Hoop to history

Mar 20, 2013, 03:55 IST | Fiona Fernandez

How these Iraqi sportswomen dribbled their way to freedom

A women’s basketball team in Iraq coached by an American. It’s a scenario that would cause ripples across diplomatic circles. No doubt then that Salaam Dunk, debut film by San Francisco director David Fine will intrigue and inspire. It’s a fascinating journey into the lives and minds of a gutsy bunch of women basketballers who defied the odds to emerge trumps, on and off the court. Safa Fadhil Jafar, the team’s former manager, will be in Mumbai tomorrow for its Indian premiere.

Talk me through the game: Player Laylan talks to coach Ryan in a still from the film

The Interview:
How did the idea of this documentary come about? Who approached the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) basketball team with the idea?
Our team was still new, we were trying to get into sport, playing basketball, and it was very difficult since we haven’t given enough attention to sport before. Coach Ryan (Bubalo) was talking about the team, the difficulties we face and how much we have improved in front of his friends back in the United States At that gathering, David Fine, who later became the director of the movie got interested in knowing more about the team, then he came up to suggest the idea. The idea of making the successful documentary film, Salaam Dunk was a coincidence; a stroke of luck for these young Iraqi women who got the opportunity to expose the reality of their country, the real image of how we live here, not the stereotypes and the extreme racism we are viewed with. We are a friendly nation and we love living together.

Women are not benchwarmers: Ola Mohammed Taha, former player, AUIS basketball team

As one-time manager of the team, how or what led to the creation of this very unique team? What were the initial stumbling blocks in this endeavour?
Well, the idea of a women’s basketball team is not strange in Iraq, especially in Sulaimani, yet the uniqueness of this team came from the early stage of its formation and later, by the variety of its members. The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani is a new University that was formed in 2007, and the basketball team was created in 2008. It was the first women’s sport team at the University; the initiative to start a women’s team at such an early stage of the University formation was led by coach Ryan. The second unique aspect is the variety of the members of the team. The team includes Arab, Kurd, Turkmen, Christians and Muslims. A real team that works in the sprit and co-operation of a group was lacking in Iraq.

Safa Fadhil Jafar: Breaking barriers, testing boundaries

What were your concerns as far as signing up players for the team?
I wasn’t officially involved with confirming permissions to get involved in the team; I don’t think anyone was involved with that. Yet, some girls mentioned that there are some concerns from their parents or friends. To be honest, coach Ryan was very friendly and he listened to the girls and their issues and this was one of the problems that came up.  There is a rule in our university called academic probation, so if a student’s average is less than 70 per cent, the student would not be permitted from taking part in student activities like basketball, for example. As a result, the whole team kept track of its players and their academic performance; we would schedule our time and give a portion of it to the other teammates, to help them with their studies or simply listen to their problems.

Poster power: The movie poster

What was the equation of the team with US coach Ryan Bubalo? How did they trust him to be their teacher and mentor?
Coach Ryan set a very good example from the beginning. Before we knew him as coach Ryan, he was the English language instructor at the college. All students praised his helpful spirit. This, later, became one of the essential ingredients in forming the team. After Coach Ryan left, we made a huge effort to keep the team together and stay like a family, which worked out to be very good, of course, with the assistance of our new coach, Pat Cline.

How did the authorities, local bodies and society in general react to this unheard-of concept? And how did the team overcome the stigma that is attached to women’s athletics in general?
First of all, the stereotype about women stigma in Iraq isn’t that accurate. Iraq had women athletes who have participated in international tournaments. Yet, the first part of the sentence holds true. We did face judgment from unofficial authorities, societal groups, but not from official authorities. For example, I was part of a group of open-minded youth forum where we would teach English to children at our area club. Yet, these open-minded youth were the first constraints and a challenge. The group asked me to not talk about my basketball activities in front of the children; they argued that I would not be setting a good example for these children because basketball is not what we want to raise our children on. I wanted to quit, yet I didn’t; I continued teaching children and spoke to them about basketball and debating in order to make young men and women open to these new ideas. As a result, I tried to change it; they are part of my society and I need to make them open to the world.

Hoop and hope: A screen shot from the film   

What were some of the most inspiring lessons that emerged from this saga of a women’s basketball team in Iraq?
Unless we bond together, understand each other, listen to each other and work with each other, not necessarily love each other; we can’t build our country — Iraq. We have a saying in Arabic, which is, “one hand can’t clap alone”, so unless we overcome our differences, we won’t be able to clap and rebuild our nation and amazing civilisation.

Finally, did this team act as the ideal example to inspire other positive initiatives among Iraq’s women?
Our strongest weapon was action, not words, we challenged friends, relatives and others to not only play sport, but to also support an idea in our heads, an idea that women should be free to choose what they want to do in their lives. I am not saying that we go against tradition and religion, but that we will not accept what is meant to be and do it without discussion.

On: Salaam Dunk, the movie premieres on Thursday, March 21, 6.30 pm onwards; registration begins at 6 pm.
At: Artisans, 52-56, Dr VB Gandhi Marg, Rhythm House Lane, Kala Ghoda, Colaba; RSVP REQUIRED: asiasociety@asiasociety.org.in (Priority to Asia Society members)

Hassiba Boulmerka, born July 10, 1968 in Constantine in the north east of Algeria, is a former Algerian middle distance athlete. In 1992, she became the first Algerian to win an Olympic title — the 1500m gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Till today she is symbolic of the challenges many women, specially Muslim women, face in sport. She defied death threats by Islamists in Algeria who said she showed too much of her body when running.

Slam Dunk
A slam dunk is a type of basketball shot that is performed when a player jumps in the air and manually powers the ball downward through the basket with one or both hands over the rim. This is considered a normal field goal attempt; if successful it is worth two points. Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn coined the term ‘slam dunk’. Prior to that, it was known as a dunk shot.

About Salaam Dunk
Salaam Dunk is a documentary about a women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). These women come from all over Iraq to study at AUIS and many cannot even tell family that they attend an American university. Through traditional interviews and private confessional video diaries, Salaam Dunk follows the ethnically diverse AUIS women’s basketball team as they discover what it means to be athletes. From the joy of their first win to the pain of losing the coach who started their team, the film gives a glimpse into an Iraq we don’t see. Salaam Dunk is directed by David Fine.

Who is Safa Fadhil Jafar?
Safa Fadhil Jafar was the manager of the basketball team and is featured in the film. She graduated with a major in Business Administration from the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in 2012. She is currently working for Rabee Securities, one of Iraq’s premier brokerage houses, in their Research Department. She has participated in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program in the United States, and has worked with the International Medical Corps’ Justice for Children programme. She describes her long-term goal as bringing peace and prosperity to Iraq, particularly to its women. 

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