Saturday, October 31, 2009


Egemen explains the magnetic zone.


After class last night, Ayşegül and I saw something we don't usually see at the Boran Gym: another woman. For one hysterically optimistic, naive-American moment, I thought she'd come to learn more about Muay Thai. I even allowed myself to imagine that she had joined us because of something she'd seen on the Women's Self Defense Initiative page. Eager as a puppy, I bounced over to welcome her: "Have you come to take classes?" I asked.

She gave me a puzzled look. I thought it was my Turkish. It usually is.

I said it again in English, making appropriate hand gestures -- "boom? biff?" I pointed hopefully at the punching bags. She still looked puzzled. Finally, one of the guys translated for her. Her boyfriend, as it turns out.

She laughed as if I'd suggested something whimsical but delusional. She didn't just say no, mind you. She laughed as if I'd asked whether she'd like to adopt a pet unicorn. As if I had tried earnestly to persuade her that unicorns are not hard to housebreak and don't shed nearly as much as people imagine.


Egemen discusses the benefits and limits of studying choreographed technical series ...

Friday, October 30, 2009


I'm not sure what to think of this. I stopped in a cafe to ask for directions today. A patron sitting at one of the tables stood up -- presumably to point me in the right direction -- and promptly tripped over the curb, falling right on top of me. In a matter of micro-seconds, I thought, "Is he attacking me? Why? Is he drunk? What's going on? Should I hit him?" Then he righted himself and apologized profusely and with obvious embarrassment. He was quite sober; he had just slipped. He kept apologizing, obviously concluding from the expression on my face that he'd upset me. I was upset, but not about that -- I was upset that my reflexes had failed me: If I were anywhere near ready to think of myself as a fighter, I would have immediately brought my elbow down hard on his head, pushed him off of me, then kicked him to the other side of the cafe. I would have done it unmediated by thought. But I didn't -- I just stood there, confused. Of course, hitting him would have been the wrong thing to do -- it was a totally innocent accident. So I'm glad I didn't do it. It would have been terrible (and embarrassing) to hurt a man just because he tripped. But I'm worried that in a more sinister situation, I wouldn't act fast enough, and I'm disappointed in myself, somehow. Maybe I don't have the guts to pull the trigger?

Thursday, October 29, 2009


More on that Muay Thai video. You'll have one of three reactions. Perfect boredom, revulsion, or--in my case, and I imagine that of everyone who does Muay Thai--the mirror neurons start firing. No matter how tired I am, watching that makes me feel thrilled, hopped-up, and aggressive. Very aggressive. Like a 17-year-old meth addict with a string of ASBOs who's just been dumped by his girlfriend after closing time on a Saturday night. That series of uppercuts and elbow strikes, in particular, elicits that reaction in me. (I mean the one nearly seven minutes into the video: You have to really have a taste for it to get that far.)

A few years ago, I certainly would have been bored.


Having weighed the merits of various martial arts for women’s self-defense, the author of this article enthusiastically endorses Wing Chun. (Or Wing Tzun. Or Wing Tsun. No matter how you spell it, you’ll offend someone. Much like the Communist Party, Wing Chun is filled with splitters and deviationists, and the spelling signals factional loyalty.)
Actually invented by a woman only a few hundred years ago, Wing Chun is a principle-based system, and a rather scientific one at that. A kind of ‘scientific street-fighting,’ Wing Chun lends Jeet Kune Do a lot of its principles (i.e. the simultaneous block and attack, the centre-line theory). This is probably not surprising as Bruce Lee started off learning Wing Chun and drew from its strengths. Strength and size isn’t [sic] an issue in Wing Chun, as the way the techniques are set up are to allow you to negate the attackers strength, flow round it and unleash your own attack. It’s often said that if you can’t make a technique work in Wing Chun without using your strength, then you’re not doing it right. It’s a very short-range system, allowing you to do some serious damage if a guy gets to close to you, before you run away. It has lots of nasty surprises for attackers; eye and throat jabs, knee stamps, neck breaks … that’s why it isn’t a sport, but a last resort for when you genuinely believe your life is in danger. But hey, it’s your life you’re saving, right? Seriously though, as with all these arts the best form of defence will probably always be a quick, vicious knee to the unmentionables, and then run as fast as you can ...
Now consider this response:
The martial arts with “deadly moves” have a serious flaw: you can’t practice them realistically. As you say, “when you’re under extreme pressure, you fall back on what you know.” And chances are that when it comes to the crunch, you’ve gouged no eyes in your life, crushed no throats, stamped no knees and broken no necks. Miming doesn’t prepare you for the real thing.

