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January 8, 2016 / shaybnana

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and I

This summer I began training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and Muay Thai Kickboxing with a couple of instructors. One of my Senseis is a retired Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) cage fighter and excessively admires my aggressive performance. His wife is one of the Kickboxing Senseis, always hugging me and exclaiming how jealous she is of my squats or kicks or strenght. The Sensei who instructs me the most is one of the most supportive and inspiring people I’ve met in my life. He’s full of understanding and dedicated to motivating us.  I’m sassy and outgoing when I’m in class; I usually end up getting told to do burpees as punishment for extreme sass, but I do love my instructors. (Burpees are an exercise where you squat, drop into a push up, and jump back up–all in one motion. They’re punishment because they’re brutal.)

As cliche as this sounds, martial arts saved me from severe depression. It gave me a reason to wake up motivated for the day. Don’t get me wrong–I love my job, the field I studied, my family, and friends. But I needed more to enjoy on a regular basis, something I can fully dedicate my passion to. I left behind a lot of things that used to be a part of my life earlier in the summer and started to feel empty. I learned Tae Kwon Do in my teenage years, and so I figured going back to something similar to what I was comfortable with, I started Muay Thai Kickboxing first. It was a class of cardio workouts and combinations of punches, kicks, slips, and ducking. I had done the INSANITY workout plan the winter prior and I felt kickboxing had several parallels. I kept pace with the class and survived beatdowns. I improved my fighter’s stance, learning how to slip and side smoothly to avoid punches. I grew conscious of always keeping my fists up to protect my pretty face in case I did get punched. I’m learning to keep loose. It’s scary relieving the tension in your body and letting your body move gracefully.

I watched a BJJ class at the dojo a week later and became intimidated by the choking drills the class was practicing. I left within 20 minutes. A month later, I was curious again, and after much encouragement from my main Sensei and his wife, I decided to put on the the traditional jacket and pants uniform, Gi, and try it out. BJJ is a a full contact sport. Whether starting in a standing position or on your knees on the mat, you will be using your entire body to defend yourself and control your partner’s movements. The aim is to submit them by using either arm-bars, shoulder locks, chokes, and other techniques so that they tap out. After one person achieves a dominant position either on top of the other or preventing the other from moving, the two start to “roll” or look for opportunities to submit the other. Oh Lord, do I love it. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to learn–and that’s exactly what keeps me attached. BJJ will be a long-term commitment for me and I’m so excited it will be a part of my life for the rest of my life. I’ve been able to use my agility and fitness to move fast and scramble to avoid being taken down and submitted. BJJ is where I learned the potential of my strength and how to use it in a controlled environment. This means that I can use strength with technique to submit someone appropriately without hurting them. It’s addicting.

As my MMA Sensei watched me roll once, I achieved a dominant position on top of my partner, but she kept moving and was giving me a hard time grabbing an arm and controlling her. To quiet her, I shoved my forearm across her neck and force her to lay down firmly. My MMA Sensei laughed and yelled, “AHAHA, THAT’S MMA fighting right there. That’s BRUTAL. NIIIICE.” I was giddy. No one had taught me to use that move. My instinct was good; I was listening to it. Every time I make an achievement, my Senseis are there complimenting me and smiling. When I don’t listen to my MMA Sensei when he’s coaching me, he grows frustrated that I didn’t submit someone because I failed to do what he said. Sometimes that’s because I’m stuck, I just don’t know what he means. Other times I’m too slow, and fail to grab the opportunity he had noticed before my partner escapes. He walks me through my mistakes. My main Sensei is always there when I need help, when I forget a technique, when I have no one else to roll with because I’m injured and I can’t roll aggressively. He’s kind and sympathetic and guides me. My teammates are amazing, always supporting me and encouraging me to go with the flow and take advantage of what I see in front of me. They’re all amazing with unique personalities and unique sets of abilities and signature moves. I love rolling with them. Not only do I learn more about their technique to defend myself, but I learn how to improve myself and counter their attempted submissions. I love my team. They’ve gotten me past my weaknesses and I hope I’m there for them as I get better.

