Egyptian tahteeb in Korea

Mina Adel Gayyed, Thursday 26 Sep 2019

An Upper Egyptian tahteeb team, an ancient Egyptian martial art, took part in the Chungju World Martial Arts Festival in South Korea this year, writes Mina Adel Gayyed

Chungju World Martial Arts Festival in South Korea
Chungju World Martial Arts Festival in South Korea

Our plane finally landed after a long flight at the Incheon International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Seoul is a bustling city inhabited by nearly 10 million people, and it is one of the largest cities in the world. 

Many residents of this city that is also home to Samsung, LG, and many other well-known international tech companies are techies who never seem to put their smartphones down. They swiftly move their fingers at breathtaking speeds across their screens, chatting on Korean sites that are different from international sites like WhatsApp or Facebook, though these also operate freely in the country. You notice that the streets of Seoul are divided between the owners of Hyundai and Kia cars, with a bare sprinkling of non-Korean brands.

Chungju, a city famous for the apples that were brought here 300 years ago from China, is a two-hour drive from Seoul. It is famous for its sunny skies and moderate temperatures, and it could be described as a forest of trees and greenery, almost the image of utopia. Former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon once lived in this city among its gentle and smiling residents.

However, Chungju, this serene and picturesque city of apples, is also famous for its long history of martial arts, and today it hosts an annual international martial arts festival. The 2019 festival, showcasing martial arts from a variety of cultures, took place earlier this month, and among those hosted this year was the ancient Egyptian martial art of tahteeb, or stick-dancing, represented by a team sent by the Upper Egypt Association for Education and Development (UEA), which gave four performances.

Martial arts gained in popularity around the globe after the UN cultural agency UNESCO listed them as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 1997. Chungju then hosted its first Martial Arts Festival in 1998, and in 2000 foreign teams began to participate. The World Martial Arts Union (WoMAU) was formed in October 2002 with 40 members, and Chungju was selected as its headquarters. WoMAU is an NGO recognised by UNESCO, and Chungju hosted the first World Martial Arts Championships in 2016. 

UNESCO’s International Centre of Martial Arts for Youth Development and Engagement was then established in Chungju, and this now plays a key role in promoting martial arts around the world. It also addresses martial arts from a scholarly perspective, raising awareness about martial arts as a form of traditional culture.

Under the slogan “Beyond the Times, Bridge the World”, the Chungju World Martial Arts Festival took place between 2 and 6 September with the participation of 3,200 self-defence professionals from 106 countries this year. These included the world’s top 369 athletes in the sport, all of whom came to take part in what has come to be known as the Olympics of Martial Arts. 

The events took place at the Chungju Stadium, along with seven other locations around this city located 150km east of Seoul. Some 2,414 martial arts masters and 705 team officials descended on the city to compete for 271 gold medals in 20 categories of martial arts that included belt wrestling, judo, taekwondo, aikido, ju-jitsu, muay thai, sambo, savate, wushu, kabaddi, kurash, pencak silat, Korean hapkido, horseback archery, taekkyeon, a martial arts record contest, a martial arts show, ssireum, tong-il moo-do and yongmudo.

Attending the opening ceremony of the festival were South Korean prime minister Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the Korean Sports and Olympics Committee and member of the International Olympic Committee Lee Kee-heung, Ban Ki-moon, as honorary president of the 2019 games, and Raffaele Chiulli, president of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF). 

Chungju governor Lee Si-jong, who also chaired the organising committee, told a crowd of 10,000 officials, athletes and VIPs during the opening ceremony at the Chungju Stadium that the games were an opportunity for martial arts fans around the world to showcase and develop these arts worldwide and help to break the barriers of religion, ethnicity and nationality to spread their values to all the world’s peoples. It was also an opportunity for young people, women, and the disabled, he said.  

The event as a whole took place at the Chungju World Martial Arts Park, which also houses a museum and theatre built on an area of 150,000 square km. WoMAU encourages cooperation from martial artists around the world and includes 61 organisations from 42 countries. The numbers are growing every year.

Egyptian tahteeb team
Egyptian tahteeb team

EGYPT, A KEY MEMBER: Dina Raouf, UEA deputy manager and director of foreign relations, was excited about the Egyptian team’s participation in the festival.

This was the first overseas competition for the association’s tahteeb troupe after the art was listed as an expression of the world’s intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO after the UEA had nominated it for listing in 2016, she said.

She also said that the UEA was particularly proud of sending a mixed male and female team for the first time, since traditionally the game was exclusively performed by men. Her Association has played a key role in reviving tahteeb, originally a Pharaonic sport which later became a traditional dance. Over the past three years, it has also promoted the art in Upper Egyptian villages and towns from Minya to Luxor, and it hopes to train the next generation of young people in the traditional art of tahteeb and participate in more local and international competitions.

Niveen Wagdi, UEA director of cultural development, said the Association had a long history in Upper Egypt of empowering young people and women in particular. Wagdi said it encouraged women to participate in all its activities, including the tahteeb games. 