Sports and arts that improve your conditioning and balance, ensure you get manhandled and hit very hard in training and competition, and include ungraceful all-out struggles with opponents of any and all relative skill and size differences will train your gross motor skills and positional instincts much better than eye-gouge katas could.

By all means incorporate dirty tricks into your fighting, but without real practice those are academic. In a rumble between a boxer/wrestler/muay thai bruiser and someone who’s practiced poking ping-pong balls out of a dummy, who would you put your money on?

The real essence of self-defense for women is to stay as far away from potential trouble as you possibly can. Change your life if you must. Move out of the crappy neighbourhood. Dump the wife-beater. Plan your walking routes. Travel in groups. Teach your kids respect for others. Make the world a better place.

The last point, I think, is inarguable. The others are arguable ad infinitum, and I have to listen to them being argued ad infinitum all the fucking time. If you hang around martial artists, you will inevitably suffer through a great many debates about which martial art is the best, and these debates tend to go on and on at great pointless length. I say “pointless” because the question itself is incoherent, just as the question “which car is the best?” is meaningless. We can rule out the Ford Pinto, but beyond that we won’t get far until we ask, “best for what?”

The Wing Chun-versus-Muay Thai debate is particularly noisy at the gym where I do Muay Thai. It is not unknown for the denunciations of Wing Chun to become so protracted and emotional that everyone forgets to train. It’s rumored there that I’m engaged in a dangerous flirtation with Wing Chun (or at least, a dangerous flirtation with a Wing Chun instructor), so the proselytizing efforts tend to involve a lot of meaningful stares in my direction. My conversion, I assume, will be complete when I publicly declare my loyalty to Muay Thai, assert my belief that it is the superior martial art, and denounce Wing Chun as being about as useful in a real fight as the mambo.

I hear over and over that Wing Chun is not realistic—and exactly the same charge, by the way, is made by practitioners of Wing Chun about Muay Thai, particularly because Muay Thai a sport as much as a martial art: That is to say, there are rules, there are gloves, and there are referees to stop a fight before someone gets killed. In the real world, I am always reminded by Wing Chun loyalists, you don’t get a chance to say, “Hold on a moment there, Mr. strung-out psycho with a broken-off beer bottle. Let us put on our gloves, step into the ring, and settle this like men, no punches to the groin.”

I preface what I’m about to say with a disclaimer: What do I know? I’m not qualified to speak about any of this. I’ve never even been in a real fight. This isn’t exactly Ramon Dekkers speaking. Most of my wisdom about the martial arts comes from watching fights on YouTube.

I love Muay Thai: There’s a reason I keep showing up at that gym. Quite a few of its techniques seem to me simple, effective, and possibly useful in a real emergency. But let’s also admit that some of these Muay Thai techniques are entirely inaccessible and impractical for anyone who isn’t a world-class athlete.

Consider, for example, this Muay Thai video. These are athletes of almost preternatural strength, grace and ferocity. Particularly consider the clinch with left and right knees followed by the flying knee-to-the head at approximately 52 seconds into the video. This doesn’t look easy, and anyone who has ever tried to do what they’re doing will know that it’s even harder than it looks. That the fighter in the video was able to execute that move with such exquisite timing is an athletic miracle.

That could not be a remotely practical or realistic maneuver for street self-defense—you’d have to be insane to think trying that would be your best bet in an emergency. I experimented with that flying-knee trick on a stationary punching bag the other night. Stationary, as in, not a moving target. Out of about twenty attempts, I managed to hit the thing with reasonable force maybe one time in four, and I damned near fell on my face without anyone even trying to hit, grab, choke or kick me. It’s a lot of fun as a game, but in reality? Leave that one to the professionals, kids. Practicing that move is probably no better an investment of anyone’s time than poking ping-pong balls out of dummy—not, at least, if the goal is to have a few simple, practical self-defense reflexes deeply engrained in your brain.

If your goal is glory at Lumpini Stadium, though, there’s your ticket.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


This is Egemen. He occasionally splits my lip, bloodies my nose, and leaves me covered in bruises.

