Muslim hockey player’s trip to the U.S. comes with lots of baggage

It sounds like a fairytale: A young woman with remarkable hockey skills is discovered at an ice rink in Abu Dhabi and flown across the world for a practice session with her favorite team, the Washington Capitals.

But Fatima Al Ali’s dream trip involved a lot of baggage. The 27-year-old Emirati hockey phenom’s visit this week made clear the awkward position of Muslims in today’s United States. Her few hours at the Capitals rink were covered by at least six TV crews, their cameras trained on the spectacle of a headscarf-wearing woman from a desert island looking so at home on the ice.

Beyond the exotification, Al Ali was an ambassador for the NHL’s “Hockey Is for Everyone” campaign at a time when that slogan is complicated. Had she been born in Syria or Iraq or Yemen, she might not have made the event because of President Donald Trump’s now-frozen travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority nations. That political backdrop – coupled with the irresistible visual of hijab and hockey stick – turned what might’ve been a small photo op into a media frenzy.

Put bluntly, the cameras were there because Al Ali is Muslim, but public relations managers handling her visit didn’t want her venturing into religious or political talk. And they really didn’t want any questions about Trump’s contested travel ban, as a TV reporter found out when she broached the issue and was later chastised by an organizer.

“I’m not happy about it,” Al Ali said of Trump’s executive order, before a handler quickly shut down the interview and whisked her away.

Several Muslim tropes swirled around Al Ali’s visit. There’s the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman, which positions Al Ali as extraordinary because she’s in a rough, male-dominated sport. There’s the travel ban and the general vilification of Muslims, which position Al Ali as an antidote to the negative press. Then there’s the so-called “hijab fetish,” a fascination with the veil that reduces smart, independent women to the fabric over their hair.

At the center of this maelstrom was an athlete who just wanted to do her thing.

Al Ali wore a grimace as she sat with her little brother in the stands, their every move caught by the cameramen, who filmed them nonstop from all angles. But her face changed the second it was time to glide onto the ice and hit some pucks with her hero, the Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Capitals and among the leading goal scorers in NHL history.

The self-consciousness melted away as Al Ali smiled and laughed with the players, seemingly oblivious to the videographers and reporters who by then had trudged onto the ice in their street shoes for better views. She looked tiny next to the gargantuan Ovechkin, who at one point sprinted to the locker room and returned with an autographed hockey stick for Al Ali to keep as a souvenir.

The pained expression returned when it came time for Al Ali to submit to a string of one-on-one interviews the Capitals PR team had arranged. In her four minutes with McClatchy, she described her brother as her No. 1 supporter, said the trip was even better than she’d dreamed and talked about how it felt to have female athletes across the Middle East find inspiration in her success as a groundbreaking sports photographer and, now, as a hockey player and coach.

“It’s overwhelming to be able to move your passion and love of the game to others,” Al Ali said.

But she looked uncomfortable and glanced at the PR official listening in on the interview when the conversation shifted to how the travel ban – if it stands up to legal challenges – might restrict such opportunities in the future. She shrugged, looked away and said she wasn’t there to “talk about this.” The interview ended soon after.

The next night, Al Ali was on camera again, standing in a spotlight on the ice as she prepared to drop the puck before a game between the Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings.

“Her visit to the United States is an example of how something as simple as a game can transcend political and geographic boundaries and bring us all together on an equal playing surface,” the announcer said over the loudspeaker.

Right after tossing the puck, Al Ali pulled her cellphone from her pocket and corralled the team captains for a quick selfie. As she posed, the announcer’s voice returned:

“Thank you, Fatima, and enjoy your time in the United States. You. Are. Welcome.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam