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Saturday, January 12, 2013

History of Gayong Amerika

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I.  Getting Situated – The Early Years of Gayong Amerika

Cikgu Sulaiman Sharif is Director and Imam Khalifah of Gayong Amerika
Cikgu Sulaiman Sharif
             According to Cikgu Sulaiman Sharif, the Founder, Director and Imam Khalifah of Gayong Amerika, when Dato’ Meor Abdul Rahman commissioned him to relocate to the United States to teach Silat Seni Gayong to “all mankind” in 1990, the mahaguru had a strong vision for what Gayong could become in the West. Cikgu Sulaiman, having already spent over seven years in Europe obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, was aptly chosen to go to the U.S. by Dato’ Meor to begin the difficult work of inviting westerners to partake in the world of Malay Silat for the first time. Dato’ Meor knew that it would be a difficult challenge and would probably take many years before Gayong became accepted and embraced in the West. Nevertheless, Cikgu Sulaiman went with full confidence through his endorsement from by the mahaguru himself to attempt to do that which no other Gayong teacher had previously attempted. It would be a challenge fit only for a true modern-day warrior.
Dato’ Meor Abdul Rahman mahaguru Silat Gayong
Dato’ Meor Abdul Rahman

            To this day, no one knows for sure what Dato’ Meor’s vision for Gayong in the U.S. was. However, according to Cikgu Sulaiman, the mahaguru told him that he actually saw the future of Gayong in America! Perhaps his witnessing of the fragmentation and decline of Gayong in Malaysia was the basis for his statement, however, no one truly knows. Nevertheless, the task to establish a Gayong organization in the U.S. was not a small matter according to Dato’ Meor, but one of great importance with implications for the future and tradition of the art itself. 

            Upon receiving his orders from Dato’ Meor, Cikgu Sulaiman arrived in the U.S. along with his wife, Nurliza Khalid, on the shores of California. Never having been to the U.S., he decided to first establish himself on the West coast as California is known for its very glamorous and high-profile martial arts scene. Cikgu Sulaiman, however, desired to learn about the ‘real’ America rather than the America as portrayed in the movies. As such, he spent time in violent East Lost Angeles, a primary Latino section where gangs and drugs are an everyday part of the urban landscape. His time spent in East Los Angeles gave him a quick orientation to the not-so-well-known realities of urban America. Cikgu Sulaiman valued his rather brief period there, however, and considered it an important learning experience on the ‘other side’ of the U.S. to which most foreigners know little. 

            Upon arriving in the U.S., Cikgu Sulaiman was eager to learn about the different martial arts that were being practiced and propagated, in particular the different styles of silat that were being taught. Being in California gave him the opportunity to meet and train with several well-known practitioners such as Dan Inosanto, the famed student of Bruce Lee and propagator of his art, Jeet Kune Do (JKD). Inosanto actually became a student of Cikgu Sulaiman’s for a short period from his eagerness to learn Gayong. He was so impressed with the little that he learned of Gayong that he added it to his JKD syllabus at his training academy in California. Through relationships such as this with well-known martial artists, the first few years for Cikgu Sulaiman and Gayong Amerika spent in California were spent learning about the existing martial arts ‘scene’ and introducing people to Gayong. As such, Cikgu Sulaiman was involved in many seminars and workshops with other martial artists to give Gayong publicity. Especially being in California, a hotbed of martial arts activity, Cikgu Sulaiman felt that it was important to get the word out to the martial arts community about Gayong; thus, he focused much of his time on promotion of the art. 

            Through the early experiences of Gayong Amerika in California, Cikgu Sulaiman learned that much of the existing silat in the U.S. at the time was of Indonesian decent, and was being taught mainly by Dutch practitioners. From his exposure and interaction with these people, he also learned that Malay Silat was virtually unknown and unheard of in the States. Furthermore, through he and his early students’ inquiries into the existing silat schools, he learned that what was primarily taught and passed on as ‘silat’ was essentially glorified kung fu! He saw very little of that which could be considered authentic silat. As such, he set out to show the American martial arts community the authenticity and effectiveness of Malay silat, to illustrate the clear difference between it and what most of the existing teachers in the U.S. were promoting as silat. 

