Naziyah Mahmood is a woman of contradictions.She was a scientist for the European Space Agency, an artist and soon to be published writer/poet. Also, she is a deadly martial artist and weapons collector while being a peace loving woman of faith. Naziyah has overcome a tough upbringing and disability to become an academic of excellence……who can also kick your butt.
Late on an average Wednesday evening, while conducting some research for CMA News, I stumbled across a picture of a young Muslim woman posing with a sword (see below pic). There was something about this picture that made my chubby digit hover over that mouse button. Behind the contrasting mix of serenity and fire within the picture and the woman, lay a story here worth asking about.
This picture was taken by the excellent street photographer, Charles Hamilton, who walks around the gritty Glasgow streets looking for interesting people to photograph. He had spotted that same ‘something’ in Naziyah and with her permission, took the image that intrigued me. I contacted Charles about it and found him brilliantly hospitable in using his photographs as well as contacting Naziyah on my behalf to arrange an interview. Naziyah agreed to speak to me about her martial arts background. This was easier said than done due to my strong Caaaaaaaaardiff accent and Naziyahs soft but strong Glaswegian. (If I had used Google translate, it would have resigned at this point). Here’s how it went.
It’s really good to finally speak to you. Thanks for agreeing to this. So, can you tell me a bit about your meeting with Charles?
Last year (2013) I was walking with my friends through central Glasgow, when Charles popped out of nowhere. He introduced himself and said that he takes pictures of different people in the street. It was my first time that I have heard of him – but of course now I know him as the Glasgow street photographer. He said that I looked interesting and that he wanted to take my picture. I think Street Photography is a growing trend. I must have one of the curious faces! (laughs). We got talking and I agreed. My friends were a bit concerned, but I love meeting new people.
He took me took me into an alleyway and my friends were getting even more concerned now! There, he just started snapping. I didn’t mind. I have a bit of modelling experience in the past when I helped out a friend for her project. The friends that I was with at this time were very cautious about Charles, understandably. They were looking out for me. They always call me naive and too friendly. I have since seen Charles’ pictures and really admire his work. I just happen to mention to him that I do martial arts and train outdoors. He offered to take pictures of me training, so I arranged to meet him while I was training in my usual spot at Kelvingrove Park.
If you let them bully you once, they will do it again and again.
How did you get into martial arts?
I come from a mixed background. My mother is English and my father is from Pakistan but our blood lineage is Arab. My mum had a really difficult life and along came my father like a handsome Prince to sweep her of her feet! (Being a mixed race couple in Glasgow) had been tough for them. In my website blogs I have written about my first ever memory. This is seeing my mother coming home and being covered in blood. I must have only been about three years old but still remember it and promised that I would become big and strong to protect her. My father was in the Army and taught me to never let anyone bully me. He used to say, “If you let them bully you once, they will do it again and again.” He taught me to be strong and put me and my brother and sister into martial arts classes so we could protect ourselves. My brother still does Muay Thai.
One day I went to class and found that the club had gone. I mean the entire building had literally disappeared!
What styles have you practiced in?
I have been training for around 20 years now in various martial arts. I am a bit of a jack of all trades. One of my earliest arts was Ninjitsu. I was a kid and we got to play all kinds of crazy games. It was so much fun. Ninjitsu is definitely the closest (to favourite) in my mind. It was very spiritual and had weapons. This must have stayed with me because I am a very spiritual person and love weapons still. I had to stop though, as one day I went to class and found that the club had gone. I mean the entire building had literally disappeared! It must have been demolished but we had no warning or anything. I like to think that it had ‘Shadow stepped’ back in to Tokugawa period. After that I was a bit lost and took up quite a few martial arts but had to train on and off due to ill health. I have trained in European fencing, Shotokan Karate and Iaido. I practice Haidong Gumdo now.
What is Haidong Gumdo and how did you get into it?
Around eight years ago, yes, it was in 2006, I was lucky enough to meet my Instructor, Master Thomas Clark. I call him Sensei even though it’s a Japanese term. It is just what I was used to when practicing the Japanese arts. He’s been involved in martial arts for over forty years.