One day in class, I fell on my left wrist and heard a pop. I sucked it up and stayed in class until it was over. Later, my pants had gotten loose and when I lifted them onto my waist better, I almost screamed. My hand had no strength, pain shot up my arm to my shoulder. My sister was with me and as we were driving home, I was holding in tears and told her to take me to the emergency room. X-ray. Sprain. Brace for two weeks. I was miserable.

I kept going to class to watch new technique. My Senseis were both surprised. My coworkers called me crazy. At home, my family was in disbelief how I pay to learn to get beat up. My sister would help me pull up my pants in the morning as I’m getting dressed for work. She helped me wash my hair when the pain was unbearable and I couldn’t lift my arm. The MMA Sensei grew proud of me, telling me he thought I was a natural (I’m really not) and that the sport was already in my blood. A compliment from him would make my teammates swoon; he was not an easy person to impress. One day he was pep talking the class, telling us consistency and bravery is key, and pointed to me as an example of being courageous enough that despite the risk of getting hurt, I was back the next day at least to keep up with watching lessons for new techniques. Two weeks later, I started rolling again. I kept my brace on for an extra week to ensure that it had healed. It was the most frustrating three weeks of my life. The brace felt bulky and I didn’t have the range of motion I used to have in my wrist. Taking it off was a relief.

A week later, the day before my kickboxing belt test, I rolled over my left ankle in kickboxing. When I fell, my teammates thought I had fallen because I was being dramatic and didn’t want to do the workout anymore. (I tend to have a diva personality in class for the laughs.) Two of my teammates agreed I had fallen gracefully and attributed it to BJJ’s first lesson: learning to fall safely. Yeah, I fell “safely,” but I couldn’t get up and my Sensei had to lift me and take me to the side of the dojo to ice my ankle. It swelled immediately. I couldn’t walk on it. Two days later the bruising showed up. Out another week. No belt test.

I went back to class with it wrapped up, but I was too paranoid to put weight on it or roll over it again. One of my teammates had an ankle injury before and was kind enough to give me a type of boot with hard plastic protecting the ankle from bending. Oh, it was glorious; I was back in.

I’m always black and blue all over. Ripped knuckles. No more pretty nails. Soreness and pain. Piercings removed out of caution. I’m a mess. But I’m making strides.

I was relaying this to one of the few friends I keep in touch with and he couldn’t grasp how committed I was and kept commending me. He was prideful that despite the many barriers Muslim women face with regards to athleticism, I was defying all the expectations. He admires my dedication and honest excitement. He’s supportive. He thinks the number of weekly hours I train is impossible, and yes I’m exhausted. But, honestly, I feel nothing I’m doing is really that impressive. If I can do it, then I’m going to do it. I’m proud of myself for learning a sport, for progressing. But more than anything, I just want to be a stronger, smarter fighter. I want to win.

I have a competition in two weeks. At first I was excited and pushing my teammates to sign up. Now I’m just nervous and want to crawl in a hole and never compete in public. But it’s too late. I think my Senseis will massacre me if I don’t go. And as much as I don’t want my Muslim identity to be relevant here, I do want to attend the competition to show racist and average Americans that I have nothing stopping me from kicking their asses in the sport. I want to show the world that I am strong and that I will forever do the unexpected. That I am more than their stereotypes. That I am an individual with the ability and personality of a competitor.

“Fists up even when I start wheezing.”

January 20, 2014 / shaybnana

Middle Eastern and North African Facial Tattoos


Libyan woman with forehead and chin tattoos from Cyrenaica, circa 1925.

