Osunaarashi brings Arab flavor to sumo in Japan

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In a sport steeped in ancient rituals and Japanese tradition, one young Egyptian faces the weighty issue of how to keep faithful to his religious observances and be competitive in one of the biggest sumo arenas.

Wrestling under the name Osunaarashi, which translates as ‘Great Sandstorm,’ the 21-year-old Abdelrahman Ahmed Shalan is the first professional sumo wrestler from the Arab world.

Being an outsider has had its challenges. But while he’s slowly been getting to grips with life in the elite sumo ranks, Shalan does have a unique problem at the 15-day Nagoya tournament - the event coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. For Shalan, that means strict fasting - not something usually associated with the larger-than-life image of sumo wrestling.

“I love sumo. Sumo means everything to me,” he told The Associated Press in an interview as the Nagoya tournament was beginning. “I’ve sacrificed being with my friends, being with my family, being in university. I’ve put all my cards on the table and now we’ll see what happens. I believe in myself and believe in my dream.”

Shalan arrived in Japan less than two years ago and has quickly risen up the ranks after only eight tournaments. He made his debut in the elite juryo division last Sunday with a win over Mongolian Oniarashi.

He weighs in at 143 kilograms (315 pounds) and stands 189 centimeters (6-feet-2) tall.

Since arriving in Japan, the wrestler now known as Osunaarashi has done remarkably well, compiling a 45-7 record and winning two titles in the junior divisions. Only two other non-Japanese wrestlers have reached the juryo division from eight tournaments - Hawaiian Konishiki and Estonian Baruto.

As much as he likes the attention, Osunaarashi said being the first African and Arab wrestler “has many good points and some bad points…I feel a lot of stress because I am the first African sumo wrestler so the whole world is watching to see what the first African in sumo will do.”

Due to timing of the July 7-21 Nagoya tournament during Ramadan, Osunaarashi can’t eat or drink during daylight and must find time for prayer. It’s something he learned to cope with at last year’s Nagoya tournament but he said the toughest part is not being able to drink water in the stifling summer heat.

Osunaarashi was introduced to sumo at the age of 14. A sumo coach in Egypt suggested he give it a shot because of his size. He weighed 120 kilograms at the time but lost seven out of seven bouts to a wrestler half his weight and realized there was something more to the sport than he’d first assumed.

So he studied videos of former grand champion Takanohana to get a better understanding of the sport, eventually winning a bronze medal at the 2008 world junior sumo championships. He moved to Japan in 2011 to pursue his career full time. Many in sumo were impressed that he came to Japan just after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises that devastated the country’s northeastern coast.

Then, as now, things haven't been entirely easy for him in Japan.

Like all the younger wrestlers in the lower ranks, Osunaarashi was required to perform a variety of menial tasks that included cleaning toilets and washing the clothes of senior wrestlers.

All the top foreign wrestlers in sumo's elite division must master the Japanese language, something Osunaarashi is also grappling with.

“Everyone has to go through the difficult tasks,” Osunaarashi said. "Sumo is all about persevering. You have to be willing to sacrifice many things to achieve success.”

Japan remains the only country where sumo is practiced professionally, yet the sport has had trouble attracting new local recruits - and that has opened up opportunities for the likes of Osunaarashi.

There are 24 foreign wrestlers in the top two divisions of sumo out of a total of 70.

For now, Japan is home for Osunaarashi, who studied accounting and management in university. He has kept up with political developments in Egypt but says he's too focused on sumo to get too caught up in it.

“I follow what's going on but I don't like the political stuff,” Osunaarashi said. “I'm just trying to do my best for my country and forget about politics. To make something good for my country I have to do well in sumo. I believe one day I will be the first Arab grand champion.”

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