Modernising the ancient Egyptian martial art of sticks
The stick art, known as Tahtib, is a famous and ancient Egyptian folk art that is now taking on a modern twist
Tahtib, the Egyptian dance tradition, which typically involves two male participants dancing and dueling with long sticks, is old enough to be Pharaonic and modern enough to be currently exercised as a newly celebrated martial art that is being taken up in several European and Asian cities – though is still typically practiced traditionally in rural Egypt.
"It is a traditional art for sure but it is also a martial art that could be practiced according to specific rules, to be acquired through training, by both men and women," Adel Boulad, a pioneer of promoting Modern Tahtib and an author of an upcoming book on the game that will come out this September, told Ahram Online.
Born in Egypt to a family that migrated to France in the 1960s, Boulad was never really properly introduced to the art of Tahtib despite a few flirting attempts during visits to his grandparents house in Upper Egypt in the mid and late 1950s.
At the time, and even later during holiday visits to Egypt and the family house in Assiut, Boulad said he used to think thought that "Tahtib was just a dance and a game with no particular significance or rules… it would not have at all matched the rules of the art of Karate that I was learning then with a passion."
But, more than three decades later things changed for Boulad, he said during an interview in Cairo on a visit to promote the re-introduction of Tahtib.
During a visit to Madrid, he met with a dancer from the renowned Egyptian folk dancing Reda Troupe, which was performing in the Spanish capital, who raised his interest in Tahtib.
"I had this conversation in Madrid after having developed an interest in the history of sticks in Egyptian culture – something that was prompted by a conversation I had on the sticks that were there in my grandfather's house in Assiut and the one that my uncle was using," he said.
Boulad had yet another accidental run in with Tahtib. He said he was driving with his family on a road trip to Upper Egypt and they stopped to look at the walls of some Pharaonic temples – and there he found himself face to face with a wall drawing of two men performing Tahtib.
"I thought that his has been going on for some 5000 years -- I had a chat with the guard on duty and he fetched two sticks and started showing me the steps to perform Tahtib," Boulad recalled.
It was perhaps at that moment that he said he realised that "it was not just a dance but more of a martial art – something that was later proven to me as I read about the history of Tahtib in the Pharaonic times."
Boulad's research showed him that "the oldest traces of Tahtib were to be found on ancient engravings in the archaeological site of Abusir, an extensive necropolis of the Old Kingdom period, located in the south-western suburbs of Cairo, on some of the reliefs of the Pyramid of Sahure, V dynasty, c. 2500 BC."
He also learned that "the images and explanatory captions are particularly precise and accurate in their depiction of what seems to be military training using sticks." Evidently, he said, "Tahtib, with archery and wrestling, was then among the three warfare disciplines taught to soldiers during their training."
Having gone through a process of exhaustive reading and research whereby he got to see the "details of this art," Boulad decided to bring Tahtib out of its traditional folk garment into a modern sports suit.
"I thought that just as people took up Yoga all over the world as a practice of meditation and healing, they would take up modern Tahtib as a practice to develop rigor and pursue relaxation."
He added that he thought, "the stick jousting and the rhythm of Modern Tahtib amplify and enhance the usual benefits of martial arts. They foster and accelerate learning and the development of skill and attention."
Having introduced the "comfortable and modern sports outfits and the modern sticks," Boulad got started in no other city than Paris.
The beginning of Modern Tahtib training brought together less than a handful of interested men. Though a few months down the road, it had drawn in more people from both genders.
For Boulad, however, it did not make any sense that Tahtib would not make its "journey back home to Egypt."
"I was warned that Modern Tahtib as a martial art would not fit the mood of Egyptians; and I thought that this could not be true and I was proven right because young people turned out to be interested," he said.
According to Boulad, "after seven years of planning and gestation that I led with my teams in Egypt and France, it was on 6 March 2014 that Modern Tahtib was "born."
"Modern Tahtib is a martial and festive art that includes jousts with a 4.5-foot long rattan stick, rhythms and codified forms. It is the modern and updated version of Tahtib, an Egyptian art, whose first physical evidences go back to 2800 BC."
Boulad insisted that "loyal to its original universal values, the modern version of Tahtib is developing this martial art in the context of modern, urban societies. The current update concerns the training and transmission method and structure."
The centre dedicated to reviving traditional Tahteeb was founded by El-Warsha Troupe in Malawi, Minya. Medhat Fawzi, the sticks dance artist has been training young men and showcasing their talents around the world since 1996.
Boulad is currently working with concerned bodies to establish the basis for teaching Modern Tahtib in Egypt on a relatively large scale that will start first by training potential instructors and coordinating with official bodies to provide for the necessary regulations to allow for the practice of the art.
Boulad says he is confident that it is only a matter of a very few years before Modern Tahtib picks up properly in Egypt.
"After all this is an indigenous Egyptian art – and it is part of our culture," he stated.