Aliyah: WWE’s Arab superstar fighting to make history
Professional wrestler Aliyah became the first Arab woman to participate in main event of WWE’s SmackDown, inspiring other women.
Blazing your own trail is never easy.
One person that knows this all too well is Canadian professional wrestler Aliyah. The 27-year-old of Iraqi and Syrian origin stands out as one of the few Middle Eastern talents in World Wrestling Entertainment, and earlier this year became the first Arab woman to contest the main event in the company’s flagship show SmackDown, which has been running for more than 20 years.
“It feels surreal. This has been my biggest dream ever since I was a little girl,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Growing up, I would watch wrestling and didn’t really see anyone that looked like me or someone that was Arabic. I hope I could set a good example and inspire other Arab females to come join the sport that they want.”
Aliyah, whose real name is Nhooph al-Areebi, has been involved in matches with some of WWE’s top women since her SmackDown debut in November.
Her journey to this point has not been easy. After starting training to be a wrestler at 16, she worked her way through the independent circuit before being taken on by WWE in 2015.
However she spent more than six years toiling away on developmental show NXT, watching numerous colleagues gain promotion to the main programmes ahead of her.
Nonetheless, as someone that exudes positivity, she never gave up and advises others facing challenges to do the same.
“If there’s a dream in your heart, then go after it. Be the first and break that glass ceiling. Anything is possible.”
The Toronto-born fighter also faced opposition over her decision to become a wrestler from her parents.
“The first time I told them, they were like ‘No!’ At first they weren’t supportive at all. So I had to hide it from them. I would tell them I was going to my part-time job but I would take the subway across town and I would train at this warehouse,” she said.
Her family eventually busted her after six months.
“My parents discovered knee pads and training shoes in my backpack and were like ‘what is this?’. They even showed up to my ‘job’ and I wasn’t there, so it was a red flag for them.”
Aliyah’s parents, who moved to Canada in the early 90s, eventually accepted her choices. She says they are now her “biggest supporters” and also thanks them for instilling in her a sense of pride in her Arab roots.
Even before our interview, Aliyah gleefully spoke with our technical staff in her mother tongue. “We grew up in the house speaking Arabic and English,” she said afterwards. “When my dad emigrated to Canada, he tried to stay true to himself and the way he was brought up and keep that with us.”
She concedes, however, that balancing life on the road with important family events, such as those during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, takes planning.
Large dinner parties are part of the festivities for many Arab families, and she jokingly admits that food is perhaps her favourite part of her culture: “I love my baklava, shawarma, I love my tabouleh.”
One thing that seems to be a sore point for Aliyah is the lack of opportunity she has had to visit her countries of heritage since her 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 when talking about the time lost.
“I visited Syria in 2002 for a few months. We vacationed there, and we have family that still lives there. I haven’t been there since,” she said.
Despite not visiting the region for many years, she hopes her next trip there can be a memorable one.
“One of my biggest dreams is to be the first ever Arab female to perform [for WWE] in the Middle East. That would be a complete honour.”
Aliyah certainly has grand 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 a champion, it will mean a lot to many young girls training to be athletes,” Renad told Al Jazeera.
Renad’s sentiments are echoed by Lebanese wrestling journalist Samira, who herself dreams about working for a major wrestling promotion as a broadcaster.
“It means a lot to me to see Aliyah, a fellow Arab woman in the professional wrestling business, be given a huge platform to showcase her abilities. It’s very inspiring to see her following her dreams and killing it,” she said.
Such sentiments will please WWE executives, according to reporter Brandon Thurston of news and analysis website Wrestlenomics, who says that developing stars that cater to regional markets is a key part of the company’s business strategy.
The Middle East is a huge source of revenue for WWE as they stage regular events in Saudi Arabia as part of a multi-year partnership.
The kingdom’s human rights record has seen the company receive a huge amount of criticism over the deal which earns them a reported $50m per show. And Thurston believes that by backing Aliyah’s rise fully, they stand to benefit even more.
“A star from the Middle East would have the greatest positive effect on business regionally if they were a genuine top star all year round, as opposed to someone who is in a minor role or who is built up briefly ahead of an international tour,” he said.
Pro-wrestling is, of course, scripted entertainment, so WWE can choose how or when it wants to push talents. One positive sign for Aliyah is that she already has a record to her name, having claimed the promotion’s fastest win of all time at 3.17 seconds in January.
She knows there is still plenty of hard work to do, but has little doubt that one day she will hold a gold-plated belt above her head as a champion in wrestling’s top promotion.