It's my fault, though. If I'd just do what he tells me to do, he wouldn't have to hit me. He doesn't want to hurt me, but if he has to, he will--because he loves me.

Getting whacked in the nose conveys the message "Keep your guard up" rather more effectively than just saying it a dozen times. The logic of that advice just suddenly becomes real clear.

I bloodied his lip once, too. It was a lucky shot. I told him that I felt really bad about it, but actually I was damned proud of myself.

Note to Ozan, if you're reading: I agree that "sports and arts that improve your conditioning and balance, ensure you get manhandled and hit very hard in training and competition, and include ungraceful all-out struggles with opponents of any and all relative skill and size differences will train your gross motor skills and positional instincts much better than eye-gouge katas could."

But if you think Wing Tzun isn't such a sport, you haven't trained with Egemen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Since no one answered my last question, I'll answer it myself.

Video A: I applaud the ostensible message: Don't hit your girlfriends, guys. But let's study this a bit more closely. First, do you not find it strange that this scene is taking place against a 1970s porn movie soundtrack? Second, those references to her "vulnerability" and her "innocence?--anyone else a bit creeped out by that? Is there not a hint of a suggestion there that it might be fine to do this if the girl is not so innocent?

And why does that girl seem to get hurt in such an attractive way when she's hit? That's not, actually, what getting hit in the face looks like: Where's the blood, the swelling, the bruising?

Finally, why is this girl so passive? Why isn't she running? Why isn't she screaming? Why isn't she fighting back? Why, in fact, does she spread her legs every time he slaps her?

Am I the only one who suspects that the kind of man who likes hitting women would not find this video a deterrent? Or that, in fact, he might well find it rather erotic?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


What are your reactions to the following items?

A. This video of a passive, helpless woman who allows her lowlife thug of a boyfriend to slap her around, with a caption deploring violence against women.

B. This article about an Indian farmer's daughter who disarms a terrorist and shoots him in the head with his own AK47.

C. This article about a would-be rape victim who fights off an attacker with a box cutter she just happens to be carrying in her pocket.

D. This video of the Carrano-Cyborg match.

This isn't a trick question. I'm just curious.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


My first post might lead the reader to conclude that I live on Planet Ultraviolence, where I'm regularly obliged to fend off savage space hounds in fierce hand-to-hand combat, rather than in a cozy middle-class preserve in one of the safest neighborhoods in the safest city in Europe. (You can, by the way, click on the left of that article to hear a podcast with me in which I discuss the question of street crime in Istanbul.) Istanbul, as I argue in that article, is remarkably safe for a city its size. Not completely safe—I have heard some awful stories—but safe enough that I don't think it's particularly likely that I will be needing to defend myself anytime soon. If you want to be safer in Istanbul, the most important thing you can do is to wear a seat belt every time you get in a car. It would be disingenuous to suggest that I've taken up the martial arts because I believe I my security depends upon my combat-readiness. If I really believed that, the first thing I'd do is buy a gun.

So what's it all about then, Claire?

Here's one part of the answer. Civilization, as Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents, rests upon the suppression of instincts—sexual instincts, obviously, and violent instincts. There can be no civilization if people react to frustration in the most instinctive of ways, which is to say, like animals. The lesson is one of the first disappointments of childhood. You may not urinate anywhere you please, and you may not bite the other children. The injunction against hitting and kicking and biting is impressed upon us with considerable severity. As well it must be. But as Freud observed, the act of repression comes at an extremely high cost.

It is a truism of psychoanalysis that depression is anger introjected against the self. The psychoanalysts are right. When at last you are in a social context where it is permissible, indeed encouraged, to haul off and slug something as hard as you fucking can, you realize quickly how much aggression you carry around with you, every minute of the day, how much energy you have spent repressing it, and how remarkably well you feel when you don’t. When you feel your fist make contact with a punching bag or a focus pad, and when you have put all your force, all your anger, all your energy behind the punch, and you fondly imagine that you've just hit that thing hard enough that had it been someone's head it would have exploded like a grapefruit on the business end of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, there is really an astonishing rightness with the world.

If you find this thought unpalatable, congratulations: Your socialization has been successful. But what I'm saying is true, alas. Primal violence is just below the surface in us all, in even the most mouselike of accountants. We just repress it, all the time, and thank God we do.