            Accordingly, the early years of Gayong Amerika in California involved many demonstrations and workshops in an effort to promote Malay Silat and Silat Gayong in particular. Although the promotional attempts were effective, Cikgu Sulaiman found that many American students did not ‘stick around’ for very long. Many who would see a demonstration of Silat Gayong at a workshop or seminar would often show immediate interest. However, when they began their training, they would often drop out and quit very early on. As such, Cikgu Sulaiman was unable to build a consistent following of students who were committed to Gayong while in California. Of course, most of those expressing interest at this stage of the game were non-Muslims from the American martial arts scene. 

Americans who saw Gayong for the first time were often impressed with the art and interested in learning it. However, once they began training and ‘felt’ Gayong with its dead locks and various forms of body manipulations, many students became intimidated and lost interest. Furthermore, from Cikgu Sulaiman’s experiences with American students he noticed that many of them had difficulty with the unique movements of Gayong. Even those who had received prior silat training, their bodies were not able to withstand the pressure and force of kunci mati, for example, nor were they able to torque and twist in the unique way of Malay silat. Cikgu Sulaiman, after realizing this, changed his approach to teaching by first preparing students to do Gayong through focusing on body conditioning. As such, his classes would involve at least one hour’s worth of special Gayong exercises to strengthen those areas of the body that required it – such as the legs – and improve flexibility of the joints and other relevant areas. This was needed in order for students to be able to execute even the basic or foundational Gayong movements. In this way, Cikgu Sulaiman adjusted his teaching of Gayong to suit the American student. This, however, may have added to the difficulty for many American students to continue with Gayong. Realizing that Silat Gayong was not like other arts, many American martial arts students were not prepared to make the sacrifice required, which included essentially how to use and move one’s body in a completely foreign way. This, however, was an unavoidable reality for Cikgu Sulaiman and Gayong Amerika. What they were bringing to the U.S. and its people was unlike any martial art seen before. 

II.                Gayong Amerika Moves East
After a few years in California, Cikgu Sulaiman and sister Nurliza began to grow weary of the California martial arts scene and felt that perhaps Gayong could be better served in another part of the country. They grew increasingly turned off by the character and lifestyle of many of the martial artists that they came in contact with in California. Many such people, they found, desired only to derive money and fame from their practice of martial arts. Cikgu Sulaiman had little desire to teach people with such intentions. They also had the desire to become more involved in the affairs and struggles of the American Muslim community, and hoped that Gayong would be more widely appreciated and embraced by Muslims. 

Through a friendship at the time with renowned martial artist Mark Wiley, Cikgu Sulaiman was invited to move to the east coast and relocate his operations to the city of Philadelphia. The east coast of the U.S. differs in many ways to the West and Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza learned about these differences very early on upon their arrival in Philadelphia. For one, the weather in the Eastern U.S. is much more variable than in the West. There are very cold winters and very hot summers on the east coast, which meant that for four months of the year, Cikgu Sulaiman would be forced to teach Gayong inside to avoid the extreme cold and inclement weather. This required finding a facility in order to teach. In addition, the lifestyle on the east coast is generally faster and more working-class as opposed to the ‘glamorous’ and easygoing West Coast way of life. 

            The differences between the East and West coast lifestyles of the U.S. were discovered early on by Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza. Philadelphia, in particular, is a city that is known for its rugged and ‘no-nonsense’ people. It is a city with much history and character, being the early capital of the nation prior to Washington D.C., and its people are predominantly of blue-collar background. Philadelphians are known for their direct, often coarse way of interacting, which is one of several obvious differences between them and people from the Western U.S.  

