Live by the sword: 'Game of Thrones' inspires ancient martial arts revival in UAE

Sword fighting is a hit in the Emirates as competitors embrace chance to make TV fantasy a reality

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What was once ancient history is making its mark in the UAE as swashbuckling TV hits such as The Witcher and Game of Thrones spark a resurgence in the art of sword fighting.

Historical European Martial Arts (Hema), which describes combat techniques such as swordsmanship and fencing dating back to the Middle Ages, is on the rise all over the world – including in the Emirates.

Participants, often enticed by the techniques shown in drama series and blockbuster movies, are increasingly bringing fantasy to life.

The man helping to cultivate this growing interest in the UAE is Maciej Ryszkiewicz, 34, a trainer from Poland who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2016 to get married to his girlfriend.

“I was sword fighting in Europe for almost eight years before coming here,” Mr Ryszkiewicz said.

Struggling to find a job to secure his residency he decided to start up his own business teaching Hema in the emirate.

“I teamed up with a local sponsor, Hamdan Al Afifi, and in December 2017, The Swords Fencing Club was born.”

Starting a club from the ground up was not an easy task but this did not blunt Mr Ryszkiewicz's enthusiasm.

“It was going very slow, because I was doing something new that nobody knew about in the UAE,” he said.

“Everything was done from scratch. We did not even have money to advertise, it was all done through word of mouth and social media.”

But Mr Ryszkiewicz was confident that people would soon embrace the opportunity to sharpen their skills.

“We had a chance to show people something new and different – it is the old historical version of fencing; so with a sword and shield like a Viking or Zorro or a gladiator," he said.

"This gives people a chance to experience scenes from their favourite films and mimic their favourite characters.”

When he was introduced to Hema, he was intrigued by the “heroic theme of fighting with a sword”.

“I had a bachelor’s degree in physical education and I saw potential in sword fighting as a multi-physical exercise that teaches you to defend yourself like any other martial art, but it also has the influence of movies, so people would want to try it,” he said.

Mr Ryszkiewicz’s club slowly started to gain recognition and it now trains about 40 men, women and children in Abu Dhabi as well as at sessions held in Dubai.

“About 60 to 70 per cent of our members are children, so it's mostly growing on kids.”

'I was hooked straight away'

Mohammad Al Maraghi, 34, has been training at The Swords Fencing Club for six months. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Mohammad Al Maraghi, 34, had never tried a combat sport before attending his first session six months ago.

“I was looking on Google for a sport similar to martial arts, but in a unique way,” said the sales manager from Jordan.

“Then by chance I saw the website of The Sword Fencing Club, and I immediately registered.

“I came for the first class and I got hooked. Now I am taking it very seriously.

“It requires quick response skills, even more than boxing, because the sword is faster than the fist."

He said his goal is to become a master in the sport, to enter a fight and receive zero hits.

“This is easier said than done," he said.

He said it is common for the club to attract people inspired by what they see on the small screen.

“My cousin went with me once; he was very excited thinking he would be like a hero in a Netflix drama, from the first fight he was shocked by the amount of hits he received.”

The dramatic fight scenes on the likes of Game of Thrones and Vikings also attracted Emirati Hamda, who asked for her surname not to be used.

The 26-year-old analyst was captivated by such shows during the pandemic and was curious to learn more.

She started searching online for fencing classes and stumbled upon the club’s website.

Since October she has become a regular and considers herself of intermediate skill level.

She said her next goal would be to join fights with other women.

“I currently take a semi-private class with my friend and the coach only. I would like to join the group classes and fight other ladies.”

She said she looks forward to more women joining the classes.

“My friends are always asking me about it and they are very interested, but now it is a critical phase because not many ladies are used to training with a male coach”.

Currently there is no female trainer for Hema in the UAE, Mr Ryszkiewicz said.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from women, but most Emirati women prefer a female trainer and unfortunately we don’t have any. Right now I am the only trainer in Abu Dhabi and we have another male trainer in Dubai,” he said.

However, the club is trying to accommodate demand by providing women-only classes where the coach is the only man in the room.

Mr Ryszkiewicz is also trying to attract more locals into the sport by adding an element from Arabic heritage to it.

“We introduced the Arabic sabre sword as one of the weapons that we train with. This will spark a lot of interest,” he said.

“We want to develop the heritage of the local culture.”

Updated: August 21, 2021, 8:33 AM