By Mike Mooneyham
Dec. 12, 2005
It didn’t take a journey over the rainbow for Ashley Souther to realize he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Harsh reality set in somewhere between wrestling rings in the unlikely locales of Palestine and Japan. But in the midst of strife and turmoil, the Kansas State grad found the inspiration to fight his own battle for peace and justice.
Souther, a 30-year-old schoolteacher by day and pro wrestler by night, has made it his goal – and mission – to strive for social reform through professional wrestling.
“There’s something really magical about wrestling. It brings people together,” Souther said during a recent stop in the Lowcountry. “It’s the antithesis of high-falutin politician speak. When you talk about wrestling, you’re cutting to the core. You’re not going to get everybody to agree on everything, but I think you’ve got enough Palestinians, enough Israelis, enough Americans, enough Japanese who like wrestling, that it could certainly provide a window.”
Souther should know. He’s spent considerable time studying all the aforementioned cultures.
His long, circuitous journey started down South, where the son of a Presbyterian minister bounced around from state to state as a youth, taking in pro wrestling wherever he could find it.
The sport became a passion that followed him as a student at Kansas State University. Heavily involved in power lifting along with freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, Souther also participated in an international volunteer program during his junior year. It would take him halfway around the world to Jordan where he taught in a summer youth program in a neighborhood that consisted mostly of refugee children.
“I had just wanted to go outside the country for some adventure and see a little bit of the world,” says Souther. “They sent me to Amman. A lot of the people there were originally refugees from Palestine, and they told me all these stories, some I had never heard of.”
Souther, who lived with a host family in Jordan, says initially he “didn’t know Palestine from Pennsylvania.” With more questions than answers, he went to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage.
“I guess I knew what the average American knew – that it (Palestine) was kind of a dangerous, weird place. Growing up in the church, I had always been aware of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. I was attracted to that, and that gave it a deep meaning for me. My moral universe had been shaped by those stories and figures.”
His views, however, soon began to change.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
Souther went to Hiroshima, Japan, after graduating from K-State in 1997 and met his future wife while teaching English at a junior high school on a JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. In his spare time he trained in the disciplines of judo and Kyoukushin karate.
Palestine, though, remained in the back of his mind. He couldn’t forget the stories he had been told, and he knew he had to act on them.
“Things there were a little different than what I had always been told. I spent two years in Japan, but then I wanted to go back to Palestine to see for myself.”
Souther secured a position as an intern with an NGO (non-governmental organization) and worked with the Washington-based American Near East Refugee Aid. He spent a year in Palestine distributing medical supplies throughout the Gaza Strip, a coastal region packed with more than a million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
“I started to see a much different reality than what I had constructed from the news. It was different. It was a situation of injustice in Palestine. It ran contrary to my own moral universe of what I had been raised with and believed in. It was a crisis of identity for me, and one that I felt compelled to resolve. That’s why I went back there and went straight into the heart of the lion’s den in terms of going to the Gaza Strip and living there.”
Souther says he was amazed by the reality of life under what he calls unwarranted occupation, and what it was to truly not be free.
“What I experienced there was a fairly common thing: a situation of dispossession and occupation. You’ve got a tiny strip of land where you have more than a million refugees living in extremely crowded conditions with sewage running throughout the streets. It wasn’t of their own doing. The biggest shock to me was that these people were in no position to do anything.”
He vividly recalls an old man taking him to a mountain at the highest spot on the Gaza Strip. Pointing to the ocean, the man said, ‘If I go over there, I die.’ Then pointing in the opposite direction, toward the Negev, the line of demarcation, he said, ‘If I go over there, I die.’ It was true. He was in a bubble and couldn’t leave. It was a shock to see someone caged like that.”
Souther decided to go back to school, to American University in Washington, D.C., to study peace and conflict resolution, looking for answers to questions he had brought back from Gaza.
“I had a lot of questions about conflict and why these things happened, so I came back to the states to study in a graduate program in conflict and resolution.”
After earning his master’s degree in 2003, Souther headed back to Palestine, this time the West Bank, not so much with answers to his questions but satisfied that there were no satisfactory ones to be had. He got a job teaching classes in English and conflict theory at the Arab American University.
Living in the most hardcore areas of Palestine helped change his views on a number of issues. Hope was repressed and spirit was starved. Prolonged occupation had pushed more and more people into poverty. It was a society shattered by the occupation and by the powerlessness of its own leadership.
“I started out with very conservative views,” says Souther. “But if you’re somebody who wants to end that, and doesn’t want innocent people dying, you look at what causes it and how it can be stopped. It’s all about land and shoving people out of where they live and into refugee camps.”
Still, says Souther, he felt helpless.
“It was a big learning experience for me. I still have questions as to whether I did more harm than good.”
