About a year ago, I had the pleasure of forming the first ever girls boxing club in Luxor, Egypt. It was somewhat revolutionary, no exaggeration. Girls in Luxor did NOT box. Most girls anywhere don’t box. But in Luxor, I never saw girls playing organized sports. Boys played soccer and learned a trade from their fathers. Girls were expected to serve in the household.
For many women in Egypt sexual harassment is an everyday fact of life. In Upper Egypt, approximately 99% of girls are still subjected to FGM. This often occurs around the age of eight to twelve. This was the age of the girls I was teaching. I didn’t know about these facts when I first went to Egypt in the beginning of 2018. In fact I was under the impression that Egypt was more liberal than other Arab States. So it was a terrible realization to find out the girls I was teaching were going to have this done to them, if they hadn’t already. I started classes in hope to give them a wider perspective, to help them think that perhaps there were other alternatives to being groomed for marriage. It was the only way I knew to share something of myself and my own journey with them. We didn’t speak the same language. We seemed a world apart. Yet, through this shared experience of boxing, we could realize our commonalities.
How did this happen? I didn’t just decide one day to teach boxing to girls in Luxor. It would be impossible for a stranger to walk in and do this. Such arrogance and presumption would not be condoned. First, I had to live there, come to love the place and have it naturally evolve.
Six years ago, I put my belongings in a storage unit and started traveling the world. I’m a single mom and I had paid my dues, raising my daughter and two sons on the “mean” streets of Los Angeles suburbia. I fought so many battles over those years. My home became a haven for the artistic kids who didn’t quite fit into the school system. I started a creative writing program for incarcerated youth in juvenile hall and fought passionately to give a voice to the voiceless youth who were being thrown into prison.
My wealthy ex-husband fought me for years in court, trying to make me lose all my money, in which he largely succeeded. I also lost my house, but I didn’t lose my kids. Eventually, the courts shut my ex down, but the years of court-ordered scrutiny into my sons’ lives had taken a toll. As with most urban kids these days, both my sons experimented with drugs. My older son, Harry, ended up in deep trouble. I did everything I could to help him, bailing him out of jail, hiring lawyers. I kept having to move from apartment to apartment because of my son’s behavior.
I knew the only way to save my son and myself was for me to leave. Not just move again to another apartment. But literally to leave the country. I opened my computer, asked it about beautiful places in South America, saw Sucre, Bolivia and decided that’s where I was going. I put what little I had left in a storage unit, packed a small bag and took off.
I’d faced a lot of difficult choices in my life but that was one of the hardest. I felt like I was abandoning my son. But I knew the only way we both could heal was for each of us to say good-bye, follow our own paths and find our own ways, however difficult that would be.
Sucre was more beautiful in actuality than what I’d seen on the internet. I fell in love with the steep cobbled streets, the whitewashed buildings and bright red roofs, juxtaposed against the sky so blue it hurt to look at it. I fell in love with the massive Spanish churches and would go inside and sit for hours in contemplation. I’d climb up the steep path, huffing and puffing due to the altitude while little old ladies would nod and smile and pass me by. Once I’d reached the top I’d be joyful and at my achievement. Sitting outside at my favorite café, staring across the rooftops at the mountains in the distance, I marveled at how I had ever come to such a place.
One of the most important practices that has sustained me in my life is my martial arts training. I am a second degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a First Degree Brown Belt in Eskrima, and a full contact boxer and kickboxer and a coach. I found a gym in Sucre, the only gym with hanging bags, and there I went most evenings and early on Saturday mornings. Punching the bag released all the hurt and despair I felt for my son. At night, alone in my room, I rocked back and forth in an agony. Was he in jail, was he still alive? Once, he tried to call me and I knew he was in jail again. Back in LA, I would have immediately put money on the books, I would have bent over backwards to help him. Spent my last dime. But being in a far off country meant I could not answer his call. I could only listen to his voice. “Mom…mom.”
Broken hearted, I realized I was as much an addict as he was. I was addicted to helping and helping, to the point where all it did was destroy both of us.
That was the beginning of my journey to heal myself. I couldn’t heal my son. I could only do that for myself and pray that he was finding his way. I connected with like-minded fighters, training and sometimes teaching, and writing the stories that flowed from my heart. I traveled from the Andes of Bolivia to Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. I started writing my urban fantasy series, Night Angels Chronicles. I found inspiration in Istanbul, Switzerland and Slovenia. I was invited to a village in the Sahara Desert in Morocco to conduct a program I’d started called My World Project, connecting youth around the world through art and writing.
In February of 2018, I found myself getting off a plane in Luxor, Egypt. Shortly after I arrived, I found out my son was in jail again. He faced some serious time, and all the worries came flooding back. I took out my jump rope and jumped and jumped, trying to still my heart. Later, he would tell me that he had a public defender who saw the potential in him. The faith she showed gave him the courage to stand before the judge and say, “Your honor, if you send me to prison it’s likely I will serve my time and then be right back here in front of you. But I promise if you give me a chance, you’ll never see me again.”
Miraculously, the judge, who up until that point had been determined to send him away, relented. My son went into the Salvation Army rehab program. He said that the minute he arrived, he surrendered to the program. That was almost three years ago. When I returned to Los Angeles for Christmas in 2018, I had the joy of hugging my son, my incredibly talented, artistic son, and seeing the health and the strength in his smile and the clear intelligence in his eyes, as blue as the sky of Sucre.
While in Los Angeles, I bought a boxing bag and some gloves and other supplies and returned to Luxor. I set up the boxing bag on the terrace of the villa where I was staying. Every day, I punched and kicked the bag. And I ran up to the Colossi of Memnon and back again. This was something unusual and rarely seen on the west bank. Boys started running with me. One boy chased after me with his donkey and his cart. Another with his baby camel. At one point, even the girls gathered the courage to run, too. Children found out about the boxing bag. They were curious. I started training Aya, a girl who showed great promise. I met her because in the mornings on my run I’d pass her house. Often she was standing outside by the Nile. I well knew that she had been put there by her parents to seek out tourists who she could invite into her home. No matter. Often, she gave me a flower as I passed. One time, I finally gave in to her insistence that I visit her family and so I allowed her to lead me inside the walls of her home.
Aya was twelve years old and tall for her age. She had a fire in her that was immediately apparent. I got the idea after visiting with her parents a few times to ask if she could train with me. Her father gave permission. Nothing could be done without the permission of the father.
I was pleased with how well she did. Of course, at first, she didn’t know what to expect. But it was clear she had the spirit of a fighter. Her older sister, who was eighteen, wanted to train, too, but the father wouldn’t let her. It was inappropriate at her age. She wasn’t even allowed to come to my house. What if other men were around? I assured her father there wouldn’t be any men, but it didn’t matter. She couldn’t come.
This was the first time I realized that, perhaps, no matter how well Aya did, no matter even if she was capable of being a real boxer, she would have to stop when she reached a certain age. This was hard for me to bear. It seemed cruel to give girls a taste of freedom, only for it to be taken from them when they reached the age where their parents began looking for a husband for them.
I had grown up not much different, in a strict evangelical Christian home. I’d been taught that I should submit to a man. That my father would pass me on to my husband and he would lead me. I had freed myself from those constraints, but not without pain and suffering. At least in my world I’d been able to leave my parents and get a job as a waitress. But in Luxor, there was no such possibility for girls. There was nowhere to go. They had to conform.
Sometimes, I’d come home to find twenty or so young boys at my gate, wanting to box. It was easy for the boys to overpower the girls. Aya brought a friend with her and I began to train them both. When the boys showed up to bang on the gate, the girls frowned and refused to let them in.
With the help of local friends, especially a woman named Marwa, I started working with a group of ten girls, all chosen for the potential they showed. Marwa is a bit of a star in Luxor. She dresses in a man’s gellabiya and drives a truck and does a man’s work. President Sissi even invited her to talk to him on national television. Of course, everyone in Luxor was glued to the TV that day. When I asked what they had talked about, I was told the president wanted to know why she wasn’t married. He offered to give her a house if and when she got married. Of course it was unseemly that Marwa should be without a husband. Surely if he bribed her, she would give up her freedom. To this day, she hasn’t done it.
Marwa had a small van and she picked up the girls and brought them to me and took them home again. I had a lot of fun showing Marwa sparring techniques and the girls laughed and laughed to see us sparring together.
The one thing I had to do was pay the fathers. I only ever met one of the fathers of the girls. I well understood by this time that everyone in Ramla made deals and tried to extract as much money from foreigners as possible. I wasn’t an exception and I wasn’t foolish enough to think I would be. So, if I wanted to do something with their daughters it was only natural that I should pay. I decided the most positive way of doing this was to make it a “beginner’s course.” At the end of the course I’d give each girl a certificate of completion and the 600 Egyptian pounds each father had asked for would be inside the envelop. That way, it was each girls’ achievement. Even if their fathers’ took the money away, they had something concrete to tell them they had succeeded in doing something that no other girl had ever done in Luxor.
