Aliyah: WWE’s Arab superstar fights to make history | Sports news


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Making your own way is never easy.

One person who knows this all too well is Canadian professional wrestler Aliyah. The 27-year-old of Iraqi and Syrian descent stands out as one of the few Middle Eastern talents in World Wrestling Entertainment, becoming the first Arab woman to compete in the main event in the company’s flagship show, SmackDown, earlier this year. has been running for over 20 years.

“It feels surreal. This has been my biggest dream since I was a little girl,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Growing up, I watched wrestling and didn’t see anyone who looked like me or anyone who was Arab. I hope I can set a good example and inspire other Arab women to participate in the sport they want.”

Aliyah, whose real name is Nhooph al-Areebi, has been involved in matches with some of the top WWE women since her SmackDown debut in November.

Her journey to this point was not an easy one. After training to become a wrestler at 16, she worked her way through the independent circuit before being hired by WWE in 2015.

However, she spent more than six years toiling on the development show NXT, watching numerous colleagues get promoted to the major programs ahead of her.

Nevertheless, as someone who radiates positivity, she never gave up and advises others facing challenges to do the same.

“If there’s a dream in your heart, go after it. Be the first and break that glass ceiling. Everything is possible.”

The Toronto-born fighter also faced opposition from her parents over her decision to become a wrestler.

“The first time I told them, they said ‘No!’ “They weren’t supportive at all in the beginning. So I had to hide it from them. I’d tell them I was going to my part-time job, but I’d take the subway across the city and train in this warehouse,” she said.

Her family finally arrested her after six months.

“My parents discovered knee pads and training shoes in my backpack and were like ‘what is this?’ They even came to my ‘job’ and I wasn’t there, so it was a red flag for them.”

- CREDIT WWE - Aliyah has been part of WWE's flagship show Smackdown since November 2021
Aliyah has been part of WWE’s flagship show SmackDown since November 2021 [File: WWE]

Aliyah’s parents, who moved to Canada in the early 1990s, eventually accepted her choices. She says they are now her “biggest supporters” and also thanks them for instilling a sense of pride in her Arab roots.

Even before our interview, Aliyah happily spoke to our technical staff in her native language. “We grew up in the house and spoke Arabic and English,” she said afterwards. “When my father emigrated to Canada, he tried to stay true to himself and the way he was raised and to keep that with us.”

However, she admits that balancing life on the road with important family events, such as the one during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, requires planning.

Big dinner parties are part of the festivities of many Arab families, and she jokingly admits that food is perhaps her favorite part of her culture: “I love my baklava, shawarma, I love my tabbouleh.”

One thing that seems to be a pain point for Aliyah is the lack of opportunities she has had to visit her countries of origin since childhood. Both Iraq and Syria have been ravaged by war for much of her adult life, and there was a slight expression of regret on her face as she spoke of the time lost.

“I visited Syria in 2002 for a few months. We went there on vacation and we have family who still live there. I haven’t been there since,” she said.

Despite not visiting the region for many years, she hopes her next trip there will be unforgettable.

“One of my biggest dreams is to be the first Arab woman ever to perform [for WWE] in the Middle East. That would be a great honor.”

CREDIT WWE - Aliyah Fights Multiple WWE Women's Champion Charlotte Flair
Aliyah battles multiple WWE women’s champion Charlotte Flair [File: WWE]

Aliyah certainly has great ambitions, and her efforts are a source of hope, according to 21-year-old Saudi female wrestling fan Renad.

“Aliyah makes me feel connected. If she becomes champion it will mean a lot to a lot of young girls who are training to be athletes,” Renad told Al Jazeera.

Renad’s feelings are echoed by Lebanese wrestling journalist Samira, who herself dreams of working as a broadcaster for a major wrestling promotion.

“It means a lot to me to see Aliyah, a fellow Arab woman in the professional wrestling world, get a huge platform to showcase her skills. It’s very inspiring to watch her follow her dreams and kill them,” she said.

According to reporter Brandon Thurston of the news and analysis website Wrestlenomics, such sentiments will please WWE executives, who says developing stars that focus on regional markets is an important part of the company’s business strategy.

The Middle East is a huge source of income for WWE as they regularly host events in Saudi Arabia as part of a multi-year partnership.

The kingdom’s record of human rights has brought the company a lot of criticism over the deal, reportedly earning it $50 million per show. And Thurston believes that by fully supporting Aliyah’s rise, they will benefit even more.

“A Middle Eastern star would have the greatest positive effect on business regionally if he were a true top star all year round, as opposed to someone who has a minor role or is briefly built up prior to an international tour,” he said.

Pro wrestling is, of course, scripted entertainment, so WWE can choose how and when it wants to push talent. A positive sign for Aliyah is that she already has a record to her name, having taken the promotion’s fastest all-time win of 3.17 seconds in January.

She knows there’s still a lot of hard work to do, but has no doubts that one day she’ll hold a gold-plated belt over her head as the champion of wrestling’s pinnacle promotion.

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