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13 Mei 2021

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On a warm September afternoon, nearly a dozen young black and brown boys make their way down the stairs of a two-story store-front building, all dressed in black Silat uniforms. As they form several rows, a middle-aged Malaysian man gently arranges them. Boys ranging from around six to fifteen years of age begin rigorous martial arts training that lasts three full hours (often longer). Their instructor focuses on strength conditioning, flexibility and practical self-defense applications packaged in a series of techniques, or jurus. After their daily Silat training, the boys are ushered to the dining area by a pleasant South-East Asian woman for a warm, home-cooked meal–the older boys helping to serve the younger ones. Earlier in the day, she had been their academic and religious teacher, giving them math and English instruction as well as Arabic language lessons. After dinner, the boys line up shoulder-to-shoulder for evening prayers, closely following their teacher’s prayer movements in a synchronized fashion. This daily routine that commenced at sunrise, ends after sunset with a full day of mind-stimulating activities that included academic and religious studies, in addition to their Silat martial arts training.

Daily training at the Taqwa Gayong Academy (TGA) from 1993-2002 in Silat Seni Gayong

Cikgu Sulaiman Sharif (Cikgu is a term of respect) and his wife at the time, Nurliza Khalid were the caretakers of as many as 40 young black boys at the Taqwa Gayong Academy (TGA) from 1993-2002 in Paulsboro, New Jersey. Although Paulsboro is relatively safe now, during the time of TGA, it had a crime rate higher than nearly 60% of cities in the USA. Sulaiman and Nurliza dedicated all their attention to running this full-time boarding school for Muslim youth that focused on orphans and young people from troubled backgrounds. Their unique teaching methods used Silat martial arts and Islamic guidelines to offer a family-like atmosphere that provided a nurturing, yet highly-disciplined, environment.

Sulaiman came to the United States in 1990 with the sole purpose of spreading the art of Silat. He first arrived in Beverly Glen, Los Angeles with Nurliza, who came with higher education aspirations. Sulaiman was personally commissioned by Daeing Meor Abd Rahman, the founder Silat Seni Gayong Malaysia, to relocate to the USA in order to spread the art. Sulaiman, having already spent over seven years in Europe obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, agreed to go to the USA and begin the challenging work of inviting Americans to learn Malay Silat for the first time.

Cikgu Sulaiman Sharif

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. He connected first with Pak Herman Suwanda, who had also come to the USA in 1980 to teach Pencak Silat Mande Muda from Indonesia. Sulaiman began training high profile martial artists including Dan Inasanto, Blaine Loong, Cass Magda, Yusof Siregar and Steve Terani. He taught Silat for several years in California, but struggled to find students willing to put in the time and effort to properly learn Silat. Martial arts had already become quite commercialized, and it was difficult finding American students who were willing to study Silat as more than a passing interest.

Cikgu Sulaiman with some of his early Silat students

Through a friendship at the time with renowned martial artist Mark Wiley, Sulaiman was invited to move to the East Coast and relocate his operations to the city of Philadelphia. Being a rougher area, people were more interested in practical, no-nonsense self-defense styles that could be used on the street. Sulaiman’s new students found Gayong Silat perfect for the urban environment.

After some time, Sulaiman and Nurliza decided to move from East Philly to West Philly. Teaching Silat did not bring in much money, so, in order to pay bills, they opened their first of two restaurants featuring all-halal cuisine. There was a growing Muslim population in the area primarily comprised of African-American converts to Islam. Sulaiman and Nurliza developed their understanding of the area and opened a butcher shop and bookstore, selling books, clothing and garments that catered to the Philly Muslim community. All during this time, Sulaiman was teaching Silat out of his house, in New York on the weekend, and rented space at a martial arts studio near Chinatown, Philadelphia where he would teach a two-hour class every week.

Sulaiman and Nurliza decided to focus solely on young people and to attempt to meet the need for high quality, effective education for young at-risk Muslim youth. Silat, being a martial art tightly coupled with spirituality, required more than just a fleeting interest which he saw in many of his adult students. Sulaiman and Nurliza realized that in order to really teach Silat, they would need to start at a younger age and infuse Islamic spirituality while teaching Silat for a fully compressive Gayong Silat experience.

TGA Building, then and now.

After renovating several old restaurants and selling them, Sulaiman and Nurliza were able to finally purchase a building in Paulsboro, New Jersey which would become the Tawqa Gayong Academy, the first ever Silat boarding school in the USA. The building was converted to a school with the 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 Sulaiman converted into a Silat Gayong gelanggang (dojo). The space was large enough to accommodate 100 people and the building was quickly transformed into an academy for religious, academic and Gayong Silat training, as well as a place for communal worship with the local Muslim community.

Hassan Booker, a man now in his 30s, began at TGA when he was around 12 years old. He fondly remembers his time during the four years at the academy, “We were still in the ghetto, but the academy allowed us to get away from the ills of the society that was all around us. Others around us would either end up dead, into drugs, womanizers and all that. The academy taught us adab (principles of behavior) and gave us a moral foundation that we kept for the rest of our lives.” Although Hassan admitted that he forgot most of the Silat techniques he was taught, he recognizes the discipline and structure from TGA that transformed his life.