I made t-shirts with Luxor Boxing Girls emblazoned on the front and their names on the back. They were delighted. So proud. Over the course of their training, we created a safe little space in front of that boxing bag. The girls learned the basic punches and kicks. They did push-ups and sit-ups, experienced training in a way they never had and perhaps never would again. When a training session was finished, I’d bring out juice and chips and we’d all sit on the ground, along with Marwa, and laugh and talk as best we could.
Once I thought they’d achieved the basics, I held a ceremony. The night before I drew certificates and put them along with the cash inside envelopes, each of their names written in beautiful calligraphy. Not a single parent showed up for the ceremony.
I went to the village to visit a few times after that and a couple of the girls would always sit with me in contented silence. We’d stare at one another and wish we could talk. It was so frustrating. And then, we’d eventually say, “Box!” We’d get up from the long, low sofa and I’d hold up my hands and they’d punch and bob and weave as I’d taught them to do. There are always ways to communicate, even when we don’t speak the same language. At the end, we’d hug and high-five and say good-bye.
With all of the accusations of stealing other’s cultures or imposing one’s own culture on others, I’ve had a few people accuse me of trying to impose my western culture on these Egyptian girls, by teaching them boxing. I find this very strange. When I was a child, I wanted to be just like Bruce Lee. I was a girl, how could I do that? And in those days, there weren’t any girls I knew of who were doing martial arts, just as it was in Luxor. My parents believed martial arts to be of the devil since it came from “The East” and they forbad me to do it. It would take until I was thirty years old before I was able to start training.
I am so thankful for the masters who came from the East to create dojos in California. What if no one had ever shared their knowledge across borders? Knowledge should never be imprisoned. We should share what we know and embrace each other’s wisdom. I learned from Eastern masters. In turn, I taught it to my children. I wish all children learned martial arts from a young age. How different the world might be. In the dojo, one’s ethnicity, religion and culture are left at the door. We are all one and we learn to respect each other. This practice sustained me through great hardship. And not only my eldest son, but all three of my children have returned to training as adults, either in boxing, kickboxing or jujitsu.
In turn, I shared my knowledge with girls in the west bank villages of Luxor. Who knows were the knowledge will go from there? The Luxor Boxing Girls have enriched my life immeasurably. Being invited into their villages and sharing food with them, laughing and trying to communicate has opened new worlds for us all. When we were boxing, they’d choose their favorite music. They taught me Arabic and I taught them English. They are so much better than I am at learning languages.
I went back and forth between Luxor and the USA a number of times, returning to Luxor in February 2020, right before the pandemic struck. My desire was to continue with Luxor Boxing Girls and to start My World Project, connecting youth in Luxor with youth in Los Angeles. Of course, shortly after my arrival, the world came to a standstill. But once again, my training sustained me. Years of discipline taught me to never give up and never give in. Every day I would go up to the rooftop terrace with my jump rope and train. I got water bottles to use as weights. By the end of an hour or two I could look out to the Nile, so strangely empty and silent, and feel that I had accomplished an important goal for the day.
I’m in Phoenix now, riding out this pandemic with my youngest son, Max. I look forward to seeing my older son, Harry, in Los Angeles. I haven’t hugged him or my daughter nor my four grandchildren in such a long time. My daughter is half Slovenian and she took off for Slovenia with my two grandsons when things got crazy in California. I will no doubt be spending some time there in the near future. But true to my practice, I am training. I miss those Luxor Boxing Girls. I don’t know if that little bit of training, those intense days of learning to release their energy with power will stay with them. I hope so. I saw such spirit and determination in those girls. When we had little competitions and they had to hold the plank, for example, and see who could stay there the longest, not a single one wanted to quit. They held that plank as if their lives depended on it. They were all winners. Such strength of spirit.
I often wonder what the world would be like if the intelligence, creativity and spiritual energy of women down through history—half the population—had been allowed to flourish. How would the world look today? What incredible inventions would we have? It’s hard to even imagine. I hope I can return to Luxor one day soon. I am sure I will. But then again, with all of the uncertainty these days, who knows? Perhaps the winds will blow me someplace else. Wherever I go, my training will sustain me. And it will give me great joy to share it with others whenever possible.
KH Mezek's other writings include Night Angels Chronicles available from Amazon
Read more about My World Project
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Find out about a fantastic Boxing Program in Cairo founded by Sally Mae Trainer Sally