There are some things you should not do in Kandahar: you should not spend too much time on the street; you should not tell people when you are going out, or where you are going, up to the moment when you are actually leaving the door; you should not go to the same place or person regularly; you should not hang around areas with a random group of people you do not know. The list goes on. Kandahar is half-way submerged in war – but it’s a new war, one that does not necessarily take place before your eyes.
In the past few years, Kandahar has changed. The battle for Kandahar is coming, if one is to believe Stanley McChrystal. I remember walking on the street with friends, getting ice cream in the summer and spending fridays at the river in Arghandab just outside the city. One thing I remember particularly well is when we went to the local gym. All of these things might kill you today.
A year and a half ago, I would go out at night, huddle up with two other people on a motorcycle or walk through the back alleys to one of Kandahar’s gyms. When I first told a friend of mine living outside Afghanistan about my evening entertainment he didn’t believe me: “You’re joking, right? They have gyms down there?” He laughed.
Yes they do, dozens of them, crammed down in basements and backrooms all over town. You can find guys pumping iron on gym equipment that can compete with most standard gyms in Western Europe and America — minus the electricity from time to time.
For people who haven’t spent time in southern Afghanistan, this might seem strange, but gyms make perfect sense, as do hair products and perfume.
As with other things in Afghanistan, a paradox lies at the bottom of this: there seems to be no middle way in Kandahar. You want to be young or you want to be old, but no one wants to age. Many of my Afghan friends colour their hair to get rid of the grey and white streaks, but some consciously bring them to the front for people to see. Many complain about their weight, the belly that has been growing for the past few years, and sometimes they start doing something about it.
The gyms are packed in the early evenings, mostly with young men. In close to every gym I have been to, you could buy nutritional supplements, muscle busters and Creatine buckets — not that different from gyms in the west, you might say. But what you don’t find back in the west are a variety of anabolic steroid products on the same shelf.
“You cannot make your body look like this without the pills, the powder and shots,” one of the young men told me. A friend said that some of the guys spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on steroids each month.
One man that everyone in Kandahar’s gym world knows is Mohammadullah Gul Lalai: Mr Kandahar in 2003. He is a big guy, even though he is currently not training. “Sometimes you need to rest. I’ll start training again in a month,” says Gul Lalai, sitting on a bench in one of his gyms on the third floor, just a few hundred meters away from Kandahar’s Chawk-e Madat.
He says he is 33 years old and that he started to train when he was twenty. “First I played football, but then one of my cousins convinced me to try bodybuilding and I did.” Back then there were two gyms in Kandahar with little equipment and no trainers.
“Arnold told me how to do it. I used his videos and magazines.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the governor of California, ex-Terminator star and former Mr Universe, smiles from the wall of every gym in Kandahar. The posters are all from the 1970s and 80s, showing him at his peak — just before he dropped out and filmed Conan the Barbarian, the film that made him a star and set the stage for his career. Arnold Schwarzenegger pops up time and time again in conversations in the gym, along with many other names I do not know.
Gul Lalai got the equipment for his first gym in Pakistan, rented a small room in Kandahar and slowly, day by day more and more people joined. Currently Kandahar has 21 gyms all across the city. The first championships were internal to the clubs. “Later, under Taliban rule, there were many problems,” Gul Lalai says. “Many things were not allowed: you could not show the legs, the body for competitions. We had to wear long clothes. So we trained in Kandahar and went to competitions in Pakistan.”
Otherwise, the Taliban had no problems with the gyms. “The Taliban were strong. Many came to my gym to train,” Gul Lalai said.
Today, Gul Lalai stays out of politics even though he is the the director for the department of sport in Kandahar and the head of the Olympic Committee.
“We need to give the young people something to do. Sport can help improve the situation,” he says.
He won his first title in 2000 and became Mr Kandahar in 2002 in the 80-kilo weight class from among 13 clubs. In 2003 he went to Iran and won a competition in the 90-kilo class. In 2005 he became Mr Afghanistan in the 90-kilo class and was selected for Mr Asia; he came in third place.
There seems to be no good reason for Gul Lalai to stay in Kandahar. With the violence, the assassinations and the general situation deteriorating everyday, why hasn’t he left? Gul Lalai laughs. “We know these things, no problem.”
I haven’t been to the gym for months. Instead, I bought a bench, some free weights and a running machine. The way the future seems set, with NATO preparing for “The Battle for Kandahar”, it might not have been such a sound investment.