“It has been an exciting adventure to encourage girls and women to participate in their Pharaonic ancestors’ tradition of tahteeb,” she said. “Despite Upper Egypt’s culture and traditions, which can view the art as exclusive to men, our experiment was embraced in the Upper Egyptian communities where we work. The reason was the trust we have built with the people through our work over the past few decades.”

Egyptian tahteeb team
Egyptian tahteeb team

The closing performance of the Egyptian team at Chungju this year was called the “Girls’ Duel”, which reflected the UEA’s principle of empowering women in Upper Egypt. Wagdi was thrilled when the UEA became a permanent member of WoMAU in August this year, and she hopes that tahteeb will now be developed to help others participate in their ancestors’ games. “Egypt’s heritage attracted a massive audience at the Chungju games,” she said. “Tahteeb is a traditional art in Upper Egypt. Raising the Egyptian flag on stage at Chungju this year also energised us and the audiences.”

WoMAU President Chung Wha-tae stressed the importance of preserving such traditional martial arts, expressing concerns that some traditional self-defence arts are unfortunately on the verge of extinction or are gradually fading from memory. He said there should be more efforts made to prevent this from happening and in order to maintain the cultural heritage for all humanity. He added that Chungju had hosted the first martial arts games in 1998 in order to preserve and promote traditional martial arts, and due to the support of the public it had become an international event in 2000. 

WoMAU was created by martial artists around the globe who wanted to preserve this art form and promote self-defence arts, he said. Since its foundation, WoMAU has held an annual general meeting in South Korea regulating and promoting international events such as the Chungju Festival, and it has been a partner with UNESCO in sponsoring the international games since 2009. 

Chung said he was excited about Egypt’s participation this year and the UEA’s role regarding tahteeb as a self-defence sport. He was looking forward to more cooperation in the future, he said.

WoMAU Secretary-General Yoon Jeonghoon praised the Egyptian team, noting that he had visited Egypt in early 2019 and the UEA’s headquarters before it was chosen to represent Egypt at the Chungju Festival. He had been especially impressed by the association’s commitment to its community, especially young people and women, and by its desire to empower women to participate in tahteeb as a martial art.

He continued that Egypt’s participation in the games this year had allowed Koreans to learn more about Egypt and its culture. He urged Egypt to participate again next year, this time with more performers and more young people.

Bong Hyuseon, head of international cooperation at WoMAU, said she was very glad that the UEA’s team had made it to Chungju. Ever since she had visited Egypt in January this year, she had been excited about the Association’s membership in WoMAU because the group offered and promoted positive values through traditional martial arts, she said.

Egyptian tahteeb team
Egyptian tahteeb team

WHAT IS TAHTEEB? Tahteeb, or the Upper Egyptian stick game, is a traditional Egyptian martial art form dating back to Pharaonic times. 

It was once practised by all classes and passed down from one generation to the next, finally becoming rooted in rural areas in Upper Egypt. Tahteeb, at first a martial art, later evolved into a celebratory dance form while preserving much of its symbolism and values. Eventually, it evolved into its current form of a performance in front of an audience standing in a circle, and mostly it is now performed in Upper Egypt in rural areas. 

In 2016, tahteeb was inscribed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as a result of requests from the UEA and the Egyptian National Commission for UNESCO.

UNESCO describes the art as involving “a brief, non-violent interchange between two adversaries, each wielding a long stick while folk music plays in the background. Complete control must be exercised as no striking is allowed…. The tahteeb stick [is] used by [locals] as part of their daily lives and considered a sign of manhood. The rules of the game are based on values such as mutual respect, friendship, courage, strength, chivalry and pride. The game gives participants confidence from skills acquired and a sense of pride performing before their community. It also helps to strengthen family ties and foster good communal relations.”

Egyptian tahteeb team
Egyptian tahteeb team

Tahteeb can only be understood in the context of Upper Egyptian traditions, and it reflects much of the traditional Upper Egyptian view of the world. In the game, the folklore hero, the son of the Nile, is surrounded by dangers but is victorious and defends himself and his community with valour.

The most popular tahteeb games take place in the region today during major moulids (birthday celebrations of revered religious figures), such as the moulids of Sidi Abdel-Rahman, Sidi Al-Aref Billah, Sayedna Aba Abbas, and Sidi Al-Haggag. The games take place daily from early to late afternoon for one or two weeks during these moulids, and performers from across the country gather and are invited into the performance circle by one of the local performers.

Today, printed invitations are sent to friends, and some changes in style and performance have evolved from one governorate to another.

Traditionally, only men participated in tahteeb, but the UEA decided more than 20 years ago to include women in this martial art form as well. It views the stick game as a rich expression of the region’s cultural heritage that holds noble human values and promotes balanced relations between members of society. 

It also meets the human need of gathering and celebrating because the fundamental idea of the game is fair competition in developing the skills and talents of the players and emphasising their unique individual identity. 

The writer is a freelance journalist.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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