Field Notes

Nothing but Speedos in Sadr City

baghdad gym
The Future Gym on Palestine Street is one of scores of gyms that have opened in Baghdad in recent years. (By Ernesto Londono -- The Washington Post)
Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008; 10:04 PM

Of all the things I miss about living in the U.S., working out at a gym is probably at the top of the list. Before moving to Baghdad in April for a one-year assignment, I worked out after work more often than not. It kept me sane and helped keep my blood pressure in check.

We have a small workout room in our Baghdad bureau, but the equipment is about as good as you'd find in your average U.S. prison. (I've been to a handful, never as an overnight guest.)

We recently acquired a new treadmill to replace the old wobbly one my predecessors bought during the Coalition Provisional Authority days and bought new dumbbells. But getting a good workout is hard. Its windows are typically caked with a thin layer of sand and fumes from our generator seep in when the wind is blowing in a certain direction.

That's probably why the sight of a gym surprised me last month. I was in Sadr City with my colleague Saad al-Izzi, a reporter in the Post's Baghdad bureau, speaking to men at an outdoor market. As we were wrapping up an interview, a poster at a nearby building caught my eye.

It had two men with buff bodies, wearing nothing but Speedos. The image wouldn't have stuck out in most cities, but you don't see much skin in public in Baghdad. One of the vendors we had been talking to offered to show us the gym. After zigzagging through stalls in the market, we reached a back door and walked up a set of stairs to the second story of the building.

A pile of shoes were strewn at the entrance. For some reason, most Iraqis work out barefooted. The gym was pretty full, considering Sadr City had been until recently one of the violent parts of the capital.

I spoke to a couple of the guys who were working out about the security situation in the city and returned home. On the drive back I noticed a couple of similar posters along the way and decided learn more about how the bodybuilding scene in Iraq has changed in recent years.

As we drove to the first gym we visited for the story, I told Saad about a story I reported on the Mexican border a few years ago. An editor at the Texas paper where I worked then had heard that high school students who visited South Padre Island, a beach town in southeastern Texas, during Spring Break, often crossed over the border to buy steroids in the Mexican city of Matamoros. She asked me to check it out. I spent a few days hitting up pharmacies that sell steroids over the counter, but spotted no spring breakers. Then one day, almost by accident, I found a pack of them at a veterinary pharmacy. It turns out they were using steroids made for horses.

Shortly after walking into The Future Gym in Baghdad's Palestine Street, I spotted a wide variety of steroids in a glass counter behind the owner's desk. Some were made in Iran; some were made in the United States. And lo and behold, some were made for animals.

The owner, a high school dropout, was more than happy to talk to us about steroids, raising his voice over rap and disco music booming from an old sound system. He said he started using them to enter competitions. He started with mild ones and eventually turned to veterinary steroids, which he said produce quicker results.

Besides the open use of steroids, I found a few things odd. No one appeared to work out with a towel, leaving streaks of sweat on benches. Some people hit the gym after work and don't bother changing into shorts or sweat pants.

But perhaps the strangest sight was this: after the end of a grueling set, one of the buffest guys at the gym walked toward a window in a corner, pulled out a cigarette and lit up. After smoking it, he reached for a pair of dumbbells and started a new set.

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