Tue, Jun 26, 2018 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Bodybuilding: The pursuit of beauty in war-torn Kabul


Afghan bodybuilder Hares Mohammadi, 25, poses at a gym in Kabul on April 16.

Photo: AFP

Hindi music pumps from the speakers as dozens of Afghan men grunt and sweat their way through a workout beneath the watchful eye of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose muscle-bound image hangs from the wall.

The scene inside the Kabul gym is repeated at venues all round the capital, where bodybuilding has become ubiquitous since the fall of the Taliban regime.

The sport has a long tradition in Afghanistan and was even tolerated by the Taliban when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 — so long as the men wore long trousers as they lifted.

However, as security deteriorated and the initial euphoria after the US invasion dissipated into stress, trauma and loss, more and more young men took to the gym.

“Everyone, everywhere in Afghanistan, wants to have a beautiful body shape and this sport is a favorite sport for every young man,” said Hares Mohammadi, a law and political science student turned champion bodybuilder who is also a trainer at a Kabul gym.

The 25-year-old, dressed in gray, strikes different poses showing off his carefully honed muscles, and warms up his chest and shoulders ahead of a regional bodybuilding competition.

Despite a surge in bombings and suicide attacks, life goes on, and young Afghans want to “make their mark,” he said.

One way is through sporting success.

So, along with Schwarzenegger, other stars from Hollywood and Bollywood, such as Sylvester Stallone and Salman Khan, are held up as heroes, and the gyms stay busy for hours, filled with music and camaraderie as men tone their bodies to perfection.

It was not always so.

Afghan bodybuilding legend Aziz Arezo reminisces about his time as a teenage lifter, when there were “very, very few people” in the capital who knew anything about the sport.

He himself was only inspired to take it up after seeing movies and posters featuring foreigners such as Schwarzenegger.

“Arnold was my ... role model,” he said, smiling as he remembered how expensive postcards featuring the star were.

Speaking to reporters between lifting weights at his small gym in Kabul, Arezo — his physique not quite what it was in his glorious bodybuilding past — reels off his long list of accolades, including being named Afghanistan’s first master sport bodybuilder by the country’s Olympic committee in the 1970s.

It is a long career and at times a lonely one.

Although now a trainer himself, guiding hundreds of Afghan youths through lifts and crunches, he never had the guidance of one.

Years ago he made the equipment and dumbbells in his gym from spare car parts, as there was no place to buy them.

“I have been a teacher of myself,” he said, adding that his dumbbells are “more efficient than foreign dumbbells.”

Under Taliban rule, he worked for four months in Kabul before eventually fleeing, fearing their restrictions, despite their views on bodybuilding.

“Nowadays, bodybuilding clubs are everywhere in the city, and everyone has made a gym of his own,” Arezo said.

He has trained hundreds of bodybuilders in his career, but is suspicious of new methods employed by many young Afghans, including taking protein supplements to boost their abilities.

“I believe if you do sport or exercise naturally, it is better than protein,” he said, warning of detrimental side effects.

“Before my workout ... I was drinking carrot-and-banana juice, and post-training, I was taking two eggs, three glasses of milk, one bowl of beans and lentils, and it was everyday food for me,” he said. “Today’s bodybuilding is not natural.”

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