Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Kill or be killed

From battlefields to the martial arts mat, Ahmed Hamdi evades the swords to meet the year’s best Egyptian Samurai

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Al-Ahram Weekly

For the 90s generation, almost every child tried his hand (and feet) at martial arts. Karate might have been the most popular but taekwondo and judo were also in demand. The martial arts craze of that period was documented in pop lore when superstar actor Ahmed Zaki starred in Mr Karate in 1993. And at the time, just at people were becoming fascinated by martial arts, another type was about to be introduced to Egyptian land -- the Samurai.
The Samurai were the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. They were the guards of the Japanese emperor and were willing to do anything to protect him. A Samurai could kill himself if the emperor was not pleased with his performance. Later in history as the Samurai era started to disappear, the Japanese wanted to keep their heritage alive by turning the Samurai phenomenon into a sport. Samurai thus became divided into several sects, one of them being the Spochan.
In 1994, an Egyptian Japanese called Ali Zeid decided to introduce Spochan to Egyptian society. Being mastered by his mother Mariam Yoko Shinshi, who is now chairman of Spochan Samurai in Egypt, the journey began when they started searching for a place to open their school. Not that easy in Egypt though; clubs did not allow them a school until they received approval from the Ministry of Youth & Sport. The ministry would only give the green light if Spochan was practiced in four different clubs. Facing the dilemma, Zeid would hold training at his home.
Zeid did not give up on his dream to spread the sport in Egypt.  It took him and his mother 10 years of trying until finally the Shooting Club gave them permission to train inside. The good fortune would keep on going and the game would become recognised by the Judo Association and was approved under its umbrella. 2004 witnessed the first official training for the Samurai Spochen in Egypt, and Zeid is now its head coach.
During that first official training, an elementary schoolboy was there to watch. The boy who was practicing Aikido, another type of marital art, at that time was fascinated by the swords of the Spochens. His Aikido coach urged him to try the new sport. A chance not to be wasted the young boy joined the Spochens, to be called eight years later the Grand Champion of Egypt Mohamed Farghali.
“For a teenager to see boys playing with swords, it immediately grabs your attention,” Farghali, who is a computer science graduate, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I tried Spochen on that day when my coach asked me to and I fell in love with it and never left.”
Farghali, 21, was crowned this year’s Egyptian grand champion. The tournament is for individuals and teams and is open for Black Belt holders who secured gold medals in the individual events to determine the best of the best. The individual tournament is based on age, belt category, and type of weapon. The Spochen uses seven types of weapons in addition to the Kata which is the basic moves of the Spochen and is in a sense considered an eighth weapon.
A Spochen player wins the fight if he can score one point over his opponent. “That’s because in Samurai fights they only had one chance -- either kill or be killed,” Farghali explained. “The one chance they had was because of the sharpness of the Samurai swords.” Indeed, Samurai swords were very sharp. A video on YouTube shows a sword splitting a 9mm bullet in two. “If you get hit by a Samurai sword, it definitely has to cut something off, be it a hand, a leg, or a head. Leaving a scar is not even a choice.”
These days, Spochen Samurai players use foam swords which leave a mark on opponents but does not injure them. They have replaced wooden swords which were used in the beginning when the sport was first introduced. “The wooden swords could break a hand or finger but now with the foam swords the sport is totally safe,” said the grand champion of Egypt.
Farghali’s success is not just inside Egypt but has shined in the land of the Samurai itself, Japan. Being part of the national team that represented Egypt several times in the world championships in Japan, Farghali came third four times. Three were in the teams’ competition. His individual accomplishment was another story.
“One year we went to Japan and sent an invitation to our ambassador there, Walid Abdel- Nasser.” Although the team did not expect him to show up, Farghali said, he did. “We were so happy that he decided to come and see us compete even though at that time we were totally neglected by officials in Egypt.”
As things didn’t go very well for the Egyptian team in the tournament, the Egyptian ambassador had another way of motivating the young stars. “He knew about the lack of support in Egypt and so he promised us if we win at least a medal, he would try to contact the officials in Egypt and solve our problem.”
Farghali won a medal, a bronze. Though Abdel-Nasser kept his promise and contacted the officials, no one bothered much. Things later got worse when the Judo Association broke from the Samurai umbrella.  “It was not like we were getting anything from them, only official papers, but even that they took away from us,” Farghali said.
That world tournament in Japan and those after were all financed by the players themselves. They had to pay for everything from flight to accommodation and Samurai gear when representing their country.
Despite the financial hardships, they went on to create a good image of Egyptian players, setting a record haul in 2009 of 20 medals in the world championship. They once competed in a well-known friendly tournament in Japan named after a famous Samurai master, Tabuchi Sensei, and where the final was pure Egyptian between Farghali and the 2008 and 2009 Egyptian Grand Champion Karim Khedr. “If in Japan, the origin of the sport, you reach this level, what could be more fascinating?” Farghali wondered.
Despite all the success, the sport is not yet recognised officially in Egypt since the Judo Association has disassociated itself from it. “The sport is now played in 40 countries officially and we are the only exception,” Farghali told the Weekly. He stated their least demands as Samurai players -- just to be recognised by an official association. “We don’t want money; all we need is recognition because that recognition would at least help us find a sponsor,” Farghali stated.
Aside from the problems they face, Farghali is still happy with what they have accomplished. “I live for the world championship in Japan,” he told the Weekly. “I train all year having this goal in mind, to go to Japan,” he added.
With that happiness, Farghali urges those who are looking for some action to join their Samurai family. For those interested, they can log on to www.samuraiegypt.com
Spochen Samurai is now played in several gyms in addition to the Shooting Club, where it all began, along with Rehab Club.

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