BAGHDAD — Her hands, covered in magnesium carbonate for a better grip, are white. Her face is flush. Her gaze fixed. Huda Salem, 20, exhales loudly — twice — into the already sweat-saturated air. Her face contorts. Then, a shout as she lifts 70 kilos of cast iron.
Behind the young woman's massive, muscular figure, hanging from a wall, is an Iraqi flag. Allahu akbar, the flag's giant green letters read: "God is the greatest." The scene takes place in Sadr City, a poor suburb northeast of Baghdad that is better known for bombing attacks than sporting exploits. Inhabited almost exclusively by a Shia Muslim population, Sadr City is regularly targeted by Sunni extremist groups, such as ISIS.
The neighborhood is also, and above all, a conservative bastion, one of the few areas of the Iraqi capital where women systematically wear the abaya cloak — the full black veil — over their hijab. Even its name, Sadr City, is a reference to the controversial political and religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, the U.S. military's sworn enemy in the 2000s. Before 2003, the place was still called Saddam City, in tribute to Saddam Hussein. Before that, it used to be called Madinat al-Thawra, the city of the revolution. But only old people remember that name.
Built in the early 1960s, the neighborhood was intended as a modern suburb. It was constructed according to a checkered plan and divided into "sectors." It was a failure. Successive conflicts have brought waves of displaced people. Makeshift homes — slums, almost — have emerged. Electricity is a joke, public sewage a pipe dream.
More than 2 million people are now crammed into this decrepit district. And so, to provide young women with weightlifting training despite all the social prohibitions is quite a risky challenge.
The idea came from a man who was born in Sadr City. Abbas Ahmed Abbas, 50, a grizzled, sturdy man with a stern face and glasses that reflect, making it difficult to distinguish his eyes. But he quickly takes them off if you take a camera out, in a sudden and unexpected show of coquetry.
He rules the lives of his athletes with an iron fist. No phones — the device itself is allowed, just not the SIM card — no boyfriends, no email or social media accounts. "All of that is dangerous," he says without further explanation.
The trainer intends to maintain the athletes under his undisputed and unshared authority. That's why all of the young women are single. Being married or engaged is incompatible, he says. One of the women admits, however, that she has a "lover." She furtively shows a photo, far from the eyes and ears of the man they respectfully call Ustad Abbas — "Professor Abbas."
"Before, I used to coach the men's national weightlifting team, and so I did a lot of traveling abroad," he recalls. "During competitions, I would see foreign girls, Asian, Arab... That's what gave me the idea to create a women's team." That was in 2011. He now trains nine young women, aged 16 to 20, every day except on Fridays — the Muslim rest day — in a former military base converted into a makeshift palestra.
The barbells are old, the tatami mats worn. And the paint on the walls is flaky — except fo the one with the national flag. There's little to no government assistance, even though the athletes are paid a salary from the state: $500 a month and $700 dollar for Huda Salem, the star of the team and national champion. She can lift up to 111 kg in clean and jerk, a technique that consists in lifting the barbell from the ground to the shoulders, then pushing it above the head, with your arms outstretched.
All of that is dangerous.
This personal record dates from the Asian Games, held in Turkmenistan in April 2017. Huda ranked fourth in her category. "Soon, God willing, I will lift more," she says. Before the effort, she cries out the name of Imam Ali or Imam Hussein, two central figures of Shia Islam. "I invoke them," she explains. "It's like a blessing, a way to give me strength."
A world apart
The young women are all from Sadr City and they share the gym with other sports clubs in the area, including male clubs. But that's not a problem. A wind of freedom, a subdued relationship with the body and the opposite sex — at least more subdued than usual in Iraqi society — seems to prevail between the walls of the sports hall.
Each athlete here is free to dress as she wants — long or short sleeves, for example — and free to cover her head or not. Zohra leaves her bun in the open while Khadija wears a little hat. Two teenagers, including Abbas's son, sometimes train with them. In peace. "It's normal. It's sport. We're here to train, not for anything else," says Huda, shrugging her shoulders as if to dismiss any would-be concerns about male-female interactions.
In that sense, the training facility contrasts sharply with the overall cultural shift in Iraq, where women have seen their freedoms restricted in recent years, at least in a de facto sense. Some legislators are pushing for legal changes as well. This past November, lawmakers proposed legalizing the marriage of Shiite girls from the age of nine, causing an uproar in the country and abroad. The current law, which dates from 1959, officially forbids marriage before the age of 18.
Abbas Ahmed Abbas' team looks like an oddity in this context. A majority of Iraqis do not even know about it. But in Sadr City, things are going surprisingly well — at least most of the time. The coach and his athletes know the codes, the limits that can't be crossed. "The families of the girls are okay with them coming to train," the coach says. "We go and see parents, we explain to them, and they see that nothing shocking or reprehensible takes place in here." Abbas even has a minivan he uses to drive the athletes around, from home to the sports hall and from the sports hall back home.
A return to reality
Some days, though, Huda goes home on foot with her 17-year-old sister Hadeel, who is also a member of the team. Today is one of them. Their parents live less than five hundred yards from the training room. Still, the sisters have to be careful. Once they've changed back to their normal clothes, they put on hijabs and long shirts over their jeans before they leave. But no abaya.
Going out in the street is a return to reality. Huge panels promote Shia militias. On one of them, a fighter, his head covered with emerald green — the color of Islam — stands alone against an indistinct army wielding U.S., British and Israeli flags. Everywhere, Muqtada al-Sadr's enlarged face floats on flags, his eyes menacing.
Nothing shocking or reprehensible takes place in here.
The Salem family lives in a house made of exposed brick and squashed between two other hovels, on a dirt road. Two floors, a roof terrace. Doves cooing in their cage. The girls go back to their room, on the first floor. On the wall, a giant teddy bear they brought from a competition in Doha. And the inevitable portrait of Imam Hussein, stylized, beautiful and tragic, eyes painted with khol, forever turned towards the flat screen that broadcasts video clips worthy of MTV — the Arab world version — which Hadeel loves to watch.
And then, there are two boxes, where their many medals are kept. Their father searches among the ribbons, showing off the prizes. Salem Ne'am, tall and thin, in his late 50s, could not be more proud of his daughters. He loves sport. He used to be a soccer coach and continues to dress in his tracksuit. He still watches games with passion, and soon poses a familiar question: Real Madrid or FC Barcelona?
But Mr. Ne'am, like his country, is a man of contrasts. He is also a member of the Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias, better known for their conservative views than for their support of women's sport. He even took up arms to fight against ISIS in 2014, when the group came dangerously close to Baghdad.
He says all of this matter-of-factly, sitting on the floor in the living room while his younger son serves tea. The decoration itself reflects the nuances of Iraqi society: The room is full of photographs of soccer and of Huda in competition. And on the fridge, a sticker representing Muqtada al-Sadr looks over at the champion with a dark eye.