Take a drive around this capital known for its modesty and the enormous homemade billboards of a shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger are impossible to miss. The message is on the wall: Afghanis are getting pumped.
While billions in U.S. and international aid dollars are hamstrung by official corruption and a renewed Taliban insurgency, a new generation of Afghan men are bulking up for whatever the future might bring to this war-torn country. Some even wax their chests.
“Bodybuilding is the fashion today,” said Yasar Ahmedzai, 20, a local journalist and recent devotee. “Life is so much better when you look strong and are in good shape.”
Six years after the fundamentalist Taliban banned kite-flying and used the local soccer stadium as a site for executions, there are today more than 100 gyms around the capital.
None is as famous as Gold’s Gym, Kabul’s first. Ask for directions and everyone from traffic cops to fruit merchants knows the place, or at least has an idea of how to get there.
Spend time with its big-hearted founder, Bawar Khan Hotak, and it’s easy to understand why.
At 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, with a superhero’s jaw and hands like sledgehammers, Mr. Hotak is figuratively and almost literally the pillar of Afghan bodybuilding. But had his passion for the sport not exceeded his considerable size, the phenomenon might never have been born.
A former heavyweight wrestler, he began lifting weights seriously during the darkest days of the Taliban reign. In 2000, he entered Kabul’s first bodybuilding championship; strict rules meant that competitors had to abide by a “no-shorts, trousers-only” policy, he said, although they were permitted the indiscretion of taking their shirts off.
He won. And to the ire of the ultra-fundamentalist regime, he became a crowd favorite. Revved-up audience members threw money on stage in a traditional gesture of approval that earned him a two-month stint behind bars “for making people happy,” as he put it with a wide grin.
Prison didn’t sap Mr. Hotak’s resolve. With the fall of the Taliban two years later, he decided to open the gym he had always dreamed of, naming it after the original in Venice, Calif., where his hero, Mr. Schwarzenegger, trained in the cult bodybuilding film, “Pumping Iron.”
“During the Taliban time, I dreamed about the future and about how when peace and stability came I would make a modern equipped gym,” Mr. Hotak said. “When they left, I was the only one to invest; others were buying vehicles to leave.”
At first, he and his friends made barbells by pouring cement into metal cans connected by steel rods.
Derelict Soviet tanks were stripped of parts and bent into improvised weight machines by local welders — the weapons of war refashioned to strengthen the very people they once targeted.
Step inside the gym’s sour-smelling space any afternoon these days and one can rub shoulders with a throng of muscle-bound Afghans ranging in age from 15 to 50, making use of imported if rusty equipment in front of the requisite wall-to-wall mirrors.
The sight of a foreign journalist’s camera incited a frenzy of flexing and shouting beneath yellowed posters of present-day bodybuilding favorites, such as Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman. And, of course, Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Abdul Hadiqubadi, 27, has a day job with a U.N. agency and pays about $6 in monthly dues to work out when he has free time. He says it is a small price to work out alongside some of Afghanistan’s best bodybuilders.
“There are bigger gyms,” he said, “but this is the best. All the champions and top trainers lift here.”
Surging violence in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces has not slowed the sport’s growth.
As president of the National Bodybuilding Federation, Mr. Hotak travels the country to meet other coaches, hold workshops and organize competitions, and says there may be more than 550 gyms across Afghanistan.
With such a robust following, doesn’t the government help fund and develop the sport? Mr. Hotak shakes his head and laughs.
“Iran and Pakistan are well-equipped. If we can’t have as much as them, we at least shouldn’t be far worse off. But we get nothing from [the government],” Mr. Hotak said. Still, a framed photo of him shaking hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai hangs in his office.
Over the past 70 years Afghanistan has participated in 12 Olympic Games, but has never qualified in weightlifting — a record Mr. Hotak attributes to a lack of sponsorship, even compared to the country’s neighbors.
Afghanistan’s iron men are not holding their breath for state funding while a war rages in the provinces.
But they are convinced that new weight machines, training expertise and even glossy posters would be on the way if bodybuilding’s most famous champion only knew of his fans on the other side of the world.
“We know everything about him. We want him to know something about us, the poor bodybuilders of Afghanistan.”