Gayong Amerika’s arrival in Philadelphia meant a new scene -- a scene that would entail a very different martial arts atmosphere. The martial artists on the east coast that expressed interest in Gayong early on were primarily concerned with practical application as opposed to concerns of style and flash, like many of the martial artists in California. Easterners, particularly those from the urban areas are more practical-thinking, and tend to take up martial arts for self-defense reasons. As such, they are often drawn more towards those arts which are practical ‘on the street’, or which are useful in actual self-defense situations. Being a violent country, particularly the urban environments, many people rely on martial arts for street fighting, and Cikgu Sulaiman had students that fit this mold as well. As such, they were often drawn to Gayong’s very brutal but practical methods. 

The east coast approach to martial arts suited Cikgu Sulaiman and Gayong Amerika much better than what they experienced in the West. There was much initial interest from people in and around the Philadelphia area when Gayong Amerika arrived as many students seemed eager to learn the art. Initially, being based in the area of the University of Pennsylvania, he utilized the university as a base from which to draw potential students. In addition, he and Nurliza relied on the university students for their livelihood which early on was supported through catering and other restaurant-type business efforts. 

After some time, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza decided to move to a neighborhood known as West Philadelphia. It was there that they opened their first of two restaurants featuring all-halal cuisine. West Philadelphia, like East Los Angeles, is notorious for being one of the most violent, crime-ridden areas of not only the greater Philadelphia region, but in the entire U.S. It is comprised mainly of African-Americans and is home to a great deal of urban poverty, drug use and gang warfare. However, it is also an area with a growing Muslim population, primarily comprised of African-American converts to Islam. A large percentage of the native U.S. Muslim population is comprised of such populations of black Americans, who reside in the low-income inner cities. As such, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza attempted to serve this burgeoning Muslim population by opening up the only completely halal restaurant in that neighborhood. 

Their time spent in West Philadelphia was difficult but rewarding. Cikgu Sulaiman’s presence in the neighborhood had a dramatic impact, and with Allah’s help he was able to chase away many of the drug pushers that had made the area unsafe for the local residents, particularly the women and children. In so doing, he gained a reputation in the neighborhood as the “crazy Oriental man” for standing up to the drug pushers. His efforts paid off, however, and after two years, the residents were able to travel freely without fear of harassment. Furthermore, through their restaurant they made many inroads with the Muslim community. They learned about the struggles and unique problems of being Muslim in inner-city America where there was a huge dearth of knowledge about Islam. As such, many of the Muslims there, Cikgu Sulaiman learned, did not have the proper foundation of basic Islamic knowledge including such areas as fiqh, because of the lack of knowledgeable Islamic teachers. As a result, many of the Muslims they met did not follow any mazhab and rather subscribed to the ‘salafiyyah-wahhabi’ sect, which preaches among other things that anyone – regardless of their level of knowledge – can determine on his or her own how to practice Islam by simply reading Qur’an an ahadith

Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza found themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to teach many of the Muslims they met about basic Islamic concepts and practices due to the lack of authentic knowledge in the Muslim community. Their time in Philadelphia and their Gayong mission thus took somewhat of a turn based on this glaring need among the Muslims there. Although the mission to promote and propagate Gayong continued, there was the additional need to become more intimately involved with the Muslim community to help Islam grow and prosper. Through the propagation of Gayong and their restaurant business, therefore, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza began to become ad-hoc Islamic teachers and advisors. 

Cikgu Sulaiman’s ongoing instruction of Gayong focused mainly on students and nearby residents of the University of Pennsylvania. This included both Muslims and non-Muslims, and it was during this period where Gayong Amerika had its first grading, which established the very first class of American students to receive bengkung putih in Silat Seni Gayong. A small group of this first class of students became quite close with Cikgu Sulaiman and showed much promise. However, as so often was the case in the history of Gayong Amerika, after a while that small group left the fold of Gayong as well. Despite their closer relations with the African-American Muslims in Philadelphia, few of the adults from the community desired to learn Gayong. Cikgu Sulaiman tried promoting the art in a number of ways which often included a variety of print advertisements in the local papers. Nevertheless, despite their curiosity, few from the community chose to partake of Gayong for any extended period. 

Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza spent much time with the Malaysian students of the University of Pennsylvania and nearby Drexel University, and often catered the food for their student events. The Malay students also provided steady business for their second restaurant, ‘South of Siam’, which was located closer to the two Universities and in a much more opportune location than the first. With their restaurant going strong, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza were spending about 18 hours per day on the business. They wanted to provide a resource for the Muslim community in the form of the only full-service all-halal restaurant in their area and worked hard at establishing and running it. Eventually, however, despite a four-star rating by the local newspaper critic and affordable prices for university students, ‘South of Siam’ was eventually sold. Trying to run the business themselves became too demanding for Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza, and they wanted get more deeply involved in what they saw as deep educational dilemmas occurring within the native Muslim community. One of the efforts along these lines including producing magazines and trade publications for the Muslim community, in an effort to strengthen economic relations among Muslims doing business. Their magazines were well-received and included a combination of articles about Islam, current events pertinent to the Muslim community, as well as advertisements and banners promoting Muslim businesses and merchants. Again, however, they were alone in their efforts, and had much difficulty generating active and ongoing support from others. They always envisioned their ideas as cooperative communal efforts among interested parties, but had much difficulty getting others from the community to invest their time and energy into the projects. As such, they often had to do all the work themselves.

After a short period teaching for an Islamic school in Philadelphia, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza decided to move their operations out of Philadelphia and across the Delaware River into New Jersey. Through a Muslim friend, they were offered to stay in a house in Paulsboro, New Jersey for free. The trade-off was, however, that Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza would have to teach the owner’s two children. With that offer, Gayong Amerika would make its third major move out of the urban center of Philadelphia and into the suburbs of New Jersey. It was a move that they hoped would give them more time to focus on teaching, as well as build a strong base of students to carry Gayong forward. Being in New Jersey and away from the busy urban lifestyle of Philadelphia would also provide them with a quieter place to do their work, more space and an environment more conducive to the Islamic lifestyle.

Cikgu Sulaiman’s efforts to teach and spread Gayong eventually reached places like New York City. New York, two plus hours north of Paulsboro, New Jersey, has a bustling martial arts community that features arts from all over the world, in line with the cosmopolitan culture of New York itself and its diverse population. Through teaching Gayong classes in New York on weekends, Cikgu Sulaiman developed a small but close-knit following of Gayong students who were also regular attendees at many martial arts workshops in the U.S.  Cikgu Sulaiman was often invited to teach at the workshops to demonstrate Gayong, after which students would acquire interest and visit his classes for further training. Gayong was unlike anything even the well-versed martial arts students had ever seen, and as such, they were hungry to learn more about it. Many of the seminars took place in New York City and the surrounding areas. Subsequently, this small but loyal following of students – including both Muslims and non-Muslims – would train regularly with him on Saturday mornings in New York. To hold his class, he rented space at a martial arts studio near Chinatown and would teach one two-hour class every week. After some of the regular students expressed a more serious interest in Gayong, Cikgu Sulaiman extended an invitation to the group to train with him at his house in New Jersey on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings every week. He encouraged them to work toward the Gayong assistant instructorship course or jurulatih training.  

