Bodybuilding: The pursuit of beauty in war-torn Kabul

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Afghan bodybuilders competing in a bodybuilding and fitness contest in Kabul. (AFP)
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Afghan bodybuilder Hares Mohammadi, 25, posing as he exercises at a gym in Kabul. (AFP)
Updated 25 June 2018
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Bodybuilding: The pursuit of beauty in war-torn Kabul

KABUL: Hindi music pumps from the speakers as dozens of Afghan men grunt and sweat their way through a workout beneath the watchful eye of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose muscle-bound image hangs from the wall.
The scene inside this Kabul gym is repeated at venues all round 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 when they ruled the country from 1996-2001 — so long as the men wore long trousers as they lifted.
But as security deteriorated and the initial euphoria after the US invasion dissipated into stress, trauma and loss, more and more young men took to the gym.
“Everyone, everywhere in Afghanistan, wants to have a beautiful body shape, and this sport is a favorite sport for every young man,” says Hares Mohammadi, a law and political science student turned champion bodybuilder who is also a trainer at one gym in Kabul.
The 25-year-old, dressed in grey, strikes different poses showing off his carefully honed 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, he says, and young Afghans want to “make their mark.” One way is through sporting success.
So, along with Schwarzenegger, other stars from Hollywood and Bollywood such as Sylvester Stallone and Salman Khan are held up as heroes, and the gyms stay busy for hours, filled with music and camaraderie as men tone their bodies to perfection.
It was not always so.
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 says, smiling as he remembers how expensive postcards featuring the 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 sport 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 as there was no place to buy them.
“I have been a teacher of myself,” he says, 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 views on bodybuilding.
“Nowadays, bodybuilding clubs are everywhere in the city, and everyone has made a gym of his own,” he says.
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 says, 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 everyday food for me,” he says.
“Today’s bodybuilding is not natural.”
Regardless of the method, sport can help ease the psychological trauma of nearly four decades of war, says 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 most devastating factors.
As such, he says sports such as bodybuilding can play a “vital role.”
But, like Mohammadi, he also suggests 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 than the others,” he said.
However, security continues to deteriorate in Kabul, where both the Taliban and Daesh have stepped up their attacks.
Many fearful residents now limit their movements. Arezo says his gym’s membership has shrunk.
“Nowadays people are concerned about fleeing the country rather than taking up sport,” he says.


How bonobo mothers help their sons find love

In this file photo taken on November 4, 2006 in the "Lola ya bonobo" parc near Kinshasa shows young bonobos, living only in the Democratic republic of Congo (DRC). (AFP)
Updated 36 min 5 sec ago
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How bonobo mothers help their sons find love

  • Bonobo mothers did not go the extra mile for their daughters, nor did they help their daughters raise offspring

WASHINGTON: Anyone who’s experienced a mother pushing them to get a move on and produce grandkids might just sympathize with this.
A new study has described the outsized role bonobo moms play in their sons’ sex lives: from pulling rank to ensure their male offspring get to meet attractive ovulating females, to interfering with male rivals’ attempts to mate.
The paper was published Monday in the journal Current Biology and found that bonobo males whose mothers were alive and remained in their group were three times more likely to father children.
And the authors credited the success of the “wingmoms” on the nature of bonobos’ female-dominant societies, which have long been known for their altruistic and peaceful character, in contrast to more violent and patriarchal chimpanzees.
“This is the first time that we can show the impact of the mother’s presence on a very important male fitness trait, which is their fertility,” co-author Martin Surbeck, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany said in a statement.
“We were surprised to see that the mothers have such a strong, direct influence on the number of grandchildren they get.”
For the study, Surbeck and colleagues observed wild bonobo populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as wild populations of chimpanzees in Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Uganda.
To verify paternity, they collected the primates’ droppings for DNA analysis.

They found that while both bonobo and chimpanzee mothers attempted to assist their sons, bonobos were far more successful because their communities’ highest ranks are dominated by females.
Chimpanzee communities on the other hand are dominated by males who compete for alpha status.
The two species together are humans’ closest relatives in the animal kingdom and share about 99 percent of our DNA.
“The bonobo moms act a bit like social passports,” Surbeck told AFP.
“The sons, in close proximity to their moms, are also very central in the group and access positions in the group that allow them to interact more with other females including copulation.”
“If there’s a female who’s very attractive, you see moms stick around them, and in the shadow of their moms are the males,” he added.
By contrast, they found that if a mother lost her high rank, her son also fell in rank and was subsequently less successful in his mating attempts.
In addition to intervening in their sons’ rivals attempt to mate, bonobo mothers also protected their own sons from the efforts of rivals to disrupt courting and sex.

Interestingly, bonobo mothers did not go the extra mile for their daughters, nor did they help their daughters raise offspring.
Surbeck believes that, since bonobo daughters leave the community and males remain behind, it may simply not be worth the mothers’ time and efforts from an evolutionary perspective.
One thing the team believes they may now have tentative evidence for is the so-called “grandmother hypothesis“: that a post-reproductive female can increase her own lifespan and continue her genes by ensuring her offspring’s reproductive success.
It is an idea that anthropologists have applied to humans and Surbeck believes it could also be the case for bonobo populations.
“The interesting thing now is in bonobos we have such a mechanism, apparently allowing the females to do that, but intriguingly not through their daughters but their sons,” he told AFP.
Moving forward, Surbeck said he would like to confirm through more long-term research the benefits of the behavior on the longevity of mothers, and find out whether mothers exhibit welcoming behavior to new female arrivals in the community who go on to become their sons’ mates.
More broadly, he said, studying the differences between gender egalitarian and largely peaceful bonobo societies, in which members practice both heterosexual and homosexual sex to strengthen social bonds; versus alpha-male led chimpanzee societies, could yield clues about our own evolutionary past.
“One has to be clear — we did not evolve from bonobos or chimpanzees but we share with them a common ancestry,” said Surbeck.
“Comparing us with our closest living relatives might give some idea about traits which could evolve under selective pressures.”