Marco Werman: There's a big sumo tournament going on in Japan right now… ok, that may not sound like big news, but one of the competitors does have an interesting back story definitely worth telling. Abdel Rahman Ahmed Shaalan is the first professional sumo wrestler from the Arab world. The twenty-one-year-old, who was born in Giza, Egypt, went to Japan two years ago with a goal of competing professionally. I spoke with Evan Zuckerman about this; Zuckerman directs the Center for Civic Media at MIT, but he also happens to be a fanatical follower of sumo. I started by asking Zuckerman about Shaalan's sumo name, Osunaarashi, "The Great Sandstorm."
Evan Zuckerman: Most Japanese sumo names have a reference to nature in them. So I think it was a great way of sort of trying to welcome him into the sport, but also connect to his Arab and also African heritage.
Werman: So, he's twenty-one years old and only went to Japan two years ago; had he been doing sumo in Egypt?
Zuckerman: He had been. He'd been doing sumo at a club level in Egypt. He's a big and extremely strong guy, he's about 320 pounds, he's six-foot-two; that's really sort of a perfect size for sumo, and near as I can tell he's impressed anyone who's seen him fight, so far.
Werman: What does he look like on the mat?
Zuckerman: He doesn't have a lot of particularly flashy technique; he's a fairly straightforward sort of guy. If you look at him he doesn't look like the stereotypical sumo wrestler where it looks like he's carrying a lot of body weight; he simply looks really big and really strong. And it's interesting; I think a lot of people who follow the sport believe that he might be able to do this at the top level of the sport, and certainly one of the trends we're seeing in sumo right now is the dominant people in the sport are not Japanese, they're actually coming from all over the world.
Werman: Really? Wow. What's that all about?
Zuckerman: Well, so this is a really interesting moment for the sport of sumo. It's had some really tough knocks in Japan; it's lost a lot of popularity. If you talk to young Japanese they're far more interested in both watching and playing either soccer or baseball. It's sort of seen as a sport for old people, but it's also seen as sort of a cultural ritual. No one wants to see sumo go away, but people aren't going to the matches. And in the mean time, people around the world are falling in love with the sport. The two highest-ranked people in sumo, and these both have the rank of yokozuna, or "Grand Champion," are Hakuho and Harumafuji, both are Mongolian, but in the current tournament one of the guys who's doing the best is a wrestler who fights is Kaisei, he's from Brazil. There are Georgian, there's a Bulgarian who's doing very well; it's become an incredibly global sport very quickly, and that's actually another challenge the sport is facing. Some Japanese are quite unhappy that there are no Japanese grand champions.
Werman: That's extraordinary. This has gotta be a difficult moment for our friend Osunaarashi; sumo wrestlers have to eat a lot, they have to maintain their weight, and this is the month of Ramadan, so he's supposed to be fasting; it doesn't seem like a recipe for success.
Zuckerman: Well, this has been maybe the most incredible piece of the story. Osunaarashi is quite an observant Muslim; he has made very clear to the press that he prays five times daily, he is fasting during Ramadan. But one of the interesting things is his sumo stable-sumo wrestlers train and live together in a house called a "stable"- has made some real accommodations for him. Sumo wrestlers eat a traditional stew called chankonabe, which is usually packed with pork; they've moved to a non-pork version to accommodate him, they make it with chicken and fish instead. But it's actually, it's very impressive for a very tradition-bound sport that works very hard to sort of bend wrestlers to the way of sumo; his coach and his stable is doing a very, very good job of honoring his faith and honoring his quest to both observe Ramadan and fight at one of the highest levels of the sport.
Werman: Wow, very cool. Is Osunaarashi at all distracted by the tumult in Egypt at the moment-is that throwing him off?
Zuckerman: You know, he's been asked about that in the press; he hasn't supported either the ousted president or the opposition. He said that he's really trying to focus on his sumo. I was trading emails this morning with Allah Abdasaka, who's an opposition activist in Egypt; he mentioned that Osunaarashi has been getting a lot of press in pro-government newspapers, and says that he, Allah, hadn't heard about him because he doesn't read those newspapers. But he and I agreed that whether you're in the opposition or whether you support the government, everyone can be excited about the fact that there's an Egyptian doing his country proud at an international level in this sport.
Werman: Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and an avid sumo watcher, thank you for telling us about Osunaarashi.
Zuckerman: My pleasure, and go Osunaarashi, have a great tournament!