KABUL — You see the images everywhere in the streets of Kabul: bare-chested men posing with their protruding and pulsating muscles. Scattered across the Afghan capital, the posters are eye-catching in there own right, but stand out even more in a place where men typically sport the traditional long trousers and puffy shirts known as shalwar kameez.
In Kabul and in other Afghan cities, fitness studios have been mushrooming for a few years, as men embrace bodybuilding in growing numbers. You could call it an unexpected passion in a war-torn country where insecurity is rampant. According to a United Nations report published in July, the number of civilian victims has reached a new high in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2017, with 1,662 deaths and 3,581 injured.
"When there's no guarantee of security, you do your utmost to protect yourself and your family," says Javad Wardak, as he trains with his friend Karim Khalil at Gym Nation, in a housing estate in the center of the capital. It seems he is trying to make up for his powerlessness in controlling his future by reaching total command over his body.
I'm used to being stopped in the street.
Khalil, whose arms are so big he can't hang them along his sides, makes heads turn among men and women as soon as he gets out of his car. "I'm used to being stopped in the street by people asking how I managed to get such a body. Everybody wants to do bodybuilding here," the 29-year-old says.
His job is to give security advice to embassies, international organizations and private companies, and to work for them in the field.
"I get all my contracts thanks to my appearance. The stronger I am, the more able I am to carry heavy equipment or, potentially, wounded bodies, and the more opportunities I get to negotiate my wages," he says.
With unemployment still very high across Afghanistan, Khalil is not the only to turn to muscles as a survival strategy. Those who pass by him in the street envy him. "When I saw him, with such a beautiful body, I instantly thought he was a successful man, someone with discipline and probably rich, too," says 16-year-old Milad, who just spotted Khalil for the first time as he was coming to Gym Nation. "He's making people jealous."
Milad and his friends all aspire to look like Khalil, especially since in Afghanistan, where drug addiction is a major scourge, being sporty and muscular is proof that you're not taking drugs. "Here you always bump into drug addicts wandering the streets, sleeping under bridges. Society looks down on them, despises them, whereas a sporty young man looks cool," Javad Wardak says. "You look at them and think, here's someone with a lot of discipline."
The Taliban weren't opposed to bodybuilding as long as we didn't shave our beards.
At Gym Nation, the men exercise in the basement and the women (there are about 40 female members) on the first floor. Some are warming up on the treadmill while others directly begin with some heavy weight-lifting. The gym's owner, Osman Ghani (no connection to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani) has been practicing bodybuilding since 1999, two years before the Taliban were removed from power by a U.S.-led military coalition. "The Taliban weren't opposed to bodybuilding as long as we didn't shave our beards," the 35-year-old says. "But at the time, there were only five or six gyms in Kabul. Now, there are between 500 and 600." Ghani, who was born to a modest family, owns two.
Gym Nation counts about 150 members and the monthly fee varies between 800 afghanis ($10) for simple muscle training to 1,500 afghanis ($21) for access to electric gym equipment. "Electricity is expensive here and power cuts are frequent. We have to use generators," Ghani says to justify the prices. Even for those who can afford it, it is still expensive in a country where the average monthly wage is about $140.
But many consider it a good investment. "I already had a beautiful body back when I got married. That's one of the reasons why my wife was attracted to me," Wardak says. "But as the years went by, I was busy taking care of my wife and our child and I let myself go. I went back to bodybuilding because she mocked me. Now, my wife brags about my body when she's talking with her friends," he says.
Khalil and Ghani have both won the title Mister Afghanistan, in the popular competition that has gathered bodybuilders from across the country every year since 2002. Still, in order not to shock viewers in this traditional Muslim country, television broadcasts only show the winners' faces, and only briefly, never their oiled bodies in tight Speedos.