Cikgu Sulaiman’s experience in Paulsboro, New Jersey was a great test in executing Dato’ Meor’s charge of teaching Gayong to “all mankind.” The U.S., particularly the east coast urban areas such as Philadelphia and New York, is comprised of people from all backgrounds and walks of life -- different races, different religions and different lifestyles. The same reality exists within the American martial arts community as well. As such, a Gayong teacher in the U.S. must always be prepared to teach people and present the knowledge of Gayong to people that may come from completely foreign backgrounds. As a Muslim, Cikgu Sulaiman was always conscious of his duty to Allah, as well as to his teacher, to not only spread the art of Gayong but to spread the teachings of Islam in so doing. As such, a great amount of teaching skill, patience and knowledge about peoples’ strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and backgrounds was needed. Furthermore, Cikgu Sulaiman always made a point to try to learn about his students and get to know them personally. For example, at one point, Gayong Amerika classes were comprised of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and atheists, in addition to having both children and adults! Nevertheless, the classes worked. One of Cikgu Sulaiman’s strategies in molding and unifying his diverse classes was to invite people to his house to partake in traditional Malay cuisine and ‘makan-makan’ sessions to allow the students to get to know one another, as well as for them all to get to know their teacher. With people of such variety, this also helped the students to learn about one another and to learn about Islam and Malay culture in a unique non-threatening way. 

It was thus in Paulsboro that the first Gayong class of jurulatih, who achieved the level of pilangi merah or red belt, initially came together. Though a few of the first group of eight assistant instructors began their training with Cikgu Sulaiman back when he was still living in Philadelphia, as a group, they first began to train consistently on Saturday mornings in New York City, followed by additional intensive classes at Cikgu Sulaiman’s house on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. For many in the group, travel was a big factor that required them to do all of their weekly training in the two-day span of Saturday and Sunday. Some had to travel as far as two to three hours to attend the trainings at Cikgu Sulaiman’s house. Nevertheless, it was a highly committed group that finally persevered and achieved the level of jurulatih in Gayong Amerika, the first group to do so.
Cikgu Abdul Majid Mat Isa, Chief Instructor of Silat Seni Pusaka Gayong Malaysia (PSSPGM)
Cikgu Abdul Majid Mat Isa

Perhaps what made it even more special for the group was that they were fortunate enough to be trained and tested by none other than Cikgu Abdul Majid Mat Isa himself, the Chief Instructor of Silat Seni Pusaka Gayong Malaysia (PSSPGM), who visited Gayong Amerika in the summers of 1998 and 1999 at the invitation of Cikgu Sulaiman. In 1998, Cikgu Majid spent nearly three months with the Gayong Amerika students, and passed on the entire Pusaka Gayong syllabus to Cikgu Sulaiman. Per Cikgu Majid’s advice, Cikgu Sulaiman even changed the name of the organization from Silat Seni Gayong Amerika to simply Gayong Amerika, the name that is still used to the present day. The following summer, in 1999, Cikgu Majid brought along his long-time friend Ustaz Abdullah to the U.S.  Cikgu Majid had told Cikgu Sulaiman that in his second visit to the U.S., he wanted to conduct a grading for the group of potential red belts. Cikgu Sulaiman agreed, and the group had to quickly brush up on its syllabus, including both the white and green syllabi, to prepare for the grading with Cikgu Majid. Despite the time crunch and pressure, by the grace of Allah, all eight were successful. Cikgu Majid said he felt proud and privileged to be a part of more Gayong history as the first-ever group of Gayong Amerika assistant instructors was appointed. 

Upon his return to Malaysia, Cikgu Majid contacted Cikgu Sulaiman a few weeks later and invited Gayong Amerika to Malaysia. For the American students, it was the opportunity they had been eagerly anticipating. It was the perfect follow-up to their successful grading and promotion. After hearing so much about Malaysia from Cikgu Sulaiman, including the stories about many of the legendary Gayong practitioners, Gayong Amerika would finally make their way east to the home of Silat Seni Gayong.