AN ANCIENT PASTIME
It was in the northern West Bank town of Jenin where Souther’s life would take another dramatic turn. In a “rusty, dusty, sweaty” gym that Souther says made the late Stu Hart’s infamous “Dungeon” wrestling facility look glitzy in comparison, he met a grizzled grappler named Haj Dyab Said and began training with him.
“People were telling me about this old guy who taught professional wrestling. I figured he was some old legend. But I tracked this old guy down and there he was, next to this little chicken shop. There was a bunch of old black-and-white pictures of him and other old-school wrestlers displayed in the gym. I was so impressed and thrilled just to get into the ring with him.”
Referred to by the locals as “Haj,” the ring-worn veteran had mastered the craft in Lebanon during the late ’50s and ’60s and brought it to Palestine. He had wrestled throughout the region, says Souther, and had been the junior heavyweight champion in the mid-’60s. Known as “the beast of the ring” and “the trainer of trainers,” Haj incorporated a lucha libre style (a genre of professional wrestling developed in Mexico) into his repertoire, with his favorite maneuver being a Mexican surfboard also known as the “Romero Special.”
“He was well up in years, late 60s pushing 70,” says Souther. “But he had a wrestler’s eye and a wrestler’s presence.”
A stout man with powerful hands and a slight hobble, Haj resembled a ring warrior of a bygone era, with shaved head, handlebar mustache and leopard-skin leotards. “His knees didn’t look like knees,” says Souther. “They were like meaty masses. He didn’t know the meaning of hospital or time off.”
With a ring that had been run over by an Israeli tank, the wrestlers had only a small pad and tarp with ring ropes over a concrete floor to train on.
“We weren’t able to have any matches, since there was still a lot of conflict going on in the area, and you couldn’t really travel from city to city.”
The kids, though, loved the spectacle of watching the wrestlers go through their motions. More importantly, says Souther, it was a way to keep them off the street.
“What impressed me the most about Haj was that he was teaching in that old, beat-up ring that he had. It was worse than Apollo Creed’s gym in ‘Rocky 3.’ He would fit as many kids in there as possible. He knew that when they were in that ring and when they were training and practicing, that was the only freedom they had. We’re talking about kids with not only nothing, but no hope for anything either. They’re either going to get bombed by the Israelis or pulled into a militant group on the Palestinian side and end up with the same fate.”
Freedom of movement for civilian Palestinians was at almost zero, says Souther, and Israel military imposed frequent curfews.
“They couldn’t travel. It was just a really miserable situation. The thing that so impressed me, and this changed my outlook on professional wrestling as well, amidst all this misery, whenever you talked about wrestling, people just lit up. Through wrestling they had a dignity that was robbed of them at other times in their lives.”
Souther was told about more peaceful times when travel restrictions were more relaxed, and Palestinians and Israelis could move freely about the area. Haj would wrestle with Israelis in the same promotion, and they would tour in Jordan and down through the gulf into Egypt. Wrestling was very popular in the area, and the Von Erich family reached legendary status, particularly in Israel.
“Jimmy Snuka came and wrestled with him (Haj) in the ’80s. Everyone’s got a story about when they met Jimmy Snuka when he came to that area.”
Souther even started a wrestling club at the university. He says it allowed youth to manage and release all the anger, frustration and pressure they lived under, a respite from an atmosphere of killing, bloodshed and bombardment.
“They were so excited about it. It gave them something to feel good about.”
Police, however, began cracking down on some of the youngsters attending his club sessions. One, he recalls, was turned back at a checkpoint and taken away in a military vehicle. He never saw the youth again.
“I had to call and tell his mother,” he says. “I guess I’ll never know what became of him.”
Souther witnessed helicopter attacks, missile firings into buildings. Army units would carry out incursions by day and by night, conduct searches, and arrest or kill “wanted” people. There were roadblocks and checkpoints with Israeli soldiers pointing M16s.
“It was very dangerous,” he says. “You had to be street-smart and avoid the places you needed to avoid and know when to avoid them. You reduced your risk.”
Palestinians charged that the dozens of checkpoints set up during the past several years of violence devastated their economy and caused many severe hardships. Israel says the checkpoints helped stop suicide bombers entering the country.
Souther says the restrictive measures and the Israeli incursions into the city and surrounding villages have damaged not only the infrastructure of the area, but also the psyche of its people. The population, says Souther, has been severely traumatized. In the face of such disappointment, a bright spot continues to be pro wrestling.
“Everyone jerry-rigged satellites and picked up broadcasts from the other Arab countries. Wrestling comes on several times a week there. It’s older WWE stuff. I never knew professional wrestling had so much power over people. That’s what really got me into it.”
