Bodybuilders in Baghdad worship at a temple to the Terminator — actor turned California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — in a country where the term "survival of the fittest" can take on extra resonance.
On a dusty side street in the once posh Karrada area of central Baghdad is a single-story brick house where wannabe beefcakes gather to emulate the former action-film star and dream of having a body like he once had.
Inside the Arnold fitness center, dozens of men pump iron, run on treadmills and work out on benches, rowing and weight machines.
The gym’s Iraqi owner is even said to have received a personal letter from the former Mr. Universe, best known for the iconic Terminator films.
But the owner is also publicity-shy, and the fitness trainers he employs say too much attention in Baghdad can be bad for the health — and could even lead to the business being terminated.
Every inch of wall within the gymnasium is plastered with posters of a beefy Arnold to inspire Iraqi men on to greater things.
No guns are allowed inside, but there are lockers available for those who want to store their automatic weapons before entering the gym.
Abdul Rahman, 36, was a member of the Schwarzenegger establishment for four years before starting his own gym. But that shut in the winter of 2006 with the onset of heavy sectarian fighting and it became a shelter for refugees instead.
“I want to be able to start my own gym again,” said Rahman, who now works for a private security company in the Iraqi capital. “The security job is good, but there’s good money in the gym business too.”
Earlier a run to the gym would certainly have burnt a hole in an average Iraqi’s purse. Membership cost about US$15 a month at a time when the average salary of a civil servant was only US$50.
Rahman said salaries have risen sharply since the US-led invasion in March 2003. Iraqi men are also more health conscious now, despite the constant fear that stalks the streets.
“I hope it will be safe one day for me to start my gym again,” Rahman said.
It is not known how many gyms there are in Baghdad, but residents say bodybuilding has a strong place in Iraqi society.
Modern exercise equipment started coming in only after the invasion, which also ended the sanctions era when imported goods were scarce.
Foreigners do not frequent commercial fitness centers because of the fear of kidnap, a foreign security officer said, adding that most international firms had their own in-house gyms.
There is a modest jogging course inside the tightly guarded Green Zone in central Baghdad where the US embassy and the Iraqi government are located, but it is only for foreigners.
Sectarian violence means outdoor exercise is now too risky in this city of 6 million people.
Satellite TV company executive Aimen Mohammed, 24, says that he works out three times a week because he wants to look good and because there is no open-air area to exercise.
Zawra, Baghdad’s best known public park, remains out of bounds to joggers.
“I go to the gym regularly for good health and good looks,” Mohammed said.
Policeman Ahmed Abdullah, 32, spends 15,000 dinars (US$12.50) a month to belong to a private gym. It is safer indoors as many of his colleagues have been victims of drive-by shootings.
The omnipresent threat of car bombs, rocket and mortar attacks keeps many Baghdad residents in running condition anyway, but serious fat burners head for indoor exercise centers.