Haiding Gumdo is Korean sword style, founded in the 1980s and based on ancient Korean military systems. During the Korean war, all of the documents were destroyed except one. This is called the Muyedobotongji and contained text on spear and sword techniques. The techniques were battlefield techniques on how to use the sword facing off against many opponents. Through this art, I have learned the Jingum – Korean single edged sword, the twin swords, staff work, breathing exercises and sword drawing techniques. There is a special emphasis on that. We use the swords in forms as well as sparring sets. Haidong Gumdo utilises some empty hand and cutting practices. There is much more to it but these are the main aspects of the art.
Sensei was taught by one of students of Grandmaster Kim, the head of the Haedong Kumdo Association. He (Sensei) is quite strict and is very picky when choosing students. He has to be because if you mess about in another class, you may get a black eye but if you mess about with weapons, you could get seriously injured. Sensei began teaching in 2005 and was one of the first instructors in Scotland, if not the UK, but due too much politics as there always is in martial arts, we left the associations and just trained by ourselves. We practiced in a hall for about two to three years until it was no longer viable and so we just started to train outside. He had found a little space in a park. A lovely area next to a river (The River Kelvin) in Kelvingrove Park and we have been training there ever since.
The problem is the Scottish weather. It is always raining. I have to train though. I’m like a drug addict in that respect. If I don’t train, I get really restless. I train in the open ground in any weather. I would come home after training in the rain and get told off by my mum! I’ve trained through storms before.When something like this becomes a part of you, you just can’t let it go.
As you become more experienced and grow, it no longer becomes about just how to swing a sword.
Sensei is very tough. He is calm in his teaching but I’ve never seen anyone so tough! There is so much work that you have to do before you even hold the sword to get your body and mind in the right place. For me, it’s not about physical aspect. Psychologically, you grow through martial arts and you become a lot more mature. A lot of people go in with a certain mind set, like ‘I’m going to learn the deadliest strike’. I am a traditionalist. The external side of it will help you to be a good fighter but the internal side helps you fight your own demons. As you become more experienced and grow, it no longer becomes about just how to swing a sword. It’s a spiritual growth, a spiritual journey. The training helps you become more at peace. I can see that this can seem a bit ironic.
We’ve practiced many other martial arts to develop ourselves. We’ve trained together in empty hand arts such as Ba gua and Xing Yi (Quan) Aikido, Hapkido, Taekwondo and Tai Chi. Also on the pressure point arts, Dimmak, Fa Jin, Kyusho Jitsu and the internal martial arts; Qigong and Gicheon. For me though, the weapons arts are one that I especially love. I’ve enjoyed working on the Chinese Jian and Dao as well as the Nunchuku and the Korean twin swords.My favourite weapons (to train with) are the Jingum (Korean Steel single edged sword) and the Mokkum (it’s wooden counterpart) but the one sword that is most personal to me is a particular Japanese Katana. I’m a bit of a sword collector and historian. In fact my room is covered with them. My mum hates coming in there as it looks like she’s going into an armoury! I’ve got all sorts of weapons.
There is a story around it about a man who used it to save a woman that he loved.
I found this one particular antique Katana with a bit of history behind it. It is only about seventy to eighty years old but there is a story around it about a man who used it to save a woman that he loved. It was used when a battle was taking place. It’s a beautiful story and the history of it appealed to me. I have dedicated one of my poems to it. The guard on the sword has lotus flowers going through it. It just felt like it had a woman’s touch. It kind of has two names. I want to etch one on either side; Saif-al-Naziyah (sword of purity) and Saif-al-Noor (sword of light). My full name is Naziyah Noor Mahmood, so these are Arabic terms. Only someone who knows me, or understands the little hidden riddle would realise that the words are a reflection of the owners’ name! (Not that I feel that I represent those terms in any way – they just mean a lot to me!) It is a soul saving sword rather than a death giving sword.
Tell me what challenges you have faced in your training and in your life.
