The Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour Part 22: The Noble Martial Art Legacy of Qatar Continued

Camels in the desertFor The Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour Part 21, click here.

The desert is a land of extremes beyond imagination. The scorching heat of the day can turn into bitter cold at night. Except along the coasts and in oasis, there is not so much to eat, and little or no water. This story is Part II of Wushu in Qatar, an exploration of martial arts and what Wushu can be found in this ancient land with its noble martial legacy where simple survival can take on war-like properties and certainly have martial applications.


Following again the martial trend, falconry is an ancient tradition in Qatar passed down from father to son, encouraging the values of chivalry, courage, patience and diligence. Falconry is usually practiced in winter when people start hunting the falcons in order to train them. Training these supreme survivors of the desert takes various forms like offering mock prey, sometimes a rabbit, or pigeon tied to a string and allowed to fly. It’s painstaking work but once the hunting skills of a falcon have been honed and harnessed by his master and friend, the falconer need no longer fear hunger in the desert. There is a special souk in the old marketplace specifically for falconry.

Gulf Arab Clothing

Self-defense can take many forms and the heat here in July and August can absolutely kill a strong man that doesn’t know how to survive, raising the question, just how did people survive here during the summer months before air conditioning, especially out in the desert as Silk Road travelers had to do? I’ve visited the sword shop in Souk Wakif a few times and one day expressed some interest in the flowing white clothing so many people here wear. “Is it really cooler?”

It wasn’t long before I persuaded Shamsan to walk with me to one of the many clothing places for Gulf region gentlemen’s clothes. This turned out to be a whole new world of education for me. Most men of the Gulf region wear a long tunic or robe called a thobe and it’s usually worn with a pair of loose pants under called sirwal. The headscarf is called ghuthrain, and it’s held in place by a double black cord called agal which is used with a white skullcap called thagiyah. One can often see the thagiyah whenever Muslim men go to pray at the mosque because it’s the standard everywhere, though most cultures also have culture specific thagiyah. But, I found out, it’s considered mustahabb (commendable) to wear the traditional white thagiyah. Got that?

Though one can buy ready-made thobe, most men have their thobe tailor made for about 200 – 400 Riyals, or about $55 to $82. One Qatari I met last week told me he had 30 thobe in his wardrobe. Seems like a lot to me, but hey… a man’s gotta have some fresh threads for every occasion.

Discussing the material for a thobe at the sword shop with both Shamsan and Saleh, I found out Toyobo and Shekibu are generally considered the number one and number two fabric brands. Later at the tailor shop I found out they’re both made in Japan. Why? They are superior materials that don’t wrinkle, do resist stains, breathe well, keep the wearer cool, and look quite excellent I have to say.

After being measured for a thobe it takes a couple of days before it can be picked up. The daily temperatures Qatar in July and August are around 110. That’s every day. At night, it cools down to the 90s, maybe. A couple days later and wah lah! I’m well on my way to becoming a respectable Gulf region gentleman, and I’ve got to add, not only is it cooler in the extreme heat, but also blessed relief in the extreme air conditioning some places have. Altogether it’s very practical and comfortable clothing I’d add one shouldn’t even waste the $10 to get an “off the shelf” thobe, because I did and couldn’t walk very well. It wasn’t wide enough in the lower leg area for my normal long strides and it felt like my feet were chained together. The good thobe however has a couple of small pleats and are all-together cooler and much more comfortable.

Anyways, the swords are a bit pricy for me, but the Gulf fashion tour was quite reasonable, practical, comfortable, aesthetic, and culturally and socially pleasing. Imagine me, the wandering Silk Road martial artist, appearing to be – a Sheik of Arabi!

Survival in different environments involves different things. Even rest or the lack of it can be a weapon. Throughout evolution those who adapt to their environments survived, those who failed to do so did not further their genetic lines. These days of course education is the primary tool essential for the survival of individuals and their tribes.

