Kicking up a karate calm

The martial art form has witnessed a rapid evolution in the UAE, riding on the back of fitness and health benefits, flattening age and gender gaps.



By Arnab Ghosh

Published: Sat 23 Oct 2021, 7:47 PM

Last updated: Sat 23 Oct 2021, 8:03 PM

Though I grew up in Kuwait, I was fed on a diet of Bollywood movies. Watching the hero beat up an entire gang of henchmen over signature sound effects (the classic dhishum) of action sequences, I had a dream. Nothing like Martin Luther King’s though; I just dreamt of being an action hero. Back then, the term “Judo-Karate” was very popular when it came to all things fighting. I had no idea what those were, but when our school announced Karate classes, I recognised the word and was among the first to enroll. Little did I know then it would become a way of life for me.

I stopped training when the classes at school stopped. But never lost the passion. So, I trained in a bit of whatever little I had learned. From time to time. Then once in a while. Then hardly ever. I did keep up with it in the form of movies, though: watching screen icons like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I may not have kept up with training, but there was hardly a move (okay, movie) that I didn’t know about.

It took a few years and some streetwise teenage wisdom to realise that those fight scenes in the movies are easier watched than applied. So I bought a book, and resumed my Karate training. But it still wasn’t the same as… you know… having one Mr Miyagi to learn from.

Walking the martial path

The (first) Gulf War happened. We moved to Dubai, where I started looking for Karate classes close by. My father came home one day and told me one of his colleagues goes to a dojo (Karate school); he would introduce me to his sensei (teacher). Music to my ears! I went. I met. I enrolled. That’s where I met my sensei, whose student I still remain, three decades on. That was the start of my real journey into the world of martial arts.

I realised quickly that this whole martial arts thing was not a hobby, or a teenage infatuation. It is a passion. As I delved deeper into it, my love for Karate only grew deeper. My sensei recognised my affinity for kumite (sparring) over kata (forms). He let me have my fun, and encouraged me to participate in kumite tournaments. I did well enough, with victories in national and international tournaments.

All the while, he would teach me kata as well, and tell me that “kata is the soul of Karate”. Over the years, my sensei taught me the true nature and applications of kata, through which I absorbed and embraced the real essence of traditional Karate. Call it what you will — an art form, a way of life, a discipline — but I discovered a whole new side of Karate.

What fascinated me more was the realisation that I had subconsciously been applying the principles I had learned in the dojo to other areas of my life too.

Easy access

Like myself, Karate has been the martial art of choice for thousands of enthusiasts around the world. After the second World War, Karate spread very quickly across the globe. There is hardly a country in the world where at least one style of Karate isn’t taught in some form or another.

In fact, Karate became synonymous with just about any martial art that employs kicks and punches, and has students wearing a white uniform. I remember walking into a dojo in the US many years ago, where the gentleman inside said they had classes in — and I quote — “Korean Karate”. When I asked why he called it that, he told me that’s the name everyone knows, so “Karate” is how he introduces it, but then goes on to explain the art he’s actually teaching.

At that time, the image of Karate was one of an activity that required supreme fitness, where only the toughest would survive all the way to a black belt. It was perceived as extreme training, and dangerous because students would sustain many injuries in pursuit of pushing themselves to superhuman limits.

Karate in the UAE

In the UAE, teaching Karate was initially limited to military and police personnel only. After all, these were the frontline defence and law enforcement officers who needed those skills. Classes for the general public were legalised in the early 1980s. From then till now, there has been an explosion of Karate dojos all over the country. From Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah, there are classes available for kids and adults of all ages.

Largely due to Karate’s reputation for its high degree of discipline and the development of superior focus and concentration, its popularity spread quickly among parents wishing to enroll their children to instill these values in them and get them living an active life; developing motor skills and physical fitness as well as self-confidence and leadership qualities from an early age.

