Guest Post by Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu
Do you believe in magic? Magic is ritual which upon repetition produces change.
The rain that was coming looked unearthly. You could see huge curtains of it draped in grey floating over the mountains we would be crossing, drifting inhumanly tall, carried by the wind. As we shot down the road at high speed it felt that we would be entering something, how a storm in older times was divine with divinity still retaining all those meanings of “terrible”, and terror was more a holy state, and not just something you felt in movie houses. Absurdly long lightening strikes marked the eye, cratering down to the earth through the gray wind. It was zagging a destiny. You could feel it. Again and again it stamped the air. “Here”, “here” and “here” it kept saying. There was one final strike that seemed to blaze right into the road, and then we were in it. The rain torrented down with a roar on the car roof, and the windshield wipers on high raced to outpace the swollen streams the heavens were sending down.
We had done this drive a hundred times, it felt. Setting out from the security of our home in Pattaya, taking a heading on the navigation and just driving out into the wide unknown of Thailand. The path up to Khorat and Isaan had worn a groove, so much so we no longer needed the navigation, but the ritual of it was the same. This time we were heading somewhere new, a long 3 hour stretch South East following the coast out to near the Cambodian border, a fight against an unknown fighter with a lot of promoter money on it. This is how it goes. You cast your line out and at the other end there is a person who safeguards you, to meet you. These fights are in utterly alien environments, with very few cues or compass points to orient yourself to. This fight we would be driving to would be different. More.
But I’m not writing about the fight. I’m writing about my wife who now that she surpassed a once-thought impossible goal of 100 fights in Thailand is setting out into what feels like uncharted open seas as a fighter. And I sit there watching. Protecting if I can. Mostly just feeling this incredible attempt she is making. An attempt at something that can only be called…Life. Things changed just after her 99th fight here, a few fights ago. She had received a cut late in that fight, as her opponent reached desperation in the final round, and she bled like the dickens. It was beautiful to see her climb out of that ring with a huge bloody grin, though we knew that all cuts mean canceled fights. We had already decided that after the fight we were going to just drive up past Bangkok and stay the night in a cheap hotel so that in the morning she could receive her 2nd pronounced sak yant from Arjan Pi (her 3rd over all). With blood caking and vaseline in her hair, we drove in the early AM darkness for a few hours until we ended up at a hotel that serviced hourly rate customers mostly (the only kinds of hotels that welcome dogs as well). And it was a sanguine morning that greeted us, with daylight streaming through the windows. Despite the cut it all felt like a new beginning. And it was.
Something is stirring. While Sylvie’s first major sak yant, the Sangwan Rahu, was a life-defining experience and work, we did not anticipate how powerfully the Takroh and Two Backwards Facing Tigers back piece would affect her…and me. I’ll leave it to Sylvie to write about what it means to her, but as her husband looking on at the incredible transformations she has been attempting as a fighter and as a person (because you cannot change the one without changing the other), I can only describe it as…cataclysmic [ downward +
There are beautiful lines in Aeschylus’s play Seven Against Thebes that really stuck with me for all these years. Each of the 7 attacking warriors approach the city, each with a more powerful insignia on their shield. Each shield marked by the magic of a sign, an animal, that was believed both signaled and gave them power. But when the warrior/seer Amphiaraus approached he had nothing on his shield. It was empty.
“No symbol was fixed to his shield’s circle. For he does not wish to appear heroic (aristos), but to be heroic (aristos), as he harvests the fruit of his mind’s deep furrow (wound, womb), where his careful resolutions grow.” – lines 590-594
And this is the brutal line for every fighter. A fighter ever and always is portraying her or his strength, outwardly, while seeking the reserves inwardly. The fighter is ever taking potential lies, fabrications, promises and attempting to make them true, hard and real. And this sak yant was no mere image placed on a shield. It was etched into the skin in a process of nearly unendurable pain – I’ve never seen Sylvie shake from pain before, she has an incredible tolerance – pain that was meant as the evocation of faith. Unlike Amphiaraus who had shunned the figurative expression of his intent in war, Sylvie had shed the cloak of her lifetime of quiet invisibility, a cloak she truly loved and felt safe in, for the sake of a promise of what she hoped to be. She now wore, chose to wear, her future on her back. And it’s incredible.
It’s hard to describe just how transgressive this sak yant is for a woman. And transgressiveness in a society like Thailand which does not embrace individuality is even more the case. Already Sylvie’s Sangwan Rahu went beyond the pale. Women just do not get this kind of yant, and certainly not of Rahu. Even a tip of the necklace sak yant showing above her shirt collar provokes strong stares in Isaan 7-11s. It is an ancient warrior yant in class, and evocative of OLD Thai masculinity. Marking herself with this yant, as a practitioner of Muay Thai, was extreme. Muay Thai fighters are not found with sak yant very often – any sak yant is transgressive of an unspoken norm of Muay Thai even for men. In a foreign culture is it hard to imagine just how far you are crossing a line, but it is safe to say that when nobody else is doing something, you are out there on your own. With this 2nd, incredible sak yant, Sylvie no doubt stepped right off the map, into creature. No Thai fighting men we have seen have sak yant like this, let alone women. Now, driving into this storm at the center of which is the promise of a fight, in a location we’ve not yet seen, we would feel just what this was, what this means.
We are told that the men who do wear this yant combination are those of the military and police, men who have subordinates, and are at risk of life. The two backwards looking tigers confer protection and the powers of an animal savagery, but more significantly authority. The Takroh, it is believed, awards invulnerability. But sak yant are not things that just happen to you, and their technology is not just a “fix”. They are invitations to extra-personal transformations. Those with creatures or deities in them are terrible paths of unworldly re-makings. They are portals to your potential, possibly a potential you could never have uttered even to yourself.
After we passed through the storm we found ourselves on a mountain pass. It was a black road leading up through dense green and curving repetitiously back on itself. The headlights cut into a failing evening light, and though the sun had fallen there was an eery purple lavender glow as if a fog over everything. Navigation told us that this road would go on for 40 kilometers, and it seemed like we were just heading into darkness. There was so sign of civilization, not a light or a shop, and we were growing closer to the Cambodian border. Where in the hell was this fight?
Soon we came upon a slow traveling pickup. The road had grown rough and potholed, and he was traveling with expert knowledge of it all. So we followed him as he quietly swerved across both sides of the road to avoid an unseeable ditch in the paving. We snaked after him for a long while, and joked that he was our Virgil.
When we finally came to where the fight was, after a town that was made of a string of lights as if an oasis, it was in a huge warehouse, with a towering tin roof and a few people milling around, across from what seemed to be a Chinese temple with artful dragons spiraling up posts and columns. The warehouse was like an airplane hanger. Vacuous. The promoter greeted us, our connection on the other end, and he did the best to play host, sending Thais to clear a space for our mat. We settled in.
What commenced was a journey into the foreign.
Sylvie has fought countless fights before a completely Thai audience. She is used to being looked at in a variety of stares and side glances. Her physique. Her person. It already is just not like anything anyone has seen in these kinds of fights in the provinces. And counter to what some people believe, these fights out here are not against nobody fighters. They are high-level matches with big money put on them, that are simply staged at remote festivals or stadia. Often both Sylvie and her opponent have traveled far to fight in these rings, and this seemed to be the case in this fight as well. But as accustomed as you may become to being “the foreigner”, there are degrees, and for some reason this setting had an acute pressure of alienation. Perhaps it is that in some areas of Thailand people will not look directly at you, especially if they would like to. Here children would just walk up to Sylvie, open their mouths hanging, and stare as if she were from outer space. There was one girl in bright pink dress, Sylvie reasoned she may be 11, who kept circling over the hours while waiting for Sylvie’s fight, trying to get closer and closer to her.
I did not realize it at the time, as her husband, but this was having a deleterious effect on Sylvie. She has her gameface, her mental framework preparing for a fight, a process she’s gone through over 100 times. But the long hours (4), the curious and magical storm road we traveled, the particular isolation of where we were in our corner of this enormous hanger of building, was working against her. I did not see it. I just saw the beautiful woman who I love who has such unimaginable strength and fortitude. I saw her in her element. I did not see that she was wrestling with a demon, or an angel. The culmination of stares were working on her as a foreign thing. She was battling, making herself ready for the fight.
As a child, and well into young adulthood – and to this day – Sylvie does not want to be looked at. This may seem odd for someone who has put more of herself out there in the digital world than pretty much any other fighter, but still, in her core, it is not something she likes. But she has taken a path to not only putting up film to be criticized, but also to be fighting in arenas where people have NEVER seen anything like her. She pushes herself psychologically in this to the nth degree. But now when she takes off her jacket to begin her preparation to fight, it is beyond all else. Especially in the outer provinces where the belief in sak yant is well established the reality of her back, of her promise to herself and the world, this is an escalation. She fought with this sak yant for her 100th and her 101st fight, and people grabbed her and touched her as she passed by. And women took repeated photos with her after, just to capture some of that shine. But there is a doubled edge to the sword that is the fighter. In victory you exude a karma that everyone wants to touch. In defeat you suffer. In so many ways this enormous sak yant, a yant of savage power and authority, magnifies the stakes for a fighter. When Sylvie took off her shirt all if it became immense. Tigers were prowling. Magic was about. It was no joke.
Sylvie will write about the fight, but it was brilliant. She fought incredibly hard, and the girl was just big enough (maybe +2 kg) and experienced enough to keep her from the kind of dominance that could make up the deficit of a profuse cut in the 2nd round. It was 5 hard rounds, a close fight, anything you could want from a fight in Thailand. But Sylvie experienced the fight so differently. She felt she was losing every round. All she could feel was that her famous strength and endurance was failing her, that her arms were burning out, that she just couldn’t get a grip in all that oil. She came out of the warrior ring deflated, disappointed in herself. She had worn the flag of her fierceness in the ink, blood and pain on her shoulders and back. Everyone had come by to gawk. She had made a promise to herself and others, a promise everyone knew in a way that can only be known in this culture, and she had risked everything in calling so much attention to herself, attention that she hates, as she was scrutinized before the fight, for hours by prospective gamblers and children and women who milled about. She had pushed those chips into the middle of the table, with the promoter himself betting 100,000 baht ($3,000) on her, sure that nobody could stand in front of her…and she did not win.
We are on the mat now. Sylvie is shaking her head in disappointment as two female youths who have been appointed her corner mess with her wraps, trying to free her hands. The gash at the top of her head, where her part would be if she were a different person, opens like a mouth. Red inside, it whispers open. It would be stitched closed soon. It begins with western men who come to Thailand to learn and fight Muay Thai. They in the rites and rituals of training and the ring put on the masculinity of the Thais. They ape the rhythm of a gentle, weightless rock. They overuse the reverse elbow. They try. Muay Thai is a cloak they wear. They wear it because the wearing of it is meaningful. If you wear it enough it soon becomes more like a skin. Long and intense enough, it seeps into the bones. The hope is always that it will work its way to the heart. But, these are men, playing at being men. They are reaching for a manhood. But what does it feel like for a husband to watch his wife put on the masculinity that has dreamed her? I watch Sylvie cut into her body through the hours and now years in the Thai gym, bending her resistant will to the picture her trainers have in their heads, a picture of what she could be. I’ve watched her take on even the masculine fighting style of the Muay Khao (knee) fighter, a style that Thai women shun. It is a minor style, playing minor notes to the majority of the royal femur dancer/counter fighter. The Muay Khao knee fighter doesn’t know better. S/he just goes. And the scars accumulating like a fence across Sylvie’s hairline are evidence of that. She has another one tonight. A stitch count of 54, half of a 100. She is taking on the masculine with all her will. And now, when she lets her jacket drop her sangwan Rahu, and her incredible twin Tigers of authority blaze out in such a gender-anomaly, it must surely be an outrageous promise to be something…a promise of masculinity that arches beyond. When Sylvie loses now, it risks despair, because the magic has seemed to fail. Or worse, she has seemed to fail the magic. But magic is the repetition of a ritual that produces change. The ink carvings on her skin are only the promise of what’s to be, and each time she steps to the bag, each time she steps to the pads, each time she flicks the air of her shadow with the sharp point of her masculinity, and each time she steps into the ring, under that bottom rope, waiting to receive the mongkol on the other side, that magic process begins again. The cloak becomes skin, becomes bone, becomes heart. There is nothing more beautiful than watching the person you love under her own transformation, under her own star. This fight was merely another gift from Rahu, he who eats the sun.