29 January 2009

Eye of the tiger

Silat, an esoteric martial art steeped in Sufi mysticism, is gaining disciples in the Middle East. Rasha Elass sets out to channel her inner warrior.

Cikgu Yahya al Am dons a black suit with emblems and a triangular head cloth called a tongat. He makes fists with his hands and presses them to the floor, gazing downwards, then begins reciting verses from the Quran in silence. He is about to begin a training session for his disciples in the little known combat art of Silat, possibly the only martial art in the world that has Muslim roots.

Silat means “connection” in Arabic, as in the connection between God and worshipper, and is a fundamental concept of Sufism. It was developed over centuries by Sufi masters in the Melayu Archipelago, which embraced Islam through trade with Arabs and Persians and later through the migration of Chinese Muslims. Cikgu is the title given to a master in Silat.

The martial art consists of strenuous kicks, punches and an acrobatic routine alongside full-contact “deadlocks” that can reduce the most stubborn opponent to a submissive standstill. Advanced training involves half a dozen different swords, knives and sticks.

Silat also has a strong meditative element, with dance moves meant to distract and confuse the opponent during battle. “It’s called Bunga. It’s a way of being,” says Cikgu al Am, a fourth-degree black belt and the only Silat master certified to teach the discipline in the Arab world.

“Bunga means flower. The point is to look as beautiful as a flower when performing Bunga. But just like the majestic tiger, the graceful warrior turns fierce in a split second. Silat encapsulates the spirit of the tiger.

“The tiger watches its prey with intelligence. He doesn’t attack a herd of gazelles all at once and make them run off, nor does he sit and wait. The Silat warrior sees an opponent as prey, but fights as if fighting another tiger,” says Cikgu al Am. “So there is this beautiful combat art, and it has Islamic roots. My goal is to spread Silat throughout the Arab world, but only to a select group of people who will not dilute its meaning.”

Cikgu al Am lives in Damascus, Syria, where he is slowly introducing Silat to an exclusive few. Only three out of every 10 enthusiastic beginners who show up for his first class become initiates.

“You can’t choose Silat. Silat chooses you,” he explains.

Indeed, when I first started training with him, he would reveal to me in every lesson one or two highly effective, even potentially deadly, moves until one day I asked him to teach me more.

“When can I advance to the next belt? What about a Silat suit? I want to wear one. Can I go to Malaysia and train there full time?” I inquired.

He explained that before I could advance in Silat, I had to sign a contract, pledge my loyalty to the art and reveal my intentions in wanting to learn the deadly moves.

“I get gung-ho students who show up twice, then ask: ‘When will I be able to attack four people just like in the movies?’” he said. “But those aren’t the ones I want to train. I don’t want to commercialise this art form. And I have to be careful who I train.

“One time I discovered that a student of mine got into a fight and pulled a knife on someone. When he showed up to class again, I asked him to leave and never return. I told him Silat would not welcome him. His soul was corrupt.”

After training in yoga for several years in New York, I felt I had developed a propensity to be quiet, peaceful and, at times, too complacent. “I want to get in touch with my inner warrior,” I told him. I wanted to do what I understood jihad to be: an ongoing, tenacious and spiritual struggle with life’s challenges, or what some call the “human condition”. Feeling that I could also defend myself against a physical attack was an added bonus, I explained.

Cikgu al Am initiated me into Silat Seni Gayong, one of the dominant schools of Silat in Malaysia, under the auspices of the founder Dato Meor Abdul Rahman. When the founder died in 1991, his daughter Siti Kaltoum took over until her death in 2007. Only Dato Meor Abdul Rahman achieved the seventh degree in his black-belt training. For everyone else, the sixth degree is the highest they can achieve.

The school is located just outside Kuala Lumpur, and Cikgu al Am spent four years training there full time. I was now a Gayong, or Silat disciple, and my Cikgu would become more strict with me. I could show up to class only in my Silat suit, with my “empty black” belt, the first belt a Gayong wears, tied properly around my waist. Advanced levels wear “full black” belts, and they have seven degrees. In between there is white, yellow, green and red, also with several levels within them. After 10 months of training, I became a second-order white belt.

“You’re not fully present,” he said one morning early in my training, as we opened the session. To commence, we would read the Fatiha chapter from the Quran once, followed by the Ikhlas chapter 11 times before saying thrice, “peace be upon the Prophet”. The Fatiha and Ikhlas are two of the most commonly read verses, and they are repeated throughout the five daily prayers.

The short opening and closing ceremony aims to focus the mind on the battle at hand, and on breathing and the body.

During the rigorous kicks and punches routine, a Gayong shouts the word “zat”, Arabic for “self” or “essence”. It is a Sufi reference to the Essence of the Divine and a centring mechanism that keeps the warrior focused on the battle.

On a recent visit to Damascus, I watched Cikgu al Am teach a class of advanced male Gayong practitioners on the use of the keris, a famous Malaysian knife with a curvy blade. According to Malaysian war folklore, Melayu fighters used it against Japanese soldiers in the Second World War.

Other weapons include the parang, a machete; simbat suk, a short stick; and tongkat, a long stick. A particularly intriguing sword is the sundang, which splits into two on its end to resemble the famous sword of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Unlike most commercially available martial arts, Silat grooms the Gayong practitioner to develop movements on their own.

Black belts cannot advance through the six levels available to them without developing new movements and techniques, which they present before an audience of “faculty” to defend the effectiveness of such techniques, just as a doctoral student must defend a thesis. These new aspects are then introduced into Silat and taught to other students.

“Silat is a way of life. It gives to you and you give back,” says Cikgu al Am.

The Gayong practitioners at the training session have each been with him for at least a year. Their ages vary, but the young ones in particular say their after-school training in the discipline has transformed their lives.

“It took me two months to become attached to it,” says Ousam Hajar, 15. “I’ve noticed that my personality has improved and I interact with people in a better way. I used to be very awkward, especially when speaking to others. But now I speak normally. Silat has been a way of life, and I don’t want to tell my friends about it. It’s my private thing.”