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Kabul scramble to pump iron

Kabul, July 6 (Reuters): A new city is flexing its muscles on the bodybuilding circuit — Kabul.

Unlikely as it may sound, the Afghan capital is becoming a muscleman’s paradise, with gyms sprouting up across the city featuring posters of scantily clad, oily-skinned strongmen.

Inside they are primitive but always packed with men of all shapes and sizes, staring at themselves in mirrors along walls as they pump iron and strive for the body beautiful.

Pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bulging champions of the trade are plastered on the walls to inspire them.

Gyms were allowed to function in the Afghan capital during the hardline Islamic Taliban regime, which ended late in 2001 after a US bombing campaign backed by Afghan ground forces. But today, without the interruption of five obligatory prayer breaks each day and as a new body-consciousness takes root, business is booming and gym owners are becoming rich.

Nasir Ahmad is the young manager of “Gold Gym Olampia” in central Kabul, its name borrowed from the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, California.

From behind a high desk, the lightly bearded entrepreneur grins widely as he recounts the history of his business. “I set up the gym when the Taliban left Kabul, some time in January 2002,” said the 20-year-old former refugee from Pakistan.

“When the Taliban fell we had a lot of requests from Afghans returning from exile to set one up here. I rented this place and brought the equipment from Pakistan for around $30,000,” he said.

The figure, along with Ahmad’s claim to be “the richest man in Kabul”, may be exaggerated, but there is clearly good money to be made in the bodybuilding business. Each member of Gold pays 400 afghani (about $8) to join and another 300 afghani ($6.25) per month for the use of the facilities. Ahmad says he has 1,000 members.

For their money they get a single long, narrow room with whitewashed walls, dog-eared posters of famous musclemen of the past, a mirror along one wall and an array of ageing fixed and loose weights ranging from dumbbells to cycling machines.

On a typical evening, 45 to 50 sweating bodies fight for space and compare muscles. When not busy serving in Afghanistan’s fledgling army, Mohammad Shafi Ahmedi stands out as undisputed strongman of the gym.

Short but barrel chested, Ahmedi was previously holder of the “Mr Peshawar” title for body-builders in Peshawar, where thousands of Afghan refugees lived during civil war and occupation. “I do this because the body is a beautiful thing and it makes me look that much better,” he said.

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