Sharjah master is first Arab to earn karate rank
As Abdul Rahman al Haddad demonstrates the power of a karate blow, there is a loud smack which makes heads turn as both hands come into forceful contact.
The Canadian of Syrian descent became the only Arab awarded the seventh dan, one of the 10 proficiency levels of black belt, by the Japanese Karate Association (JKA) last month as a result of his prowess. Mr al Haddad, who will celebrate his 60th birthday in two months, succeeded in Tokyo where four Japanese opponents failed, proving age is no obstacle to achievement. He has already started preparing to reach the next level.
"I knew I was going to get the award because I am very serious and trained for years," he says. "Only in karate can you use your body, mind and spirit all at once."
The JKA jealously guards the dan, which explains why its examination process, which attracts thousands of karate experts from around the world, is held only once every several years. Only Ueki Masaaki, the chairman of its board of directors, holds a ninth dan status.
It took Mr al Haddad nine years to move up one dan to the seventh level after reaching sixth dan status in 2001, the prior time the JKA held an examination. It took considerably longer for him to master his art.
It was in 1969, when he was 18, that he learnt that a man called Hideki Okamoto was in his hometown of Damascus to teach karate.
"I fell in love with the martial arts from that day as I understood the movements," Mr al Haddad says. "It is a true art and when you concentrate, you use every cell in your body. Master Hideki was an incredible teacher and man who spent his life helping those less fortunate. He was like a father to me, but sadly passed away last year."
Mr al Haddad eventually founded the Shotokan Japanese Sports Centre in Sharjah, in 1979, to teach the JKA way. Known as the keeper of karate's highest tradition, the JKA is the largest such organisation with a presence in more than 100 countries. Mr al Haddad stands ready to help others benefit from his experience.
"If anybody wants to learn, I am ready," he says. "This is what I learnt from the Japanese. They work hard and practise seriously.
"A man who was 62 once approached me and I trained him for 17 years. He died two years ago but he was very strong, reaching fourth dan."
Mr al Haddad, the JKA chairman in the UAE, has also joined with JKA associations in Bahrain and Kuwait to introduce the first Gulf Karate Championships in Bahrain, initially planned for next year. He pointed out that the perception in some quarters of karate as being violent was inaccurate, stressing that the sport was about self-control and discipline, and was a way of life.
That viewpoint was passed on to his two children. His daughter Natalie, 33, has reached third dan black belt while his son, Najmeddin, known as the Canadian Scorpion, is the youngest man elevated to fifth dan black belt by the JKA.
The 29-year-old spoke of his father with admiration, and remembers how he made him his first karate uniform when he was just six months old. He grew up to become one of his most ambitious students.
"My father is amazing," he says. "It takes sheer determination and hard work just to master the techniques he has."
One of his father's students, 15-year-old Osama Ajamoghly, from Syria, has been training for the past four years and holds second blue belt rank. Blue belt is two levels below black, with red the next step.
"Karate gives strength, health and mental power in a positive way," he says. "Mr al Haddad is the best teacher and I hope to achieve black belt one day."
Another student of the same age, Jamal Hamadeh, from Lebanon, joined the Shotokan centre when he was just over four years old and has risen rapidly, a development he attributed to Mr al Haddad's teachings.
"I have a first dan black belt and it's good because I have learnt discipline and confidence in knowing I can defend myself," he says.