of 2012 and we are a month old now!
What have been the biggest challenges in getting the CaiRollers going?
What is a skate's number one enemy? Sand! Where is Cairo? In the middle of the Sahara Desert! Is that even our greatest challenge? Nope.
There have been two huge challenges: getting gear into Egypt and trying to figure out how to promote ourselves as rollergirls within this culture without attracting discrimination and negative attention.
Challenge number one: Egypt's postal system. It's still highly unregulated and custom charges are up to 40 percent. Whoever delivers the post can charge you whatever they wish. Who are you going to call to report this corruption? Police or any government regulation is still very interim between a former regime and a newly revolutionalized Egypt that still has former corruption embedded.
In Egypt, there are no rules and then at the same time there seems to be rules for everything. It’s a difficult one to navigate…it's complicated. Egypt is a fun place to figure out, but it's all about whom you know here. Luckily, we have partnered with a skate shop owner from the north coast, Alexandria. Omar started the first skateboarding club and shop in Egypt, Skate Impact. It grew from 20 skaters to over 2000. He’s friends with a Paris rollergirl and is interested in helping us figure out a way to import gear. We are crossing fingers that a relationship with Skate Impact and his ability to work with roller derby gear distributors around the world works out. He has a customs license and knows the ropes.
Hmmm...Okay, so for now, those of us that are skating brought back gear for others and ourselves during summer travel. But, what happens if something breaks? How can we welcome local Egyptians when there isn't a store in Egypt that sells gear. We want to recruit right now. We want to grow. We have two new skaters who want to join, but need gear. For now we are basically using ‘mules’ for gear. Currently, we are using the uncle of a skater who is traveling from the US or a Grandfather of a friend of a skater who is traveling from the US into Cairo. Anyone traveling into Egypt is WELCOME to check and see if we need gear. We can hook you up with local tour agents and help your travel experience in exchange. Ever dream of seeing the pyramids? How about a private camel ride over a desert dune transcending into the pyramids at sunset. Oh yeah, we can easily make that happen if you bring us new bearings and pads!
The second barrier is figuring out how to be a rollergirl in Egypt. It is difficult to explain without experiencing it firsthand. Let me help you visualize what you would not see during a visit to Cairo (seaside/touristy areas do not necessarily apply): clean sidewalks or promenades made for exercising, pedestrian walkways, women biking, running, wearing shorts, showing their shoulders, making eye contact and smiling, women performing public scenes of expression; it's even rare for local women to drive.
Is there a law that says we cannot do any of this? No. There are women who do this, but it doesn’t come without unwanted attention. And also the difference of perception for an ex-pat woman is different than the Egyptian woman. Probably not being able to hear or understand Arabic to decipher what is happening adds to the fear. It’s also easier to bend the gender roles within certain areas, which are gentrified by class or foreigner status. We do not particularly want to isolate ourselves, but we want to stay safe and harassment free so we can focus on training.
Us ex-pats are trying to figure out how much is fear based and how much is a reality. Everyone has advice for you as a woman that starts to help you feel a bit oppressed because your experience of ‘normal’ is so different. The reports of street harassment of all women, regardless of ethnicity, keep us following a certain cultural code including more conservative dress and less informal small talk on streets with men. But most of us are pretty tired of it too. Most women I know have been groped, cat called, or worse--we unfortunately learn to desensitize or ignore it after it becomes so common, meanwhile an inner frustration persists. The cat calling is SO annoying. It might be innocent and it’s usually associated with those who are uneducated. But still, it’s the perception and experience that counts.
We’ve talked about how practicing in public can be used as an opportunity to start conversations about why we are playing sport and breaking stereotypes. Standing tall despite a mixed perception of why we are doing what we are doing. No, our goal is not to show off for you. But at the same time, can you imagine how great it will feel to play a contact sport for women in Egypt-how much of that inner frustration we can let out in a productive way? The sisterhood that is inevitable with roller derby. Shaneikiah and I have that experience, but I am really looking forward to our new skaters learning this firsthand.
Finally, there is a massive stereotype for women in the Middle East that we want to break. Women are business leaders. Women are educated. Women do play sport. Women, even in burkas, can be found in public parks playing basketball or taking karate lessons. This will not be entirely shamed. In fact, we think and hope we will be received with curiosity rather than judgment. It is so hard to generalize Cairo culture. It is honestly the most diverse place I’ve ever experienced. Everything has to remain in the moment because each day is drastically different than the next; there really is no ‘type’ of person here; predictability is impossible. When you start trying to control Cairo, you get chewed up and spit out on the other side. The best thing to do is sit back and enjoy the ride, let the current of the Nile take you away.
Tell us a little bit about your very first practice session.
Like I mentioned above, there are no rules in Cairo, but all of a sudden there will be rules and nobody will bend. It almost becomes a power play. Our first practice session was emotional. We were told we had to have letters from the US Embassy, we were told that we needed to go sit in a closed cafeteria area while we wait for the Director of the park to come. Basically, every security guard told us something different that contradicted from the next.