In November of 1999, just four months after receiving their red belts at the hands of Cikgu Majid, seven of the Gayong Amerika students traveled to Malaysia for two-and-a-half weeks to conduct a series of demonstrations and to spend time at Cikgu Majid’s house and the Training Center for Pusaka Gayong in Gurun, to continue their acquisition of Gayong knowledge. They were treated to an incredible five days in Gurun, being the center of attention, and were afforded opportunities to take in classes, view demonstrations, talk with the teachers, both young and old, and soak in all the Gayong knowledge they could. The group was asked to do several demonstrations, as the Malaysians were very eager to see how the Americans performed their traditional Malay art. Despite a couple of key injuries to the American group, they were able to pull off a number of strong demonstrations that left the Malaysian audiences impressed and proud that their art was being so well preserved and represented in the U.S. 

The remainder of the trip to Malaysia included visits to Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza’s families, a trip to K.L. to see the ‘big city’, and other trips such as one to Taiping and the grave of Dato’ Meor Abdul Rahman and other Gayong legends. In addition, much time was spent in Penang, with the Pusaka Gayong students and teachers. Visits were made to teachers’ homes, such as those of Cikgu Abdul Rahman, Cikgu Fauzi, Cikgu Rosli and others. The Gayong Amerika team also did several demonstrations there including one at the annual Penang festival. The most memorable moment perhaps for Gayong Amerika was the Penang team’s welcoming demonstration in the Penang airport at 2:00 in the morning when Gayong Amerika first arrived from their flight into Kuala Lumpur. Cikgu Majid and the Penang students and teachers all welcomed Gayong Amerika with a brief demonstration in the airport itself. It was quite a start to an exciting trip.

The long two and a half weeks in Malaysia finally came to a close. Despite the incredible experience had by Gayong Amerika in Malaysia, the new friendships that were made and the knowledge acquired, the trip was not without its casualties. Firstly, the author sustained a serious knee injury in a demonstration in Kulim, Kedah that rendered him sidelined from Gayong for almost an entire year. In addition, immediately upon returning to the U.S., several of the other Gayong Amerika students had to travel to Pakistan for four months and subsequently never fully returned to training. As such, the group, which had seen and accomplished so much throughout much of 1999, ended the year on a down note, forcing Cikgu Sulaiman to re-assess his approach. Thinking that he would have a ‘staff’ of seven instructors (one was Malaysian and returned home after completing his studies) to begin the work of spreading Gayong throughout the U.S., by the end of 1999 he was left with only two or three active instructors. It was at this point that Cikgu Sulaiman made a dramatic shift in his strategy for propagating Gayong in the U.S.

III.             The Youth Problem: Gayong as Solution to Muslim Youth Social Ills
As Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza had already been involved in educating the local Muslim youth, they decided that the focus of the work would be primarily on this group. For more than ten years in the U.S., Cikgu Sulaiman had focused much of his effort and time propagating Gayong to adult martial arts students. Despite having many students over the years, only a handful had been able to stay with the art for a considerable length of time. With the unfortunate turn of events following the Malaysian trip, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza decided to focus solely on young people and to attempt to meet the glaring need for high quality, effective education for young at-risk Muslim youth. As such, Gayong would become a tool for Islamic youth development. 

The need for the type of program Gayong Amerika was offering Muslim youth was tremendous. Overnight, Gayong Amerika became a full-boarding home school. It started small with only a handful of students, but through word of mouth in the community, the project quickly grew to its maximum of 30 students within two years. Furthermore, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza were forced to turn students away as they reached their maximum limit for enrollment. Thus, 30 students between the ages of 9 and 15 lived with Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza full-time as Gayong disciples. When the house they were using as their home and school became too small, they decided to branch out into the local community to find a larger and more suitable facility for the school. Allah then directed them to an old grocery store that was no longer being used. Through a series of events that could only be explained as acts of God, Allah facilitated for Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza to rent, and then eventually purchase the entire building. A wonderful two-story facility, the old grocery store was made up of an upstairs comprising three spacious apartments for student living quarters, including one large all-purpose room that was used as the main classroom for the children’s classes. The downstairs, where the grocery store was formerly located, was a huge open space that Cikgu Sulaiman converted into a Silat Gayong gelanggang. It was space large enough to accommodate 100 people and was ample for Gayong classes, demonstrations and for holding Friday prayers for the local community. All in all, the building was quickly converted into a complete academy for Islamic, academic and Gayong studies as well as a place for communal ‘ibadah with the local community. With their new facility and a band of young and eager students, Gayong Academy was now complete.
            Gayong Academy represented the culmination of more than ten years of work and struggle. It was a special place, a place of learning and molding Muslim youth who had been given little prior chance to succeed. According to Cikgu Sulaiman, the role Gayong Academy played with its students was to prepare them to eventually return as leaders to their families and communities. As the Academy received certification from the local school boards as a registered home school, students at Gayong Academy would study there and then take state achievement exams to qualify them for higher education, insha-Allah. In this way, students would not have to return to the public education system from which many of them were rejected. As such, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza had full autonomy to teach and mold the students however they saw fit. This was the vision that they had for the Academy and their plan for enriching the Muslim community to which their students belonged.