Let us speak frankly now, among friends. Hitting things feels great. We are not just talking about the familiar endorphin cascade of exercise. I used to be a distance runner. I know enough about exercise-induced endorphins to recognize what is and isn't their effect. I do yoga, too—I am very familiar with the rewards of pious non-violent exertion. This is different. Aggression offers a unique pleasure of its own. The point is unacknowledged by hand-wringing sociologists who lament the problem of violence among feral youths. They seem genuinely to have persuaded themselves that if only these hoodlums were loved enough by society, if only they had ample economic opportunities, they would lose their desire to attack people.

Forget it: They’d still want to. Perhaps they wouldn’t do it, but they would still want to. They’re doing it because they like it. And you’d like it too.

Obviously, there are other reasons to do this sort of thing, but this is certainly one of them.

Friday, October 23, 2009


In 2005, I moved from Paris to Istanbul to live with my then-fiancé. David, another American expatriate, lived here because Istanbul was equidistant from Iraq and the Balkans. It was a cheap and convenient base for a die-hard gonzo war correspondent, such as he fancied himself to be. For two years, we were happy.

Jump cut: I was approaching 40. David was out of work. The putative future father of my children had developed a keen interest in pirated Battlestar Galactica videos, which he watched alone in his study. Having completed the third season in extended daytime marathon, he announced his intention to return to Iraq and ride with Ba'athists, who were hoping to stage a comeback. Not long after this, we split up.

By that time, I'd adopted seven orphaned kittens from Istanbul’s mean streets. I couldn't take them with me, and I couldn’t leave them behind. I loved our apartment, with its beautiful view of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. I had planted a garden of yellow roses on our terrace. Not really knowing where else to go, I stayed.

I had not planned to be a single, middle-aged, American woman living alone in Turkey, but I was. Moreover, I was a journalist who wrote about Islamic extremism, neo-Nazis, corruption. From time to time, I received letters from readers who did not seem entirely right in the head.

I was writing a biography of Margaret Thatcher that year. Working in isolation, surrounded by her papers and photos and memoirs, it was easy to imagine that she was somehow in my apartment, floating spectrally above my computer in a prim starched blouse tied with a pussycat bow. She was always lecturing me, of course, in her stern, school-marmish way, delivering herself of homilies about the value of hard work and self-help. When she did this I hated her horribly. But I listened, having no other choice; after all, she was the only one talking to me, and at least she was speaking English.

Mostly, she inveighed against socialism—it could no better cure the British disease than leaches, she declared. But when she caught her breath, she castigated me for sitting around pointlessly in the evenings, playing Scrabble on line, and having conversations with my imaginary friend, the dipsomaniac former Prime Minister of Great Britain. I could, after all, jolly well be doing something.

I say this to explain, in some fashion, why I decided to take a martial arts class, but in fact the connection isn’t obvious: Margaret Thatcher was hardly athletic, and she had armed bodyguards, who would be far more useful to a woman in a fight than knowledge of the proper application of an arm bar. But something about my circumstances, and something about Margaret Thatcher’s incessant hectoring, prompted me to think it would be good to acquire skills in hand-to-hand combat, and if this makes no sense, I can say only that it made sense at the time.

I lived in Cihangir, one of Istanbul’s most secular and Westernized neighborhoods. It is full of cafes with cute punned names and lazy rich women with anxieties about their figures. There was a gym not far from my apartment; I had seen classes in something called Wing Tzun advertised on their website. I had little idea what that was, but from the photos it seemed to involve punching, kicking, and good-looking young men. I decided to give it a try.

What began as a whim quickly became an obsession, one not confined to Wing Tzun, and not confined to good-looking young men, either.

This blog is not, strictly speaking, about me. It is about the environments in which I found myself, and what I've learned from them—and what I could have learned no other way—about the real meaning of “patriarchal culture.”

It is about self-defense, and about what it's surprisingly possible for a 40-year-old woman to achieve as an athlete.

It is about martial arts personalities, martial arts culture, and Martial Arts Asshole Syndrome.

It is not a guide to martial arts techniques, per se. For one thing, I'm no expert—far from it—and for another, it's been done and done again. Instead, my central theme—the theme that goes beyond Turkey—is aggression, especially in women, and competition, and the extraordinary ambivalence people feel about both.

This blog assuredly does not speak for any other member of the Women's Self Defense Initiative. It speaks only for me.