Qatar Foundation and Education City

Qatar Foundation & Education CityOn July 25th at 10 am I visited Qatar Foundation, a futuristic heaven of education and community. Early in 1995, His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Father Amir, shared a vision with Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser while sitting under a tent at Umm Qrayba farm. Together, they conceived a plan for the future development of their country that would provide Qatari citizens with a greater choice in education, health and social progress than ever before. They then set about turning this dream into reality and, in August that year, founded Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, near downtown Doha.

This metropolis sized place is called “Education City.” Their symbol is the Cidra tree, and they have students from 29 countries, of which 2,710 are male and 2,117 are female. Their Education programs include Hamad Bin Khalifa University (Virginia Commonwealth University, Academic Bridge Program, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University Engineering program, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Northwestern University, HEC Paris (MBA), University College London (Archaeology of the Arab and Islamic World, Conservation Studies, Museum and Gallery Practice), HBKU College of Science and Engineering, Translation and Interpreting Institute, HBKU Faculty of Islamic Studies Awsaj Academy (Elementary and Secondary schools), Qatar Academy Sidra (Primary School), Qatar Music Academy, and Qatar Leadership Academy. Try saying that all in one breath!

The Foundation selects the best programs from each of the universities invited to open a campus at their now world famous Education City, so they only have the best of the best which includes over 40 different programs. And there’s the Qatar National Research Fund which operates under the umbrella of the Qatar Foundation. They already have received 300 patents for new inventions in biotechnology, environment, and cyber security. The Foundation has a focus on community development and the educational ecosystem. During my visit to this other-worldly citadel of educational wonder, I wasn’t too surprised to find out it was Qatar that built the first public library in the Gulf Region, opening its doors in 1962.




Gulf Arab Swords

In order to appraise the swords in my friend’s sword shop in Souk Wakif I figured I needed to research swords in this region, then examine their blades again. The following is a composite of my research and information from Shamsan and Salah. In English the Arabian curved sword is called a “scimitar,” in Arabic it’s called saif. Historically they were used around the Middle East and North Africa with the roots of the word possibly going as far back as the Egyptian word for sword, sfet.

The best of Arabic blades are made of Damascus steel. Damascus is the capital and largest city in Syria and has a history going back at least to 9,000 BCE. It is mentioned in Genesis (14:15) as existing at the time of the “War of the Kings.” Thus, it is not terribly surprising that one of the best steels in history comes from that very same city. Unfortunately some aspects of the art of producing the most renowned Damascus steel blades have been lost in the mists of time and smoke of wars however quite a lot of modern research has tried to reconstruct their system of manufacture, with some clues emerging.

“…the distinct surface patterns on these blades result from a carbide-banding phenomenon produced by the microsegregation of minor amounts of carbide-forming elements present in the wootz ingots from which the blades were forged. (Verhoeven, J.D., Pendray, A.H. & Dauksch, W.E.)

Wootz steel in turn was developed in Southern India in the 6th Century BCE and exported globally, then and now. After arrival in Damascus, metalsmiths then further forged and worked the ingots into Damascus steel blades. Research now shows that the unique “carbon nanotubes” found in Damascus steel can be derived from plant fibers, possibly first burned, then the ash pounded in during the re-forging process with the nanotubes increasing flexibility and making it lighter. The American Bladesmith Society determined that to make a Damascus steel blade now it must have a minimum of 300 layers.

Before going on to the Sword Dance, one other little story from the sword shop. One evening some Qatari customers came in, one of whom had his younger 5-year-old brother with him. When the boy realized we were talking about Kung Fu he candidly told me he’d learned Kung Fu. I politely asked him where he’d learned it and he confidentially told me his stuffed animals at home had taught him. I couldn’t help a little chuckle but he was quite serious about this and soon I came to believe him. I was of course tempted to test him mastery but getting beat up by a five year old wouldn’t make me look good as a guest in this amazing country!

Sunset at Souk Waqif

Sunset at Souk Waqif.


