Blind boys in Gaza learn their powers through karate
GAZA // Mohammed Mahane runs his hand up the banister, counting the number of steps to the studio until his feet hit the edge of the rubber flooring where practice takes place.
The journey to and from the Al Mashtal Club’s karate studio in Gaza City is etched in the 13-year-old’s memory. After taking off his shoes Mohammed joins the other blind or visually impaired students learning the martial art.
Growing up amid Gaza’s endless and brutal conflicts with Israel is difficult enough for children with regular vision. For those who are blind or visually impaired, the chaotic streets, broken pavements, lack of basic health care and the suffering brought about by the Israeli blockade make life is especially difficult. Inside the karate studio, the students find a sense of belonging.
Mohammed is one of eight boys who have just graduated from their first karate class, and is now an orange belt. He and three others are completely blind, while the other four have partial vision.
“I can walk alone without a cane, but only near my home. I don’t know the streets outside of those. I use my hearing,” said Mohammed, who was born partially sighted, but lost his vision in an eye operation in Egypt when he was an infant.
Hassan Al Ra’e, their coach, or as they call him, captain, leads the classes, calling out deep and clear instructions. The boys, aged between seven and 17, start by holding hands in a circle, then jumping on the spot to warm up and lying on the ground to do sit-ups.
The coach helps the youngest trainee, seven-year-old Yousef, by pulling on his orange obi, or karate belt.
As the class progresses the students carry out sequences of moves, orienting themselves towards coach Hassan’s voice.
The boys are led by the elbow to show them the parameters of the space. The number of paces from the entrance to the mirrors on the far wall is 20. From left to right is 25. The coach uses whistles and his voice to get the boys to follow him. He physically moves their bodies to show them how each pose or movement is made.
Mr Al Ra’e, 38, said one of the first things he did was build the boys’ trust and make them feel safe in the studio.
“I guided them to run around the room, by the end of it they were sweating; some of them had never run in their lives.
“At first it was interesting talking to the kids about why they wanted to learn karate, they all said they wanted to learn to defend themselves, many of them face violence as others look at them as second-class citizens. Most of them said they had violence in their lives because they are blind. Some families won’t take their blind children to the beach – sometimes they suffer a lot inside their own families,” he said.
“At first I have had to teach them that: Allah may have made you blind, but you have other abilities – everyone has huge powers inside them, and they’re supposed to show the world that it’s not a big deal to be blind.”
Mr Al Ra’e has been training karate students across the occupied Palestinian Territories for 10 years. He hopes to take teams of able-bodied and disabled competitors to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. It is expected that it will be first time the martial art will feature at the games.
As a child, the father of four had to learn karate in secret after Israel banned the martial art in Gaza for fear that it would teach Palestinians “to fight”.
He previously trained the Palestinian Authority police force in Gaza and still draws a salary, even after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip and PA employees were prohibited from working.
He funds the karate course himself as there is no money from the Hamas government that rules Gaza. He also pays for the students’ karate uniforms.
The youngest student, Yousef, is a firecracker. He is Albino and due to sensitivity to light the retina in his eyes are damaged resulting in partial sight. Before he began karate classes, he would often refuse to go out. Now he tears around the karate studio taking on students twice his size and testing the coach’s patience. He does a running jump and flips over a safety mat, and later spars with a fully sighted student after the class ends.
Eid Kolab, 17, comes from Rafah, in southern Gaza and is the oldest and tallest in the class. His face lights up as he listens to the class unfold.
Ehab Salama, 15, lives in Shati refugee camp and says he was bullied by his cousins before he started the classes.
After class Mohammed Mahane returns home in the family car or by taxi and can tell he has reached his destination by the voices in the street.
Inside, the electricity is off and the house is pitch black, but Mohammed cannot tell. He shows The National his Braille typewriter. He also plays the oud, learning the instrument by sound and touch.
While many parents in Gaza are ashamed of children with disabilities, Mohammed’s father Adel Mohane is proud of him.
“If I wasn’t proud of Mohammed I wouldn’t take him to karate,” says the engineer, who has four other children. “If the kids help you and let you feel that they want to develop themselves this is very important. Mohammed wants to go and do things, he wants to learn.”
When asked about his memories from the war last year, Mohammed’s voice breaks. He is emotional, having lived through three conflicts.
“If I were to explain to a child outside what it’s like, I would tell them about the fear I live in. I would tell them that life in Gaza is very hard, there is nothing here. I would make the other child feel they live in heaven, he said.
“I have three wishes for the future: I want to be a lawyer, I want to be the best oud player in the world, and I want be an international karate competitor.”
Updated: December 21, 2015 04:00 AM