I met an older Algerian woman who was sharing some anecdotes of life in Algeria as a child. Being the history addict that I am, I had vintage pictures of Algerian women with tattoos on their face saved on my phone. I showed her them and asked if she knew why facial tattoos seemed to be common in North Africa. I couldn’t find much info online about the tattoos except that they were marks of beauty, marriage status, tribal allegiance or to ward off the evil eye, but she told me Algerians did it out of necessity, not just cultural tradition.

Older Algerian woman with facial tattoos. (Pulitzer Center)

She told me some Algerian women had tattoos was a sad result of French colonization: the French used to kidnap young Algerian girls. To recognize their kidnapped daughters when looking for them, parents would tattoo the symbols of the specific tribe or family onto their daughter’s face. Another reason was that families hoped by tattooing their daughters’ faces, the French would find them unattractive and thus prevent their abduction. A few boys were also tattooed on one of their hands to identify them if kidnapped as well.

Amazigh woman from Tiznit, Morocco, date unknown. (Ajdad Al Arab)

It was based on my limited research that brought me to the understanding that Algerian tattoos were a response to French colonization of Algeria, but one of my readers was generous enough to share some more insight with me. His grandmother in particular has the Amazigh character for the letter “T” given to her by other girls when she was young as was the norm. The letter “T” was meant to stand for “Tamazgha” meaning “land of the Amazigh people,” the name Amazighs give to North Africa due to the rejection of “Maghreb al-Arabi,” or Arab Western North Africa, because it is not the original name of the region.

An employee of the National Center for Amazigh Culture with knowledge of the history of these kinds of tattoos was able to provide some information as well. He said the tattoos go back much further than the French colonial era. It was a reaction to the onslaught of Amazighs from foreign civilizations, such as the Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and most recently, the French. It’s purpose was primarily to preserve the Amazigh written language, Tifiniagh. Women were given tattoos with a Tifinagh letter that symbolized something which corresponded to her, such as tribe, clan, etc. Through this tradition, the Amazigh women quite literally used the scars of centuries of invasion to preserve the Tifinagh language. This practice was not exclusive to Amazighs of Algeria, and could be found throughout North Africa, as far west as Morocco, east towards Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and south towards Senegal, Mali, and Niger.

Letters of the Tifinagh alphabet.

With my curiosity growing, I soon learned that women of the Levant had tattooed their faces as well. My friend‘s paternal grandmother, Noor El-Huda, was a Bedouin of the Tayaha tribe of Beer El-Sabe’, Palestine. Though her birth is not recorded, she was likely born around 1930. She was widowed as a teenager after the birth of her first son, but quickly remarried. Today she is a mother to six, grandmother to thirty-six, and great-grandmother to over fifty children. Also, I’ve come to know that falahi (villager) women of Horan, Syria used to have facial tattoos as a common practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to a friend, his Horani grandmother, Hajjah, had simple tattoos of dots around her lips and chin. Hajjah was born around 1910 and fell in love with a man of an adjacent neighborhood, but he was forbidden to enter her village for many years. So, he kidnapped her and took her to the neighboring mosque to have their marriage papers signed.

48Refugee‘s Bedouin grandmother. Gaza, Palestine, 2012.

Tattooed Bedouin woman of Alkarak, Jordan, 1907. (Ajdad Al Arab)

With what little information I came across, I discovered that the tattoos were done by pricking the skin with henna, which is usually a temporary dye on the surface of the skin, but with inserting it into the flesh it becomes permanent. Placing kohl into the small wound would make the tattoo become green and using indigo dye would cause it to become blue. The tattoos can be found on the hands as well, especially on the top of fingers.

Due to some of the pagan beliefs in the Middle East and North Africa, tattooing was thought to bring satisfaction of the gods. (Morocco: History and Civilzation) Only seeing senior women with tattoos, I had believed the tradition had completely gone extinct due to monotheistic Islamic revival in the region and its forbidding of bodily tattoos until I came across the picture below taken in Mali in 2009:

Young Tuareg woman with facial tattoos. Gao, Mali, 2009. (Georges Courreges)

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