Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Afghan tough guys turn to the gym

GETTING `THE LOOK' In Afghanistan, men used to use guns to appear strong -- now they flock to gymnasiums to worship at the altar of the latest craze, bodybuilding

THE GUARDIAN , KABUL

Afghanistan's tough guys used to wear beards and wool caps, study the Koran and fight mountain battles. These days an increasing number have waxed chests, cheesy grins and bulging biceps.

"People don't want to fight any more," says Temour Shah, a beefy 23-year-old, pumping weights under an Arnold Schwarzenegger poster at Gold's Gym in central Kabul. "They want to look healthy -- like in the movies."

Bodybuilding is the new craze of postwar Afghanistan, particularly among young urban men. The number of gyms in Kabul has doubled to 46 in the past two years, while a further 30 are scattered across the country.

Every day from 5am men crowd into sweaty halls across the city, grappling with clanking weights machines before cracked mirrors.

Conditions are spartan -- water coolers, neat white towels and showers are unknown luxuries -- but enthusiasm runs high. Barely able to afford theUS$7 monthly membership fee, some enthusiasts work out in their baggy shalwar kameez trousers; others use their work clothes.

"Everyone wants to look strong, but the problem is calories. Most clients just don't have enough food," says Hafizullah Anis, 26, who owns Gold's Gym. He says he helps his poorer clients by offering them free protein supplements he buys at Bagram US military air base.

Returning refugees from Pakistan and Iran have fuelled the body-building craze, but its origins stretch back to the 60s. One of the oldest aficionados, Aziz Arzo, owns a rundown gym in a former dental surgery overlooking the dried bed of the Kabul river.

A short, stocky man in his 50s, he proudly displays his first exercise machine: A homemade contraption of weights, hooks and pulleys. Other weights in the gym are fashioned from concrete moulds and old engine parts.

He says he has 150 "students," of whom the poorest work out free of charge.

"I am one of the originals. They come to me for my experience," he says, beside a pouting portrait of himself on a podium in the 1970s.

Bodybuilding is a natural pursuit in a culture that prizes machismo. The national sport, buzkashi, involves two horseback teams beating a headless calf carcass around a pitch.

The streets are covered with pensive images of the Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan national hero. But inside the gyms, the governor of California is king.

"I studied Schwarzenegger's career carefully," says Noorulhoda Sherzad, a dentistry student and the current holder of the Mr. Kabul title.

"He achieved everything he wanted. I have dreams, too," he said.

The Taliban tolerated bodybuilding, but only if those working out remained fully clothed and wore beards. "The competitions were ridiculous. You could only show your top," Sherzad says.

In those days, strong, young men could be conscripted into fighting. Today, however, "our gun is our muscle," says Ahmad Ranjber, a gym owner who boasts a 77-year-old among his clients. "And he has a good body, too," he adds.

The body-conscious vogue also reflects slowly increasing freed-oms. Strict social norms prevent young men and women from mixing in public, but many bodybuilders coyly admit they hope to impress.

Mingling with American soldiers has fuelled their desires.

"I am exercising for the big body so the girls will like me," says Feroz Khan, a 20-year-old lorry driver at Bagram base, taking a break from his first workout. He has an American girlfriend called Nikita, he boasts in broken English, although some of his friends express doubts. Romantic choice was part of Afghanistan's new dispensation, he insists.

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