AMMAN, Jordan — Early in a conversation that rollicked with keen cultural observations and great big guffaws, Rana Qubbaj uttered the six words she and those around her never could have imagined even six years ago.
“So I started to do jiujitsu,” she said.
Rana, 31, and her sister Lama Qubbaj, 28, represent a subset of a subset. As the concept of the female athlete buds in the Middle East, they’re women who not only chose a sport, which is unusual, but a sport usually deemed both obscure and masculine, which is really unusual. Just after training alongside six men on a Tuesday night in May, they sat in the well-equipped basement gym of the eight-bedroom house of their coach, Samy Al Jamal, a supremely fit, 50-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian man raised in Rio de Janeiro.
All three revel in the enduring puzzle of jiujitsu, the martial art reborn early last century in Brazil, and all three pretty much glow with endorphins.
“And when I started to do jiujitsu” about five years ago, after a friend introduced her to Al Jamal, “my parents didn’t even know what jiujitsu is,” Rana said. “And then I started to compete, it starts to go on TV, and the first thing was, my father’s friends would go and tell him, ‘So, your daughter wrestles? That’s, like, disgusting.’ So he would come to me and say stuff like, ‘You embarrassed me today at work. Everybody was telling me, “Your daughter is a wrestler.” Why can’t you run or do another sport that’s more acceptable?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I love jiujitsu,’ and he was like, ‘Well, everybody’s talking about you . . .’ ”
Soon, there intervened a force that reigns all around the globe: victory.
“I competed; my father was on a business trip, I don’t remember where, somewhere in Europe,” Rana said. “I texted him, ‘I got a gold medal at Europeans.’ And he was sitting with foreigners, and he told them, ‘My daughter just got a gold medal at Europeans.’ And everybody got so excited because they’re not Arabs.
“And then he got very excited about it, and he came home, and he was so excited, saying, ‘That’s awesome.’ And then he went to work, and people were like, ‘Your daughter got a gold medal in wrestling?’ And then he completely switched. And then we were going on and off between supporting and not supporting because he had too much pressure on him. Now the supporting is way more than the not-supporting. But it can’t switch off. The last time I went and I didn’t get a medal, and he was like, ‘How about you retire?’ ”
The single sisters are clear-eyed about the cultural pickle into which their passion has hurled them. On the one side, they’re transformed and uncommonly alive. They travel internationally. They adore the far-flung Olympic city of Rio de Janeiro as a spiritual home, even as they compete in a non-Olympic sport. They view their culture with sharp observations, as when Rana said, “In a lot of cases people get married not because they want to get married but because they’re scared of not getting married.”
Rana, rapt with jiujitsu’s “learning curve,” catches herself immersed in thoughts of strategy while driving. Lama has coaxed some friends to quit smoking and reminded them their bodies are healthier in motion. Rana has gone from inability — “It’s not only that I couldn’t do a push-up; I was under the impression that girls were not supposed to do push-ups” — to winning a bet by doing 3,000 sit-ups. Said Lama, “Doing jiujitsu is like living. . . . For me, it’s the perfect combination of the mind and body synchronization. It’s a joy to practice and a joy to live your life like that.”
They navigate a path that might blunt the resolve of a run-of-the-mill pioneer. They have foregone social lives. They’re always on the unforgiving search for sponsorship. They lack practice bouts because so few fellow women compete, and men often shy away because defeat might humiliate. Conversations often brim with the disbelief of others. Said Lama, “We’re in a kind of culture that really works to hold on to traditions and norms. Even if we think that it is very modern, it’s very hard to be liberated. Maybe we think this thing, but that is contrary in the way we live. Even if someone wants to be supportive, they say, ‘I could never live like you.’ I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult.”
Lama, a strong super heavyweight so competitive that she once “beat” her fellow architecture students at university by staying awake for 56 consecutive hours, actually quit her job as an architect to pursue jiujitsu. It seemed deranged “to everybody,” she said. “My parents went crazy. What’s weird [in the culture], sports is not weird, but getting professional in sports is weird. Everybody is like, ‘Really, you’re what? Really?’ I think my family is in denial. They’re like, ‘She’s just changing jobs!’ ”
At Rana’s job at a French bank in Amman, “They think I’m a psycho, basically,” she said merrily. It took the admonishment from a visiting French bank executive for her supervisors to accommodate her on jiujitsu travel. Of her boss, she said, “He’s trying to torture me slowly, hoping I’ll quit. ‘So really, you’re going to go across the world to wrestle a girl! If you’d go to the beach and the sun, I’d feel much better.’ ”
Rana feels for their parents.
“I totally understand my parents’ position,” she said. “If you have a daughter and every day people come to you and go like, ‘Your daughter is ruining her life. Nobody is going to marry her, and she’s going to end up alone because she’s doing this stupid thing, and you have to put her on the right path,’ it’s so hard for you. From the inside you’re going to be confused. And that’s where my parents are. My parents, they’re doctors. They studied abroad, they lived abroad, and they’re exposed, but with the pressure they’re very confused. They can’t say no, because they know it’s the wrong thing to do. But they can’t say yes, because they’re scared.”
Even were their second and fourth offspring — of four — to start active, strategic husband-hunting, their coach spots another snag. Marveling at the differing standards of attractiveness as compared to Brazil, Al Jamal said, “So the girl that doesn’t work out, who starves herself, who stays skinny in that dress and has no muscles, this is what they like here, in the region. So all guys are kind of intimidated by girls that are athletic. Because [the guys] are also not athletic.”
Still, all three lively people in the basement gym teach jiujitsu to 12 orphaned or underprivileged girls, who revel in the sport and adorably watch — and critique — Rana’s bouts on YouTube. One recently asked Rana what her older sister should do now that the sister’s husband had forbidden his wife from jogging. Rana mulled it over and advised the girl to consider this someday when choosing her own husband.
Sometimes, Rana wonders whether she does the girls a disservice, involving them in something so unusual.
Then that thought passes.
The rise of the female Muslim athlete:
Part 1: Once forbidden from sport, a new generation now chases Olympic glory.
Sarah Attar: A groundbreaking athlete sees change in her father’s Saudi homeland.
Part 2: Marriage, motherhood, education, maybe sports
Jordanian sisters: A duo empowered by jiujitsu
Part 3: Competing while covered: the search for the perfect sports hijab
Part 4: Women’s soccer is booming in Jordan