Well, I have been visually impaired every since I can remember. I have never really thought about it as a disability until about four years ago. I was speaking to a friend just in general conversation when they said, “It must be a bit difficult for you because of your disability” I hadn’t really thought about it as that. I can’t make out anyone’s facial features if they stood more than a metre away from me, but when using a sword I could stop the blade just an inch from their skin. I have learned to be more aware of my surroundings. When training, your other senses become more heightened. I don’t think that I would have got to that point (state of mind) without martial arts. I’m a naturally clumsy person and a technology jinx but when I am training (in martial arts) I am very much on the dot. Just by holding my sword, my mind goes to another place. If someone were to watch me going through my moves, they may think it’s a bit of a dance. It has changed the way a walk. I walk softly and tip toe everywhere without realizing. I’ve scared my mum a few times! (laughs) I’ve also had people ask me if I was a dancer or a martial artist. I took this as a complement. I went horse riding before and the instructor commented on my good balance and asked if I was a martial artist.
I have been attacked several times in the past by a few men. Some were racial attacks.
I would never promote fighting but I feel that it is so important for woman to have some kind of basic self defense. I have been attacked several times in the past by a few men. Some were racial attacks. The (martial arts) mental training had prepared me for that moment and so was able to get away. You must take the first opportunity to get away. ‘The best wars are the ones not fought’.
I’ve had quite a few female friends asking me to teach them self defense. One of the biggest lessons I’ve given is that you should never turn to violence but if you have no other option to defend yourself, do so. Do what you can to get your attacker away from you and get away. Don’t stand around to “finish the job”, as you never know how many friends they have around the corner. Get to safety. Self defense is crucial so I’ve given a couple of lessons just to friends. A few women who had got themselves involved managed to keep themselves safe. Knowing that my friends could do this was very good for me.
Have you experienced martial arts in any other country?
One of my sister’s best friends is from China and we went over to see her family. While were there, they kind of adopted us for our time there! I love them and call them ‘Mamma’ and ‘Baba.’ My Mandarin wasn’t that good at the time, so it was all hand gestures. They found out how much I loved martial arts so took to me to see the Shaolin temples.
It’s easy these days to go abroad for a week or two and basically buy a black belt
Is there anything in Martial Arts that you don’t like?
Politics and corruption. It’s easy these days to go abroad for a week or two and basically buy a black belt. This happens often. If someone trained every day, non-stop, for a few months, it would seem a bit more understandable that they have earned it, but we see people going abroad for a week and returning with a 2nd Dan! Also, a lot of martial arts schools are turned in to a profit orientated business. It goes against what the Martial Arts is. Honour and respect go out of the window, then. Also, I don’t like people from different martial arts putting others styles down.
Who are your influences?
My influences? (Miyamoto) Musashi. He was an eccentric and his methods were odd but it just made him more likable. I’ve read his book of five rings. Hattori Hanzo. Tomore Gozenshe, a female Samurai warrior, something that was extremely rare. I love reading anything by O-Sensei (Aikido’s Morihei Ueshiba) and IP Man. I guess this is the part where I start talking about Bruce Lee? Obviously, he was a great man that started in Wing Chun and later developed his own system. Also, Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan. He wasn’t born amazing at Martial arts. He went through journeys. The influences closest to me are my Dad and Sensei.
You are involved in lots of things that may be in conflict with each other. There is a tagline on your website that says underneath your name “Walking a fine line between many worlds” Has there been any conflict between these worlds?
This is actually describing other worlds and more to do with spirituality. It’s about walking between planes. All the things I do link together very beautifully and balance out.
I have a Masters in Space Mission Analysis and Design (Aerospace engineering) and my Honors Degree is in Physics with Astrophysics. I’ve worked on satellite missions for the European Space Agency and really do love Physics and Astronomy. We still have a lot to learn and we are just starting out in the cosmos. Believing in God is not unusual for a scientist. A lot of the great scientists were spiritual or were believers. I’m not saying I’m a great scientist though! (laughs). There is such a small amount that humans actually know. We are always going to be students in life.
