The unlikely, but inspiring, story of an Emirati star

Peter Hellyer applauds Fatima Al Ali, the Emirati ice hockey player

Fatima Al Ali is a leading member of the UAE women’s ice hockey team. John McDonnell / The Washington Post via AP Photo
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As my friends know, I have never been much of a follower of organised sport, either as a player or as a spectator. It has been many decades since I watched any cricket, rugby or football.

The only sport to which I have ever really taken as a spectator is ice hockey. For several years in my teens, I was an avid follower of Brighton Tigers, based in the British town of the same name.

Memories of the excitement, the goals and, yes, the raucous catcalls at visiting teams are still with me, even if the gold-and-black jersey hand-knitted by my mother has long since been thrown away.

I tried the sport myself during a long, cold winter over half a century ago, when the rugby pitches at school were too hard to use.

I joined fellow students learning to skate on a frozen gravel pit and, utterly unsuccessfully, trying to emulate my heroes. For a while, I was hooked, until other, less strenuous interests took over.

I can, therefore, both understand and envy the passion and achievement of a young Emirati woman whom I shall nominate as my star of the week – Fatima Al Ali, a leading member of the UAE women’s ice hockey team.

Last week, Fatima, who only started playing the sport six years ago, was in Washington as a guest of the “Hockey Is for Everyone” month organised by the United States’s National Hockey League. She practised with her favourite team, the Washington Capitals, and met her favourite player, the Capitals’ captain, Alex Ovechkin.

Her visit, not surprisingly, has attracted much publicity in American sporting circles: a hijab-wearing female ice hockey player from a far-off Arab country probably best known in the United States for camels, sand and oil is pretty unusual.

Moreover, at a time when public debate in the US is focused on the topic of Arab Muslim immigrants and whether they pose a threat to national security, she offers a remarkably different, reassuring and comforting image.

As the Capitals’ coach commented: “To me, what’s great about today is you think about [the UAE], you think a lady playing hockey in [the UAE], it doesn’t sort of mix. But it’s great. You see the smiles on our players’ faces, her smile. To see what she’s doing is fantastic. She’s going to be a real role model.”

Fatima's story was covered in The National last week, so I won't repeat it all.

Suffice to say that she developed her interest in the game in 2008, while working as website administrator and photographer for the UAE men’s team. She quickly ventured onto the ice, devoting hours of practice to developing her skills and winning a place on the UAE women’s team in 2011.

A few weeks ago, her skills attracted the notice of a former Capitals player, Peter Bondra, who was in town for a training camp, and she was invited to visit Washington.

A trawl of the internet will find touching images of her tears of happiness when she was given news of her invitation, along with tickets from Etihad, and of her meeting her heroes in Washington, practising with them on the ice. The pictures are both charming and moving.

In an interview last week with American television network CBS, Fatima explained her mission to tell girls and young women how important it is to follow your dreams, to find your passion.

“Just put out a goal and keep chasing it,” she said. “Set a goal and never give up.”

We have many impressive Emirati women, in government, in business and in many other fields. How nice it is to be able to single out Fatima Al Ali from among them. She has found her goal and has chased it – scoring many goals herself on the ice. Her example is, ­truly, inspiring.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture