For over 20 years, Eli’s Cheesecake has been fortunate to be part of the
expanded Wright Community. This includes Portage Park and many of the unique
businesses in the community. For most of those years, there has been no greater
friend to this community than Mahmoud Bambouyani. Well known throughout the
United States for his skill as a karate master and instructor, Mahmoud is always
there for his family, students, friends and neighbors.

In December of 2003, all of Mahmoud’s friends and extended family suffered a
tragic loss when the earthquake in the City of Bam claimed 85,000 lives,
including Mammoud’s wife Zahra, and daughter, Sima, who were visiting relatives
for the holidays. This weekend’s World Friendship Karate Tournament at Wright is
in memory of Sima and Zahra and we urge all our friend’s and customers to
support this important event dedicatied to raising funds to build an orphanage
in Bam.

Living in the present while still honoring the past

Karate master plans a fundraiser to build an orphanage in quake-ravaged
Iran

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By Oscar Avila
Tribune staff reporter

May 27, 2005

Mahmoud
Bambouyani removes his shoes and approaches the vast hardwood floors of his
dojo. The black-belt karate instructor closes his eyes and bows
slightly.

“We bow as a way to remind ourselves that we are here for a
reason,” he says. “This is a place where we can live the moment and leave the
past behind.”

This karate master, however, cannot get away from his
past–especially the wife and daughter who were so much a part of this dojo, or
training area, until they were taken from him in the devastating earthquake that
struck their hometown of Bam, Iran, in 2003.

It would be easier,
Bambouyani acknowledges, to leave this place and try to escape the memories.
Instead, in the window of the International Traditional Karate Association, next
to a towering karate trophy and a Japanese rock garden, he has put two large
photos–of his younger daughter, Sima, and his wife, Zahra.

And Friday,
he will hold a fundraising banquet at Wright College as part of an international
tournament he runs each year. With the proceeds, he hopes to build an orphanage
in Bam, where so many others have lost their families.

Bambouyani, 55, is
a well-known instructor who has taught from the East Bank Club to Daley Plaza,
and he has coached several national champions. He quietly says that his tragedy
offers him yet another chance to teach.

He recalls when he first took an
interest in karate, as a child in Iran, watching nearly every Bruce Lee movie
that came to town.

But he did not take up karate until after he had come
to the United States in 1972 to study at Southern Illinois University in
Carbondale. There he bounced from major to major, studying enough not to flunk
out.

Then, he saw a flier advertising a karate class and decided to try
it. He practiced his moves at dawn on a campus tennis court. Students were so
taken by his dedication that they stopped to watch.

After college,
Bambouyani moved to Chicago in 1975 and started teaching karate at athletic
clubs.

On a trip back to Iran, he reconnected with Zahra, an acquaintance
from high school. The two married, but before she could join him in the United
States, Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 disrupted their plans and kept them
apart for four years.

When Zahra got to Chicago, she discovered that her
husband had two loves — and that karate was a demanding one. Eventually Zahra
called him out about his grueling schedule, which involved teaching classes from
6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“You’re paying more attention to karate than to me,” he
says she told him.

“Why don’t you join me?” he replied.

She did,
developing from an inexperienced pupil to a spirited practice partner and
eventually a black belt herself. They had three children: Sophia, Michael and
Sima. All became black belts and trophy winners.

When Bambouyani still
found himself spending too much time away from home, the family found a new site
for the association’s main center in 1997 and set up an apartment on the second
floor. They often scheduled practice sessions–just the five of them–in the
dojo.

Bambouyani says he thought life couldn’t be much better.

But
it got worse.

In late 2003 Bambouyani stayed in Chicago with two of his
children as his wife and Sima returned to Bam. On Dec. 26, just before they were
to return to Chicago, a frantic relative called to tell Bambouyani to turn on
television news.

The 6.7 magnitude earthquake claimed 35,000 lives,
nearly half the town’s population.

When he returned to his dojo, he found
that the place that had served as a sanctuary from the world’s problems was
haunted by memories.

“The dojo was a place for me to go to relax, to
escape,” Bambouyani says. “Every inch of that floor, we walked many times, all
of us as a family. It was very difficult. The first question everyone asked was:
Are you going to close the dojo?”

Bambouyani did close the dojo for three
weeks and didn’t resume teaching for several more. Once, he was chatting and
came across one of Sima’s toys. He burst out crying, a friend
recalls.

Eventually, Bambouyani says, he forced himself to return to the
dojo. He started teaching again, even though it could not be the same. His gaze
would drift to the spot on the floor where Sima liked to stand and execute her
kicks. Relatives talked of missing the sound of her kiai, the cry of strength
unique to each karate student.

“Yes, it would be easier to close,” he
says. “But who said easy is good?”

These days, the shouts of the karate
students ring as loud as ever on this strip of Irving Park Road.

A lineup
of students reflects in the mirrored wall as Bambouyani cocks his fist and
extends one leg.

“Eyes forward,” he says, softly but firmly.
“Focus.”

The principles he has followed through three decades of karate
have helped him survive, he says. He can channel a reserve of physical and
emotional endurance, letting him get by on just two hours of sleep a
night.

He can maintain emotional balance and focus, comparing his mind to
a computer that lets him shut down one program–the one that grieves over his
family–and open another that lets him focus on teaching.

Fellow
instructor Everitt Johnson says students, especially the younger ones, have
seized on Bambouyani’s experience as a valuable example.

“He’s always
been the strong one. I think it was difficult for them to see someone they
looked up to like this. It was like their hero had fallen,” Johnson says. “But I
think they also see how he took this and made it positive.”

Bambouyani
has created a foundation named for his daughter and wife with the goal of
building an orphanage in Bam. Proceeds from a tournament banquet, scheduled for
Friday night at Wright College, will go to the foundation.

Bambouyani
reminds his youth class about the tournament just before he leads them in the
dojo’s teachings. The first: “Seek perfection of character.”

In his own
quest, Bambouyani doesn’t apologize for allowing himself one distraction to his
focus, the memory of his family. In addition to the pictures of Zahra and Sima,
he prominently displays their news clippings and trophies.

“I’m not a
robot,” he notes. “I’m human. A strong human, but human.”

“Yes, it could
be dangerous to put their pictures up. But you cannot forget so many hours, so
many years,” he says. “What you can do is incorporate it into your life as a
foundation to build a better future. I am trying.”