I’m a bit of a jack of all trades. I like painting and sculpture as well as poetry and even acted in a friends online drama. Art and martial arts go together very well. Again, a lot of the big martial artists pick up an art form to balance their hard external for soft or internal. Balance is something that everybody yearns for.
I’ve seen your poetry on your website. Have you had anything published?
I was recently pleasantly surprised to have been chosen for the Great British write off – immersed in words for my work ‘Olympus Is Falling.’ The works will be published in a book on 31st of October.
I was taken lightly and I routinely got underestimated, especially when sparring.
Have you had any difficulties as a woman practicing martial arts while following the peaceful faith of Islam?
It is true to say that some Middle Eastern cultures still believe that women practicing Martial Arts is a taboo but this is changing. I don’t know if attitudes are developing or just the fact that woman are taking more interest.
I do get a lot of odd looks when walking around Glasgow, especially when I’m training. There is still that stereotype here that women dressed like me should just be in the kitchen. An old instructor of mine used to call me his ‘little ninja girl.’ I didn’t mind because it gave me an advantage. I was taken lightly and I routinely got underestimated, especially when sparring. I remember one male student who was well over 6ft reassured me by saying,
‘Don’t worry. I will go easy on you.’
He soon found himself on the floor. It was the element of surprise. I have had offers to go to different countries such as Egypt to teach women there. The invitations have been such an honour and a privilege but I haven’t taken them up, yet.
I believe that it is crucial for every woman to at least have some basic knowledge of martial arts, if not for the exercise or spiritual side, then at least for self defence. We live in a world where we do not know what is coming around that corner at night after work. One of the main topics that usually comes up when I’m teaching some female friends, is that women tend to ‘freeze’ in a threatening situation. This can even happen to those who are technically skilled in combat. This is why I believe that the mental training is just as crucial as the physical – if you are not mentally prepared to defend yourself, your body isn’t likely to react the way you’d hope. It’s a natural reaction. When I was attacked, I remember telling myself, ‘Move. Get away.’ It’s psychological and martial arts training can help yourself get programmed to react. If I was asked to offer any advice on women considering taking up martial arts, I would just say to do it and don’t stop!
What do you feel is your best achievement?
I feel like a complete amateur in everything that I do but, I like that feeling of being on the edge of learning. If I were to ask my mum, she would say, ‘Rocket scientist’ but my best achievement was having a part in making my mum smile. This was after she wasn’t able to for such a long time. Oh, and being a sugar-o-holic. I eat so many sweets that it is amazing that I am not diabetic. My blood sugars are perfect. That’s my greatest achievement, not being diabetic!
…..and in martial arts?
In martial arts would I guess be finding my feet and my eyes through training. I didn’t go in wanting to be better that anyone else. I just want to be better than I was yesterday. I did go through a few competitions and tournaments; I prefer not to attend them now. Only then did I realise what martial arts truly is. That realisation was of the true depth of martial arts (and the concept of it being a ‘way of life’ as opposed to just a physical activity) probably came through gaining a keen sense of awareness through it, which allowed me to ‘see’ when I physically can’t. Once you go through the transience of being a physical artist, you can then realise its true teachings.
What’s next for you?
I honestly have no clue. I would love to go back to work in the Space Sector when my mum is a bit better. I will never stop learning about Physics and Astronomy or the learning behind it but most importantly, I will always keep martial arts with me. Sensei accepted me as like an apprentice. He may be going away to the Far East soon and so I may start a school?
I would like to thank Naziyah for taking part in this interview and wish her well in all her many interests and careers! If you would like to learn more about Naziyah and sample her poetry, you can view her site on the link below.
I would also like to thank Charles Hamilton for sharing his pictures and arranging this meeting. All of the pictures belong to him except the two marked by Fiona Brims.
Click here to visit an article on Charles by ‘Tom’ at Photophique.
Or click here to visit his Flikr site : https://www.flickr.com/photos/53372670@N05/
Thanks also goes to the additional photographs supplied by Fiona Brims
Click here to visit her website: www.fionabrimsphotography.co.uk