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Wafaa Amer Interview

22 years old, Egyptian, Wafaa Amer is making her way on the female climbing scene in no time.
Iron fingers and a beaming smile, Wafaa tell us about her debut and the struggles of being a muslim girl far away from home.

Hi Wafaa! Tell us something about you. How long have you been here in Italy, and when did you start climbing?
I came here when I was 8, 9 years old, and I started climbing at 15. There was a program in my school that promoted “alternative” sports, and one of them was climbing.
Mine is a very traditional family, where women are raised with the idea of living always at home, I was not allowed to go out if not for school, I could play only with my sisters, so attending a climbing class was totally out of discussion.
Also, we didn’t have a lot of money, we were five people and my father had to take care of all of us. But my best friend, who was a climber already, wanted me to try that discipline and she gave me the membership card to the gym as a gift.

Then what happened?
It was all new to me, in my Egyptian village gyms do not exist, there’s no technology. I’ve never seen a gym in my life and when I stepped inside and I saw all those colorful holds, the panels… I thought: «Whoa! So women can practice sports too!»
At first, I was going to the gym only in the morning, then I found out I could use the same card also in the afternoon. And there started all the problems.
My father didn’t approve, so I started sneaking out of our home just to go climbing, helped by my mother, who luckily trusted me, my sisters and my little brother.
Hanging out with other people outside my family changed me, I started to realize that there were other ways to live, and my father didn’t like that. He didn’t want me to leave home, he took away my bag and I had to beg him to give me back some freedom, but it just didn’t work. He was mad at me because I was different, the rebel.
If I had stayed in Italy, but living according to the idea that my father had, I would now be like my sisters. It is true that they too have lived here, but they still have a more traditional mentality. But they respect and approve my life choice, as I respect theirs. They love me, and they’re happy if I’m happy.
That’s why I started climbing in the gym and not on the rock, even if I like the last one better. It was much more complicated to hide going to a crag, I couldn’t make it back before my father’s return home, and I was always afraid he would find out I was gone.
It was difficult, sometimes I had so much fun that I didn’t realise it was getting late. I took part in some competitions that went well and climbing became more and more important to me. In my head I was doing nothing wrong, I wasn’t doing drugs or getting drunk, and his disapproval really hurted me.

Sicuramente per te dev’essere stato difficile conciliare la tua cultura con quella Italiana. In che modo l’arrampicata ti ha aiutato a uscire da questi schemi?
Io devo alla scalata quello che sono diventata oggi, ho scoperto cose che agli occhi delle altre persone possono sembrano stupide ma per me non lo sono. La prima volta che sono andata a mangiare una pizza con gli amici della palestra, non sapevo come tagliarla! Non ero mai stata a cena fuori, e in Egitto si mangia con le mani (ride). L’arrampicata mi ha regalato molte “prime volte”, me le ricordo una per una: la prima pizza, la prima volta che ho messo il costume da bagno, la prima volta che ho preso un treno.

Da qualche anno ormai vivi e arrampichi a Finale Ligure. È di sicuro uno dei posti più famosi tra gli scalatori italiani ed europei, è per questo che hai deciso di vivere proprio lì?
Sono finita a Finale quasi per caso. Avevo appena compiuto diciotto anni e come da tradizione sarei dovuta ritornare in Egitto per continuare lì la mia vita. Per me era impensabile l’idea di abbandonare la mia vita in Italia, per questo decisi di andare via di casa.
Avevo degli amici in Liguria che mi hanno appoggiato in quel difficilissimo periodo.
All’inizio ero combattuta, mi sembrava di stare tradendo la mia famiglia, la mia cultura, la mia religione. Ma è stata una mia scelta e oggi ne vado orgogliosa.