Rashid Al Ali, tournament manager of the UAE Karate Federation (UAEKF) and Vice President of the Asia Karate Federation (AKF), attributes the growth and development of Karate in the UAE to the leadership of the UAEKF. Under the guidance of its president, His Excellency Major General Nasser Abdul Razzak Al Razouki, who is also president of AKF Asia Karate Federation and Vice President of WKF, the UAE has become a trusted hub for Karate.

About 7 or 8 tournaments are organised by the UAEKF every year in order to help develop the standard of competition Karate in the UAE. Over 500 competitors from across the country participate.

Al Ali is proud to say that UAE has produced champions at Arab and Asia levels of competition. Furthermore, several former national team members now hold key positions at AKF and WKF: for example Humaid Shamis, Competition General of UAEKF and General Secretary of AKF; Mohamed Abbas, WKF Technical Committee member; and Jaber Al Zaabi, AKF Referee Committee member.

Saeed Ali Nasser Al-shamsi, a UAE national from Al Ain, is an oil and gas professional, and has been training in Karate with his teacher since his youth. Like me, his love affair with martial arts began when he was a child. Ranked Shihan (5th Dan — or degree), he is one of the highest-ranking practitioners of traditional Karate in the UAE. He continues training to maintain his health, keep his self-defence skills sharp, and because he enjoys “walking the path of the warrior”.

Patience and perseverance

Out of the hundreds of kids that enroll, only a minority reach black belt levels. That is one trend that has not changed anywhere in the world over the generations. However, more people make it to at least a 1st Dan (1st degree) black belt today than previously. Training methods have evolved, becoming more universally adaptable. The emphasis has shifted from heavy-handed conditioning to the development of superior technical abilities.

Kyoshi (7th Dan) V. A. Mohamed Iqbal, one of the pioneers of traditional Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Seibukan style (don’t even get me started on Karate styles, that’ll need a separate article!) of Karate in the UAE, came here in 1979 from his home state of Kerala, India. He established his dojo in a backyard, with only a handful of students. Back then, Karate was not nearly as popular.

He and his brothers — Kyoshi (7th Dan) V. A. Najeem and Kyoshi (7th Dan) V. A. M. Jaleel — have worked diligently towards spreading the art across the UAE and beyond, through public demonstrations of martial arts, seminars and events. Their dojos have also been active members of the UAE Karate Federation. Today, their children and grandchildren are also into Karate. Together, they are perhaps one of the biggest martial arts families in the world, training and teaching together.

As Kyoshi Iqbal can testify, training methods have evolved manifold over the decades. He travels to Okinawa — a small island south of Japan, known as the “Cradle of Karate”, where the art was born — from time to time with a delegation of students, to further his training and theirs, and stay abreast of the latest training methods, technical refinements, and so on. Karate is a lifelong journey. There is always something new to learn, and new, innovative methods of teaching.

Apart from Okinawa, he has taken teams to several countries such as Germany, United States and India, to participate in tournaments and attend seminars with some of the highest-ranking Karate teachers in the world. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, his organisation, United Karate Group International, used to invite a Grand Master every year, sometimes even twice a year, to conduct seminars and workshops for his Karate students based in the UAE.

The case for adults

Contrary to popular belief, learning Karate is not only for kids. You don’t need to be young and fit to start. You can start Karate at any age. For adults, the physical and mental health benefits are incomparable. Most hardly ever get into it with the aim of excellence in combat sports, or even with the intent to fight (though self-defence is still on the agenda for many).

The training in adults’ classes is very different. It’s less combat sports and more traditional techniques, kata, and scenario-based self-defence training; and, of course, conditioning exercises to harness good health, get fit and strong, and relieve stress to achieve a better work:life balance.

Ramachandran, a (now retired) operations professional with a regular office job, had never engaged in any kind of formal physical exercise throughout his adult life. He was, however, a frequent visitor to his doctor, complaining of various aches and pains. It was the latter who advised him to take up some form of full-body exercise “like swimming or martial arts”. He baulked at the idea of starting martial arts training, but decided to give it a go anyway. So, at the age of 47, with neither strength nor stamina nor flexibility in his favour, he walked into a Karate class. He trained for a few minutes at a time, and took frequent breaks. But he continued training regularly at least a couple of times a week.