WRESTLING FOR PEACE
“When I left Jenin, Haj gave me his best pair of wrestling boots, and he also gave me a mission – use what you have learned to do something, to help if possible.”
In that vein, Souther has joined a noble tradition of activists which includes Mexican masked heroes such as Super Barrio, Fray Tormenta and Super Ecologista, all self-proclaimed “social wrestlers” who have used the sport for social justice in the political wrestling arena of contemporary Mexico.
Fray Tormenta, the wrestling priest, concealed his true identity beneath a golden cape, a yellow leotard, and a red and yellow mask. He took up wrestling to raise money for his home for abandoned children. Super Barrio, Mexico’s answer to Superman, rallied support for inner-city communities (barrios) that were damaged in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and fights for the urban poor. Super Ecologista has fought for environmental concerns.
The 5-9, 210-pound Souther debuted in January for Japan’s WrestleGate promotion as a Road Warrior-like character billed as Wrestle Monster. Although the character is still evolving, Souther says it was inspired by his teacher, Haj Dyab, and others such as Fray Tormenta and Super Barrio.
“I envision my character as someone who incorporates those ideas into something he fights for, fueled by the anger of an oppressed people. I’ve gotten newspaper articles and TV over there. It’s a way to bring attention to the situation and to raise awareness about just issues and peace issues.”
Souther also jumped at the chance of working with Japanese wrestler Hanzo Nakajima. The grappler formerly had worked for Michinoku Pro Wrestling promotion with the heralded Great Sasuke.
“One of the things that got me to Japan – and this is as close to fate as I’ve ever come – was this guy named Hanzo who used to work for Michinoku Pro Wrestling with Sasuke. He’s kind of a bubble guy – wrestling fans have heard of him, but he’s not mainstream. Two years ago he opened up a promotion of his own, WrestleGate, and I really wanted to take those things that Haj had taught me and put them to use. He spent so much time with me because he knew I’d have an opportunity to get out and do something with it. I wanted to make him proud, and I want to come back and give something back to Palestine someday.”
In traditional Japanese style, Souther was put through a strict training regiment.
“Even though I had been wrestling for a year, they made me train hard. That’s the Japanese style, very hierarchical. They make you wash toilets for a few months. It was tough for me, but I stuck with it.”
Souther persevered, and is an integral part of the promotion today. “The promotion is small, but it’s quality stuff. There are upright, stand-up people running it.”
The sport is arguably more a part of mainstream culture in Japan than it is in the United States. Pro wrestling, however, currently is more of an avocation for Souther. Teaching remains his primary source of income, and with their first child on the way, it will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
“Wrestling doesn’t pay the bills at this point,” says Souther.
Souther, no stranger to the Lowcountry, has spent many summers in the area. His parents, sister, brother and grandmother all live here. His grandmother is a longtime Isle of Palms resident, and his parents got married on the island. His father recently retired from the church, but still fills pulpits on occasion, according to Souther.
“I’ve always had family here, so I’ve always come back to Charleston since I was a child,” he says.
Home for Souther – at least for now – is Japan.
“I also kept my promise to my wife that if we spent a year in Palestine we’d spend at least two or three in Japan.”
Still, he says, he wants one day to return to Palestine. He cannot forget the plight of its people.
“Of all the guys that I wrestled and taught with in Jenin, some were taken away to Israeli jails before my eyes at pop-up checkpoints and some were killed in their homes by soldiers’ bullets. They are a big part of me as a wrestler and what motivates me, not while fighting in the ring with punches and kicks, but fighting outside it by raising awareness of a very simple, human message: war is wrong, justice is needed, we are all human beings.”
Souther says he doesn’t view the recent forced evacuation of Jewish settlers from territories captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a conciliatory move for peace. He fears Israel intends to strengthen its hold on bigger West Bank settlements.
“Though I have friends in Gaza that will be happy to be able to visit the seashore more freely, I have friends in the West Bank that are upset because on their land new walls are being built and new settlements are being built or expanded. (Israeli prime minister Ariel) Sharon is the architect of the settlement strategy – using illegal settlements as a military weapon to annex and isolate Palestinian territories and expel the residents when possible. He says as much in his book. Therefore it is not likely that he would make a move that would not benefit this strategy. (It’s) a strategy of isolation and annexation, not one of reconciliation and bridge building.”
He still hopes that both sides can show greater cooperation, patience and determination to pursue the difficult road to peace. He also remembers the teachings of his wrestling mentor.
“I am motivated by Haj Dyab’s dream of someday making a ‘Peace Team of Wrestling’ involving Israeli, Palestinian, American and Japanese wrestlers to all tour together to promote peace. Like he says, the world of wrestling has no borders.”
Souther says he simply wants to be remembered as someone who made a difference.
“I would hope that I would be somebody who worked for change when change was needed.”