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.

1 comment:

  1. I'll follow this site with interest. It caught my eye when it suddenly popped up in the Gormogons blogroll. Then I saw who writes it and was doubly intrigued: Claire, I greatly enjoyed your book on Mrs. Thatcher (and it seems we share an agent in Dan G.), but one doesn't expect authors of political biographies to be blogging on martial arts.

    I especially look forward to reading your thoughts on aggression. As a martial arts instructor myself, and one whose students include women over 40, I have my own views on its pros, cons, uses, and abuses.

    Best of luck with this!