In Iraq, Muscle Is a Growth Industry

Baghdad's bodybuilding obsession is going public after years of repression under the former Iraqi regime. Gyms are opening all over Baghdad, bringing young men new muscles and jobs in security.
By Ernesto Londoño and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Younis Imad, 18, started lifting weights at the Future Gym along Baghdad's Palestine Street a little over a year ago. "I was overweight," he said, taking a break between sets. "I was very upset about that." He was also in need of a job.

The gym's entrepreneurial owner, Ali Torkey, took Imad under his wing, gave him dieting tips and put him on a whey protein regimen. Four months ago, newly buff after weeks of working out, Imad secured work as a security guard at a radio station in Baghdad, a city where improving security is reflected in the revival of everyday activities such as bodybuilding.

"I feel better when I come in and exercise," said Imad, having arrived straight from the station to work out wearing jeans, a fitted red T-shirt and combat boots. He works out six times a week, and in the past year he has shed most of his body fat and grown a thick chest and huge biceps.

The advent of affordable gyms and the influx of muscle-building supplements, including many steroids illegal in the United States without a prescription, have turned bodybuilding, a longtime obsession for many Iraqis, into a booming industry.

Iraqis' interest in bodybuilding, a male-only activity here, soared during the 1980s, when such figures as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger gained worldwide celebrity.

Gyms were regulated by the government, and membership was limited to people with official connections. Those who worked out elsewhere used makeshift equipment and were barred from formal competitions.

But since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, gyms have opened all over the capital. When violence in Iraq soared shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, security companies tapped into the bodybuilding community to hire guards. As a result, extremist groups opposed to the U.S. occupation began targeting

the thick-biceps-and-bulging-chest crowd.

"Many of them were killed for working with foreigners," said Haider Adil, 24, the owner of a nutritional supplement store in central Baghdad.

For a period, many bodybuilders kept a low profile, avoiding gyms and wearing loose-fitting clothes that hid their builds. "Many changed their lives," Adil said.

That has changed over the past year as security has improved, in part because of the arrival of more U.S. soldiers.

Many Iraqis still join gyms to build muscle in the hopes of landing a high-paying job in security, which, like bodybuilding, is one of Iraq's few growth industries.

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