Although TGA was a Muslim based academy, 80% of the parents who willingly enrolled their kids were not from a Muslim background. Although students were required to conform to the structure of the Islamic way of life, including regular prayer, no drugs or alcohol, Sulaiman emphasized that students who were non-Muslim were never forced to become Muslim. “We would even have comparative religious studies, and we always encouraged students if they were Christian, to be a good Christian, or if they were Jewish, to be a good Jew. There is no compulsion in our religion.”

Nurliza Khalid

Nurliza, an English major in college, had a natural inclination for teaching. She not only administered their daily education, she would also cook for them. “I did not know how to cook when I came to America, but I quickly learned,” Nurliza joked. “I also taught them religious studies, Arabic vocabulary and how to recite the Quran.” Although she wasn’t a Silat practitioner herself, she was given the honorary title of Srikandi Gayong (Silat warrior princess) by one of the senior Masters of Seni Gayong Silat due to her help in spreading Silat.

She related a story of a kid who was the son of a single father from the Ivory Coast. After getting in multiple violent incidents with students and teachers at his school, his father was completely fed up with his son. In desperation, he put a gun to his son’s face, called TGA and threatened to shoot his son if they didn’t accept him into their school. Sulaiman and Nurliza agreed. After 2 years, the father returned and broke down crying when he saw his son leading taraweeh prayers, melodiously reciting verses from the Quran in Arabic. “I was hoping he would just go from being an animal to a human. I didn’t expect him to be this!” his father admitted.

Cikgu Sulaiman with members of his Silat demonstration team

With daily Silat training for 3-4 hours, the young boys soon became talented martial artists. Sulaiman formed a Silat demonstration team and they performed for audiences at various universities, events and shows across the East Coast. Audiences were awed by the discipline and structure of these youth that performed jaw-dropping synchronized martial arts routines and fighting skits. At many of the Silat demonstrations, Sulaiman would also discuss the history of the art, thus fulfilling his teacher’s wish of spreading Gayong Silat to all of humanity.

Sulaiman and Nurliza were finally able to teach the “real” Silat–one that combines martial arts with spirituality, education and community development. Teaching young people respect, discipline and self-confidence was the essence of Silat. “Silat is a lifestyle and that lifestyle has to be holistic. It must involve ruhanniya (spirituality). A body without a soul is a carcass. A pesilat (silat practitioner) has to win a fight, however a true pendikar (Silat master) has to win over his enemy,” Sulaiman stated.

Nurliza would help with academic and religious studies and also general care for students at TGA

Although Sulaiman and Nurliza were able to recall many fond memories of the times at the TGA, they also noted that many times it was a struggle to keep the school afloat. Although they received some community funding, the financial responsibility of housing dozens of youth still rested on their shoulders. Nurliza recalls a time when the weather started to become extremely cold. They only had enough money to either heat the building or pay for food. They decided to pay for the heat, but asked all the students to pray for food, and particularly the types of food they wished for. The following day, a vehicle came unexpectedly from a Turkish charity full of food–with all the types of food and fruits the young students had prayed for.

After 9-11, Islamic schools came under increasing scrutiny from the government. TGA had formed a great relationship with local police (headquartered near the TGA) as a vehicle for crime reduction. However, the increasing suspicion of local authorities towards Muslims negatively affected the community’s perception. Country wide fear of Islam forced the closure of a number of American Islamic schools such as the Islamic Saudi Academy and IIASA in Virginia. In New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an English-Arabic public school became the target of an organization called “Stop the Madrassa,” which protested its existence until it was eventually closed in 2011 by the Department of Education. Even a public school, Riverheads High School, in Staunton, Virginia was temporarily closed because of an Islamic calligraphy homework assignment that angered parents.

TGA succumbed to a similar fate like these other institutions. Being a school that taught young, “troublesome” black boys Islamic studies and Silat martial arts, it was considered too dangerous. In 2002, TGA received a cease-and-desist order from the government. Sulaiman and Nurliza decided to move back to Malaysia, taking some of the young boys with them in order to continue their education. They initially took nine of the boys (the ones who had passports) while others came to Malaysia at different times over the course of several years as they obtained proper travel documents.

Some of the TGA students who relocated to Malaysia

They sold the building in Paulsboro.

Although they relocated to Malaysia, they are still very proud of their work in Paulsboro, New Jersey with their former students. “Many have gone on to receive college degrees and even doctorate degrees,” Nurliza proudly acknowledged. Sulaiman continues to teach Gayong Silat in Malaysia and returns to the USA every so often to teach Silat seminars. Nurliza has her own English school in Malaysia and continues to keep in contact with some of her earlier students, many who have received degrees in higher education and have started families of their own. “TGA became like a Shaolin Temple for these kids. They got to live with their teachers, eat with their teachers, pray with their teachers and train with their teachers,” Nurliza stated.

Cikgu Sulaiman sums up his experience in New Jersey, “Wherever you live, your existence must benefit everybody else, before yourself. Then your existence is justified.”

“Then and now” photos of some of the students of TGA

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