            Through ongoing consistency in the application of knowledge, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza worked to undue much of the self-destructiveness that their students acquired from their home lives and previous school environments, as they often were in conflict with Islamic teachings and norms. According to Cikgu Sulaiman, ongoing consistency in application means uncompromising discipline and dedication to the Islamic way of life. This must be inculcated daily through lessons and teaching, and must result in manifested changes in behavior and attitudes on the part of the students. Required action at Gayong Academy meant learning, caring for the school environs, making the compulsory and recommended worship (‘ibadah), eating properly and maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, helping one another as brothers, and performing the traditional Malay martial art of Silat Seni Gayong. Living at Gayong Academy meant being fully entrenched in an environment purposefully designed 24 hours a day. From the early morning (fajr) prayer to after the nighttime (‘isha) prayer, Gayong Academy’s disciples were engaged in meaningful activities. Such a high concentration of activity did not exclude time for recreation and rest however, for Islam requires human beings to respect the rights our bodies have over us. Thus, even leisure time was scheduled at the Academy. Rest and recreation was not afforded to students to fill time, but rather to balance out their day and provide their bodies and minds with a needed break at appropriate times. Purposeful planning of each day made the Academy way of life an Islamic way of life – one of balance, moderation, purpose and worship. 

Gayong Academy was thus established as a response to the grave educational problems facing young the young Muslims growing up in America’s inner-city environments. Such youth are often labeled as problem cases very early on in life and, as a result, can never escape from these stigmas. To adequately serve this population of youth, Gayong Academy was started to provide an alternative educational solution to the problems faced by these young people. In effect, the Academy tried to alter the entire education experience for youth who – for a variety of reasons – could not succeed in the public education systems where they lived. 

            The notion of altering the education experience as a goal of Islamic education has been purported by Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Founder and Director of ISTAC (The International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilization) in Malaysia, in several of his works. As he writes in his book, “Islam and Secularism” (1993), that the current task of Islamic educators should be to alter the system of education – and in some cases to modify it – so that it patterns itself after the Islamic system of order and discipline. As an Academy of Islamic education, this was part of the founding goal of Gayong Academy – to create an educational alternative for youth who had virtually nowhere else to go and to bring order to the lives of young people who had never known it before. Thus, instead of simply providing a different educational setting within the same philosophical system, Gayong Academy attempted to re-create the entire educational experience for its students. An educational experience that was completely different than the one they received in the public school system in that it valued them as human beings first and above all else, and aimed to develop them in the Islamic mold of vicegerents or just leaders (khulafah), not simply citizens of the U.S.  Public education systems the world over have the goal of developing youth to become ‘human resources’. As such, their value as human beings is only measured in terms of their capacity to contribute to the creation of wealth in the society. They are seen only in terms of the productive value – as economic resources. This represents a major contrast between the modern education system and the Islamic, and one that has had and continues to have dire consequences for children everywhere. 