We all made horrible assumptions that it was because we were women, because we were mixed nationality, because I had blonde hair. Whatever…when it all came down to it, we were thinking we could just roll into a public park and use a basketball court, take it over if you will. Two hours later, we were led onto a deserted rooftop under a bridge. We brought our own broom, having expected sand (duh) and our derby widows, volunteers swept it off, and we geared up and skated. The adrenaline to do this was so high at that point, it will always be a memorable first practice. There were people walking by the parking lot below who saw the tops of our heads rolling around and came up to peek in. They were very respectful and in Arabic offered to leave if they were bothering us. Nope.
After practice, we got that meeting with the park director. He apologized for all of the misinformation. It turns out there’s a policy for a group of 5 or more to have a reservation first. Why-security reasons, big groups could be coming in to protest, riot, etc. Okay, okay, given the recent history of Egypt and current political instability, we can appreciate this. Just wish the current climate of Egypt didn’t lend to our assumptions. Lessons learned. Of course to get this information and to secure future space and reservation we sat in his office for a couple more hours interrupted by a steady flow of other business coming in and out. We were fed chocolate and Diet Pepsis watching all the drama of running a sports facility.
The following week, we had two security guards, basically stopped the nearby football games once we started. But soon, the curiosity faded and everyone went back to his or her own games. This was what we had hoped for. Next stop, teaching security the difference between harassment and observers. Okay, they shooed away a group of 6-year-old girls. Probably not a security threat. Again, the magic of having no rules or structure in Cairo and then no ability to bend rules at the same time. The common mixed up feeling of being in a developing nation.
What do you hope to achieve with the CaiRollers, and why did you decide it needed to happen?
We would like to build a sustainable and large inter-league roller derby team of skaters, referees and officials. We envision a large recruitment with several inter-league teams that play against each other in Cairo.
This would require partnerships for gear and for venues. We would love to host other leagues around the region or world and also travel to play up and coming teams in order to grow and obtain competitive strategies and skills. We want a solid base for training, growth and competitive play. We have talked about fundraising to help support our travel and growth but also to provide scholarships for locals who want to skate but can not afford gear. Poverty is very high here. Egyptian pounds don’t have the same weight as being paid in USD or other monies. We have talked about using this program to eventually work on the empowerment of girls in Egypt.
First things first, we are using WFTDA's guidelines to teach minimum skills and talk about applying for apprenticeship. We must grow first and add some more skaters and get our committees, website and organization sorted. We decided this needed to happen because women deserve this type of sport. It's the fastest growing female sport in the world, it's exciting and empowering, why shouldn't Egypt have a league? Also, skaters just want to skate, play the sport and let that lend it naturally to what happens as a result.
What have you learned so far from this project?
How important embracing diversity is in addition to teaching someone how to skate. Some of us are dreaming big while a lot of us are just focusing on learning how to skate, fall, stop. The most important thing that we have learned is that we are so diverse and that having a unified mission is sort of impossible. What we have learned is that the world is looking at us as if this is such a huge deal, when we are feeling all pretty natural about it. What a surreal and weird feeling. Yeah, Shaneikiah and I know the modern world of roller derby. The others, this is new. And it’s kind of freaking everyone out--in a very good and exciting way! We want to figure out a way to communicate what we are doing to the modern world of roller derby and at the same time find a way to communicate what we are doing to the Cairo community. This could very well be very different styles of messaging. We need to start where our community is and bridge relationships, build local involvement and be representative of diverse Cairo. That is our mission. We want to break the stereotype of women in the Middle East and build relationships locally at the same time.
Who has helped you get this project going?
CaiRollers is largely the effort of each founding skater and their friends, connections, networks and of course the derby widows! Our friend, Dave Brown, is a former street hockey and mixed martial arts athlete who has taken charge with coaching/training and hoping to get refereeing organized. We are overwhelmed with the amount of connections we actually do have around the world and the outpouring of love via Facebook from derby leagues around the world. Vital Skates in Indianapolis (where I aka Indie Hannah is from) were amazing in organizing lots of start-up kits and donating toe stops and also Skate Attack in the UK. Vital is still working on packaging gear and sending it across US to various places and including duct tape and other essentials not known to Egypt. Skate Impact is a local skateboarding shop in Egypt and we just started building a relationship with them in the hopes that they can help us get derby gear into Egypt.
Shaneikiah and Angie's employer, American International School of Egypt, is giving us a free practice space mid-week. Derby widows and friends are building ref and support crews, videography, photography, security, etc.
We hope our connections and support will continue when we ask people to come visit and train us or host us for scrimmage practices in their countries using their refs/skaters and organizations for leverage. Our current skaters are: Susan Nour, Katreen Gaddis, Sarah Amr Halim, Yasmin Elayat, Denise Worth, Nora Elmarzouky, Shaneikiah Bickham and Angie Malone-Kaster. We are currently recruiting and have big plans for growth and hopeful dreams of immediate expansion! Also, derby names are midway.
Is there anything else you want to add?
See you at the World Cup in 2014! Ma Salama.
Want to know more about the CaiRollers? Head on over to their Facebook page, where you can see pictures of their training sessions, and get regular updates on how the league is doing.