Other Chinese Wushu Schools in Qatar?

I visited other Kung Fu schools advertised on the internet and found schools that used to have Kung classes but don’t any more. I spent five and a half hours on the evening of August 2nd following the cryptic messages of one “Kung Fu teacher” trying to find his school, and never did find it - the first time in 45 years of world-wandering finding martial arts schools in North America, South America, Europe and all around East, West, North, South and Central Asia, that ever happened. All on vacation? Miscommunication due to language? Who knows?

Sword Dances

Sword Dance at Qatari WeddingWhile hanging out at the sword shop in Souk Wakif in Doha, I noticed young men regularly came in small groups and bought these fine scimitars, some of which are highly ornate with gold inlay and studded with gems. In fact, the store is doing a pretty good business and selling more than I might have imagined. I asked a few of the customers why they needed a sword and the answer usually was a cousin or brother was going to get married and a traditional sword dance is part of the ceremony; naturally the groom participates in those dances and needs an especially fine sword.

In regards to the sword dances they are ubiquitous at weddings in the Middle East. I found one Qatari wedding Sword Dance video on YouTube (and another couple featuring President Trump and Tillerson in a Sword Dance in Saudi Arabia). There’s a popular wedding hall here in Doha where one can visit and see the dances; though not generally of taolu precision they’re having fun.

I tried to find a sword dance teacher but according to a Qatari friend named Hamad I met at the sword shop, the techniques are passed down only from father to sons within families. This always has been the norm of traditional martial arts. We exchanged phone numbers and our interview continued over the next few days. “Does each tribe or family have its own variation of sword dance?” I asked. “Not in most cases,” he answered. “But, in some cases tribes are easily recognized by the way they sword dance, especially when the dance is between two people in a sort of challenge of technique and tactics showing off their sword dancing skills. But, in general you need to really know sword dancing and its history and techniques to know the different tribes by the way they dance.”

On Wednesday August 2nd, I got a message on my phone from Hamad that he “had a wedding” on Thursday, the next evening and invited me to attend letting me know the sword dances would commence shortly after sunset or around 6:45. Not an especially shy sort of fellow I happily accepted. Previously he’d identified the location of the wedding hall on my google maps so it was all good. Knowing this was a Qatari traditional event I also had the opportunity to wear my thobe (traditional Gulf State long white garment) and accoutrements, to harmonize with the culture and otherwise not look like an alien. Also, to prepare of this I called Noor, my limousine driver because ‘in for a penny in for a pound’ as they say. Since it was to be my last night in Qatar, I set the time for 4:30 so we’d be able to stop by the sword shop and I could bid farewell to Shamson and Salah. When Noor showed up he didn’t recognize me at all until I called his name and walked right up to him. He was visibly startled. “Ma-sha-Allah,” he said, “I thought you were a Qatari!”

We stopped by the sword shop and they too were quite impressed at my dapper demeanor. They called for tea and in a few moments a young friendly looking Qatari came in asking them to re-tie the waist rope on his sword. I suspected he needed it because he was going to a wedding and asked if this was the case. Yes, indeed it was. Though he was dressed and looked a lot like a Qatari, he had blue eyes so I asked the most common question here and found out he’s from Syria and also knows Hamad.

Noor and I arrived at the banquet hall about half an hour later as it’s on the outskirts of Doha. It took a whole hot minute figure out there were at least three different wedding halls in that large opulent palatial wedding complex right out of Aladdin’s lamp. Since Hall Three was right in front of the parking place, I tried that one first hoping to recognize Hamad or the young Syrian guy. Walking up some wide steps, I came upon an older very distinguished looking gentleman dressed, not surprisingly exactly like me. “Assalamu Alaium,” I said, and he responded with the traditional “Wa AlaikumMusallan!” We chatted as we approached Hall Three and I explained I had a friend who invited me but didn’t know which hall. He said something to the effect of: “No matter,” and invited me in. Genuinely friendly, I thought! Walking in with a gentleman who appeared such a distinguished patriarch is quite the way to make an entrance. Very fortunate for me!