È stata una scelta importante per una ragazza così giovane, hai dimostrato una grande forza di volontà. Come hai fatto per mantenerti?
La verità è che non sono mai stata davvero sola, mi hanno aiutato tante persone. Il primo periodo sono finita in un agriturismo a Feglino, di proprietà di due miei amici. Sono stati la mia prima casa, e il mio primo lavoro. Davo loro una mano e in cambio potevo abitare lì. Ora sono diventati la mia famiglia, anche se ogni settimana torno in Piemonte per vedere mia madre.
Ci ho messo due anni per stabilirmi, ho fatto diversi lavori, sai, i soliti, cameriera, baby sitter, receptionist in un campeggio… nel frattempo ho continuato a scalare.
Vivere a Finale mi ha permesso di scalare di più su roccia, dove ho ottenuto i primi risultati importanti (Radical Chic, Hyaena).
The most important thing for my family was that I had to be the kind of woman they had in mind, I had to be good at cooking, taking care of the house, looking after the children. No license, no job.

It must have been difficult for you to conciliate you culture with the Italian one. In which way  did climbing helped you to break free from it?
Climbing has made me what I am now, I had discovered things that may appear ordinary to other people, but not to me. The first time I went out to have a pizza with my friends from the gym I didn’t know how to cut it! I’ve never been out for dinner before, and in Egypt we eat with our hands! (laughs). Climbing gave me a lot of “first times”, I remember them one by one: my first pizza, the first time I wore a swimsuit, my first time on a train.

In the last few years you moved to Finale Ligure. Probably one of the most famous climbing spot for Italian and European climbers, is that the reason why you decided to move there?
I ended there almost by chance. I’ve turned eighteen and according to our tradition I should have go back to Egypt and go on with my life there. It was out of question for me, that’s why I decided to leave home.
I had some friends in Liguria, they gave me a lot of support during that difficult period. It was hard at the beginning, I was torn, I felt like I had left my family, my culture, my religion for good.
But it was my choice, and I’m proud of it.

It was an important choice for a girl so young, you proved to be strong. How did you support yourself?
The truth is that I’ve never been alone, I received a lot of help from a lot of people. I ended up in a farmhouse in Feglino, owned by two friends of mine. That was my first house and my first job. I helped them with the farmhouse and in return they offered me a place to stay. Now they are my family, but I go back to Piedmont every week to visit my mother.
It took me two years to settle down, I had different jobs, the usual ones, waitress, baby-sitting, receptionist in a camping… in the meanwhile I kept on climbing.
Living in Finale allowed me to climb more on rock and achieve the first significant results (Radical Chic, Hyanea).

You stand out thanks to your achievements both indoor and outdoor, and found yourself under the spotlight of famous brand like LaSportiva and Petzl. How do you plan to continue your athletic and professional journey?
This year, after the contests season, I took a decision: I love to compete, but is the rock that I love the most and where I want to improve myself. I gain more satisfaction from climbing an overhanging 7b or 7c, because it is not my usual kind of thing.
This will be a test year for me and I am grateful to those who believed in me.
Thanks to the sponsorships that I have now, I have the opportunity to participate in events, meet new people with much more experience than me and therefore learn a lot.
I’d like to try some multipitch route, maybe go climb at high altitudes. I’ve never done that, I think I will always be a crag person, but I would be happy to try something different.
A lot of people asked me “would you like to be a professional climber?” and I said no. It’s very difficult to make a living out of climbing, but there are other solutions, like having a part-time job.
Maybe in the future, if I keep getting good results.
But at the moment I need a job!

And now, after all you’ve been through, would you say you’re happy?
Yes, with no doubt.
I’ve been lucky, a lot of people helped me, some gave me gears, others gave me rides, some people hosted me and helped me finding a job. I won’t forget anyone of them and I’m grateful to each one of them, even for the most insignificant thing. To me, it meant a lot.
There are so many things that will change and so many others I can improve, but I’m sure this is my path!

We didn’t have a lot of money, we were five people and my father had to take care of all of us. But my best friend, who was a climber already, wanted me to try that discipline and she gave me the membership card to the gym as a gift.

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