Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Biceps
These men, and others like them, have started a muscle revolution in Afghanistan. Their thinking: If they can build their bodies, then maybe—just maybe—they can rebuild their nation.
I've just agreed to deliver a rug to David Beckham. Not just any rug, but one depicting Beckham himself, midstride, plus all his vital statistics: height, weight, birth date, nationality. If I can take the rug to Beckham, the carpet maker reasons, maybe the famous soccer player will agree to provide funding for disabled athletes in Afghanistan. Athletes like himself.
Do I know David Beckham? No. Do I have the slightest idea of how to contact him? No. Then again, consider the following: The man who asked me is ex-mujahideen. He fought the Soviet invasion for 9 years, living like a bee on licks of congealed fruit nectar. The Soviets shot his father when the carpet maker was 14, then his brother 2 years later. In 1989, he took a bullet in the leg. Two of his friends running beside him were killed. Three days later, with no anesthesia, a poorly trained doctor amputated the leg with a butcher knife. After the Taliban came into power in 1996, he was thrown into prison for protesting their draconian laws, and was released only after they sold his house and stole his money.
Now this same man is asking me to deliver a rug to a towering celebrity with whom I have no personal connection whatsoever. So, really, how hard could it be?
The rug is the handiwork of Haji Abdul Rahman Mohammadi, the director of a sports association for Afghans disabled by war. I'm talking with him at Kabul Stadium, where the Taliban once sought to solve the crime problem by chopping off the hands of thieves, and the adultery problem by stoning. Today, Afghan workers are squatting in the blood-soaked field, resowing the grass by hand. Outside the stadium, soldiers are honing their parade skills in preparation for Afghan Independence Day on August 19. Independence from whom? The British, in 1919? The Soviets, in 1989? Or the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban, in 2001? When your history is this turbulent, it can be hard to keep track.
In Mohammadi's office an assistant serves tea. Someone had referred me to him, thinking he might be able to shed a little light on a question I had about the recent fitness craze sweeping Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban, 80 new gyms have opened in Kabul alone, up from a total of 15. You see them everywhere, tucked into garage-size storefronts beneath huge pieces of plywood bearing the hulking likeness of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman, or some other bodybuilder. The gyms have names like Gold Gym, Super Gym, and Super Gold Top Gym. They stand in the shadow of shattered buildings, beside other shops selling sacks of cement and cases of Coke - the foundations on which all great nations are built.
"The private gyms are suddenly everywhere," Thomas Gouttierre, director of the center for Afghanistan studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, had told me before I departed for Kabul. Indeed, during my 2-week stay, it seemed as if a couple of new ones popped up overnight. Other evidence of the get-fit revolution here: Workout gear has replaced burkas on store shelves, protein powder tops every gym-rat's wish list, and the Mr. Afghanistan bodybuilding contest has become the hot ticket.
What, I wanted to know, could possibly explain this trend in a place where 70 percent of the population is chronically malnourished, the average citizen dies before reaching age 45, and the pollution is so thick that even a short ride through downtown Kabul will leave you with a nose full of black snot? How is it that, even as the fanatics are detonating their bodies in the marketplace, in the gyms men of a new generation of Afghans are exercising and building their bodies? For the careful student, there's a lot to learn here about what it means to be strong.
The alarm goes off. It's 8 a.m. Do you really have the juice to hit the gym this morning? As soon as you ask the question, you're in trouble. Now, as you waste time deliberating, sleep takes you by the pinky and pulls you back toward the warm void. The only way to escape is to stop thinking and just move.
Several time zones distant and a few hours earlier, in a dry, dusty place where the per-capita income approximates that of your average gumball machine, another man reaches for his cellphone, to stop the alarm before it starts. You might forgive him for wanting to delay the day. Here's what he has to look forward to: first of all, darkness. It's 4 a.m. when he wakes, and there's no electricity. He locates the lantern by feel, lightly taps the reservoir to check the kerosene level, and slips from the room so as not to wake his two brothers. Feeling his way down the stairs, he heads to the courtyard, where he lights the lantern and washes himself at the well.
A more-or-less normal 21-year-old Afghan, Najibullah Mohammed Shayef (Najib for short) works as a carpenter. Right now he's building a table for an American rooming house. It should take him about 6 hours. His real ambition is to be an engineer - building on a larger scale. He was accepted to study at the local university, but as the sole breadwinner for his family of nine, he can't afford to go. How, then, to explain Shayef's upbeat attitude, easy smile, and relaxed manner? And the fact that he wakes before dawn every day to attend a private English class and work out at the gym, after a breakfast of bread and tea? Tell me, I say to him. How do you do it? Shayef shrugs. It's easier in the summer, he admits, when watermelon is in season.
Afghans are a tough, practical people, and not particularly given to lengthy explanations. (Getting Mohammadi to tell me his story took hours.) You have to follow them around for a while to understand what motivates them. Shayef works out at Super Gym, just down the block from Kabul Stadium. The gym occupies the first floor of what was once a 2-or perhaps 3-story concrete building. With the current building boom under way in Kabul, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the half-built structures from the half-destroyed ones. But when you approach, the bullet-pocked walls remove all doubt. Rebar blown loose by rocket attacks hangs from the ceiling, and razor wire swirls along a low wall in front. On an external stairway, red script points the way to a computer class on a floor that no longer exists. Reduced to its bare bones, the building resembles nothing so much as a half-demolished parking garage.
Ahmed Khamosh is one of the trainers here. We're sitting in his tiny office, lovingly adorned with posters of Western bodybuilders, grinning Goliaths with biceps as big as horse heads. A dusty shelf holds a row of trophies. The office, like many I visit in Kabul, is jammed with plus-size sofas, an expression of Afghan hospitality and a reflection of how much they like to hang out. Of course, with unemployment at 40 percent here, hanging out for many is a way of life.
"Ambition is dead here," says one of Khamosh's friends. It's easy to believe, given the beating this country has taken in the past 30 years—from the Soviets, then rogue mujahideen, then the Taliban, then the American rescuers, and now the Taliban insurgency. But Khamosh doesn't buy those excuses. He's 22 years old and studying economics at Kabul University. Here's his short list of things to do: 1. Build some factories, so Afghans no longer have to work on the street. 2. Build housing, so Afghans won't have to live in ruins. 3. Build a new university, so Afghans can learn, and better themselves. As we talk, the daylight fades and soon I can no longer see my notebook. I'm scribbling blindly when someone cranks up the generator and the fluorescent lights flicker on, illuminating rows of shiny exercise equipment. Such modern gear is relatively novel here in Kabul, where jacking the handle of a U.N.-supplied water pump remains the most common way to build triceps.
It's in listening to Khamosh that I begin to get a sense of how the fitness trend—something of an oddity, it may seem, in this ravaged land—actually coincides quite sensibly with an underlying natural order. It's an order that begins with rubble. From the rubble they build a gym. In the gym, they build their bodies. And with those bodies, tuned for strength and achievement, they build a nation. When you have nothing, no plumbing, no electricity, no heat, a glass of milk for breakfast if you're lucky, when all you have are your own two arms, your own two legs—and sometimes not even that—that's where you begin.
The rest of this story can be found at the link below:
Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Biceps - Page
1 - Men's Health - MSN Health & Fitness
James Van Thach