Young men take to bodybuilding gyms in war-torn Kabul
KABUL -- Hindi music from Bollywood movies blares from the speakers as dozens of men grunt and sweat their way through workout sessions beneath the watchful eye of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose muscle-bound image hangs from the wall.
The scene inside gyms in Kabul is repeated at venues all around 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's regime when they ruled the country from 1996-2001, so long as the men wore long trousers as they lifted.
But with increasing violence perpetrated by the Taliban and "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) across the country worsened by stress, trauma and loss, more and more young men have taken to the gym as a coping mechanism.
"Everyone, everywhere in Afghanistan, wants to be in good shape, and this sport is every young man's favorite sport," said Hares Mohammadi, a law and political science student turned champion bodybuilder who is also a trainer at a local gym in Kabul.
The 25-year-old, dressed in grey, strikes different poses showing off his well-built 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, Mohammadi said, adding that young Afghans want to "make their mark" in a healthy manner. One way is through engaging in sports that have many success stories here in Kabul.
Besides Schwarzenegger, several other Hollywood and Bollywood movie stars, including Sylvester Stallone and Salman Khan, are looked upon as bodybuilding role models by young Afghan men.
Local gyms in Kabul stay busy for hours, filled with music and camaraderie as men lift weights and tone up their bodies to perfection.
The old days
In old days, bodybuilding was not always a prominent sport in Kabul.
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 remembers how expensive postcards featuring the Hollywood star were.
Speaking to AFP 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 sports bodybuilder by the country's Olympic Committee in the 1970s.
It is a long career and, at times, a lonely one.
Though 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 because nobody sold 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 again, fearing their restrictions despite their relatively tolerant views on bodybuilding.
"Nowadays, bodybuilding clubs are everywhere in the city, and everyone has made a gym of his own," he 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 an everyday food for me," he said.
"Today's bodybuilding is not natural."
Stress and frustration
Regardless of the method, sport can help ease the psychological trauma of almost four decades of war, said Ali Fitrat, a psychology professor at Kabul University.
Afghans are stressed socially, culturally, financially and politically, he said, citing fighting, insecurity and poor economic conditions as some of the factors.
As such, he said, sports such as bodybuilding can play a "vital role".
But, like Mohammadi, he suggested that young men, in particular, have a strong desire to make their mark.
"They want to show their bodies, they want to attract the attention of the people and they want to have different looks and to look different from the others," he said.
However, many fearful residents now limit their movements because of stepped-up violence. Arezo said his gym's membership has shrunk.
"Nowadays people are concerned about fleeing the country rather than taking up a sport," he said.