Several years ago, at the age of 54, Ramachandran earned his black belt. By then, he was training two, sometimes three, sessions back-to-back, several times a week, and was close to doing a full split! Speaking from experience, he swears by the physical benefits of Karate. He even enrolled his (then teenaged) son for classes.

K. R. Shaju, a logistics professional, was a chain smoker and had little time for fitness. Though his wife is a qualified yoga teacher, that never really appealed to him. He joined a Karate dojo at 37, to realise his childhood dream of training in martial arts, sceptical of actually being able to. He recognised his issue with stamina, and thought cutting down on smoking may help him keep up with the others when he trained. What he had not thought he would do is quit completely! Furthermore, he went on to not only become a black belt but also travel to Okinawa with a delegation from the UAE that was participating in an international tournament there.

Today, he is still doing Karate regularly. He has not touched a cigarette in years. His wife, the yoga teacher, is now attending Karate classes with him. Both his daughters, now teenagers, are black belts.

Career opportunities

For many, Karate becomes a career and a source of income. Like Kyoshi (7th Dan) Iqbal, many people go on to become professional instructors. Some teach on a part-time basis, to supplement their regular income, and some teach fulltime.

Jerome Cartalla used to be a customer service professional, and trained in Karate in the evenings for fitness and self-defence. Unlike many, he did not stop training after getting his black belt. He realised how deep-rooted the art of Karate is, and that getting a black belt is merely the tip of the iceberg. He continued to train, and became a full-time Karate instructor in Dubai, and has earned the rank of 4th Dan. He manages the operations of a dojo and teaches Karate in schools.

Anyone who has ever taught kids in any capacity knows that it’s not easy. Sensei Jerome, however, looks beyond the challenges and sees the opportunity. There is a lot of interest among parents to get kids into Karate classes. Following their journey is an amazing experience, watching them start from nothing and work their way up the ranks to earning a black belt and tournament titles.

Vladimir Gorbachev, a real estate professional, started training Karate as a young boy, and continues to train today as a 4th Dan black belt, and has his own dojo. Over the years, he has participated in several local and international tournaments, including the traditional Okinawa Karate Kobudo World Tournament.

He is an avid advocate of Karate for general health, as well as physical and mental fitness. Having experienced the benefits himself, Sensei Vladimir encourages people of all ages to take up Karate training and be physically active and sound of mind.

Woman Power

It’s not all men, of course. All over the world, more and more women enjoy the physical, mental and psychological benefits of Karate training. Dawn Almeida, a business development professional, started training primarily for fitness. Frustrated with the largely commercial nature of most activities, she enrolled for Karate classes. It was her sensei’s passion for Karate and dedication towards spending quality teaching time with students that made her choose to stay.

Perhaps she had not anticipated that it would become a lifelong passion for her. Apart from the obvious health benefits, it “made a huge difference” to her confidence levels. Initially afraid to speak in public, Dawn went on to conduct corporate training sessions to a full house. “I owe it all to the confidence my sensei instilled in me,” she says, still remembering her sensei’s words back then: “You will only be afraid the first time.” The skills and confidence she developed through her Karate training went on to become a big game changer for her at work.

UAE’s own Amina Dashti became the first lady in the GCC to be a WKF referee for both kata and kumite.

Karate globally

Today, despite the raving popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA), traditional Karate still maintains a niche. Many successful MMA fighters — UFC stars like Lyoto Machida, Robert Whittaker and Michelle Waterson to name a few — have a Karate background.

Whether as a combat sport or as a martial art, Karate is widely practised all over the world, with thousands of competitive athletes, and tens of thousands of karatekas (Karate practitioners) — men, women and children — training for health and self-defence.

(Arnab is a Dubai-based freelance writer, a corporate strategist and a martial artist with internationally recognised black belt rankings in Karate, Kobudo and Aikido. He can be contacted at www.writelysaid.com)


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