Gayong Academy thus focused on a population of Muslim youth who were, according to U.S. education standards, ‘special needs’ students. As such, Academy youth were not what is typically deemed as ‘normal’ young people. Academy students were those labeled ‘failures’ and ‘problems’ by American society, some at as young an age as seven years old. 

            With the Academy now going strong, Cikgu Sulaiman wanted to make one final attempt to bring the various silat teachers in the U.S. together, in an attempt to unify silat in the U.S.  Cikgu Sulaiman had hoped to even work toward the creation of a national silat team to compete in the international silat competitions held every year. Now with a regulation-size gelanggang, Cikgu Sulaiman proposed putting together a Warrior’s Council of silat teachers in the U.S. who would come together periodically to plan and work toward a national silat team. Furthermore, the group could work together to promote silat in the U.S. by teaming up for demonstrations and workshops on a national scale. Cikgu Sulaiman contacted all known silat teachers in the U.S. and proposed his idea. Some were fairly warm to the notion; however, the majority wanted nothing to do with the idea. At this point, Cikgu Sulaiman knew that his vision for a united silat council could not occur due to the mentality of the silat practitioners in the U.S. 

The concept of cooperation and working together is foreign in the American martial arts culture, where competition is the name of the game. Martial artists in the U.S. try to outdo the each other, and there is no understanding of working together for the sake of one’s art. In terms of silat in particular, the understanding of the foundation of the art is missed because to most practitioners there, silat is merely another form of self-defense, solely a physical exercise. There is no religious element to it, thus, they do not view it and live it as a way of life. This is the clear difference between living one’s art and simply practicing it. In the U.S., martial artists for the most part do not live their arts, but only learn the physical applications of them. As such, Cikgu Sulaiman’s goal for the U.S. to have an official, united Silat team led by a Warrior’s Council would not come to pass.

IV.             September 11th and the End of an Era
            Gayong Academy was in full operation for over three years and thriving when September 11th, 2001 hit. Paulsboro, NJ, where the Academy was located, was just over two hours away from New York City, the site of Ground Zero. September 11th had a dramatic impact on American society, particularly the Muslim community. After September 11th, although Gayong Academy did not experience any direct problems, life as an Islamic school became very difficult. Many parents pulled their children out of the school for a period fearing for their safety. There were several incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the government was putting a lot of pressure on many Islamic organizations, forcing many to close and/or leave the U.S. altogether. As such, the environment became very unfriendly and unsettling for Gayong Academy, although alhamdulillah they did not have any problems in their immediate community. This was at least partly due to the very positive relations they had with the local residents, including the police department, which was located directly across the street from the Academy.

            Weighing in all the factors, about eight months following the September 11th incident, Gayong Amerika decided that 13 years was enough in the U.S. and that it was time to relocate their operations back to Malaysia. Such a move was also strategic. They had hopes that ten or so of their oldest students could further their studies at the International Islamic University, as well as further their advancement in Gayong. As such, to accomplish these two goals, Malaysia was the best place and setting to do this. In addition, as a Muslim country, the environment would inevitably be much more hospitable to their goals.

            So with that, Cikgu Sulaiman and Nurliza had wrapped up their work in America and returned to Malaysia in mid-2002. Despite the relocation, their work would continue in Malaysia through the work of TIGA, the Taqwa Gayong International Academy, which included the ongoing training of several American students along with local Malay youth and others. Through their ongoing work with the American students, they are hopeful that the students will eventually return to the U.S. and continue the work of Gayong Amerika. Currently, Jurulatih Aqil Abdussalam, who is currently teaching in and around Camden, New Jersey, is the sole active representative of Gayong Amerika in the U.S.  Aqil is also working to put together a series of annual training camps for American martial artists to visit Malaysia and southern Thailand to study and learn Gayong and Muay Thai directly from the masters. Such a camp would be a one of a kind experience for westerners, who have never been given such an opportunity before.  

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