Anyways, right inside the entrance of the huge hall, mostly young and a few older men were lined up with some singing and others doing the unique steps and sword movements similar to what I’d seen on Youtube. Several smiled at me enjoying themselves and perfectly willing to share the joy of the happy occasion. After I’d taken some photos and short videos with my smart phone one of them came by me and asked if I’d like to participate and well… heck yeah! So he pointed to a sword rack off to my left, and said ‘Choose one and come on!’ It didn’t take me but a second to pick out a healthy looking scimitar and in a flash there I was doing my best to match their steps and sword movements.

First observation is there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye. It should be remembered that despite a sharp point, the scimitar is primarily a slashing weapon designed mainly for horseback fighting. For some of the dances it was like a double step with the right foot leading. In others the feet alternated also with a double-step – which could be mimicking riding a horse, or simply advance and retreat ground fighting steps.

The sword movements varied with the first pattern being what looked like a downward parry with the flat of the blade then raise the sword edge pointed out in what could be a preparatory strike position. This parry, prepare, parry prepare sequence was repeated several times followed by other sequences. The scabbard, held in the left hand was in some sequences alternatively raised between parry strike preparation movements with the sword. It looked like another parry designed to protect against a second attack. So the sequence including the scabbard was low parry with sword flat– preparatory sword strike position, upper scabbard parry in time with the advancing double-step. There were several other combinations also. Some individuals made an X-shape from crossed sword and scabbard held in one hand, which reminded me a bit of the flag of Qatar but when held like a T-shape probably has other meanings.

After about 15 minutes of this, they seemed to take a break and I realized I didn’t see either of my friends there so maybe I ought to try a different wedding hall. I chatted with the young gentlemen that invited me and found out one was a student at a university in Florida. I asked the name of the groom and was told “Abdul Rahman,” I think; another said something about “The Sultan.” Another thing I learned talking with the men at this first hall is that secondary schools sometimes have inter-school sword dance competitions. Again I asked if there were teachers, and again I was told it’s always passed down within the family and thus there no regular or professional teachers. Very interesting! Sometime I’d really like to see the school competitions as I suspect they’re more rigorous than the light-hearted wedding ceremonial dances.

Anyways I explained I needed to look for friends and really, truly appreciated their allowing me to share in this special event… and with warm feelings I was off to the next wedding hall and then the next. It was quite an exhilarating evening! But, alas I didn’t see my friends and knew there might be more halls but… all things must pass and my driver apparently had a regular customer waiting for him at 9:00 pm and I had to finish packing at my hotel so reluctantly I had to go.

Fortunately I’d mostly packed earlier, rushed to the airport and the five-hour return flight to Beijing was smooth. So, although I didn’t find a heck of a lot of Chinese Wushu in Qatar, I was very happy to meet Linda Aarts and learn a lot about the beauty and martial legacy of this ancient land. Though Chinese Wushu isn’t big here now, I suspect in the future it will be judging by the enthusiasm of the young Kung Fu master I met in the sword shop.

“Your story may not have such a happy beginning but that does not make you who you are, it is the rest of it – who you choose to be.”
(Kung Fu Panda 2)

In regards to the political turmoil in the Gulf Region involving Qatar, I can again only quote the masters: “Your mind is like this water my friend. When it gets agitated it becomes difficult to see. But if you allow it to settle, the answer becomes clear.” What I saw in Qatar was a beautiful land with amazing futuristic development and a very diverse population living together harmoniously.

For The Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour Part 23, click here.

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About Greg Brundage :
Find us on facebook Gregory Brundage has had a 40 + year interest in and practice of Chinese Wushu, and an even longer interest in ancient civilizations and the Silk Road. He currently is a high school teacher in Beijing who travels the Silk Road in search of martial art masters on his vacations.

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