KABUL, Afghanistan — In a country famous for the body-shrouding burka and the Islamic puritanism of the former Taliban rulers, a gym's advertisements are jolting: a shirtless man in bikini briefs with bulging arm and abdominal muscles rippling, his massive chest flexed.
Gyms for bodybuilders are opening all over Kabul, the capital. Growing numbers of men are working out in places such as Super Gym and Afghan Gold's that have set up shop in abandoned war-ravaged buildings and new high-rises.
Sayed Mohammed Payanda, secretary-general of Afghanistan's National Bodybuilding Federation, says bodybuilding is second in popularity only to soccer in Afghanistan.
All over the city, hand-painted Arnold Schwarzeneggers and other iron-pumping heroes point down alleys to gyms that have sprouted up behind crowded markets and next to red-carpeted mosques.
Some gyms are state of the art, with imported computer-monitored running machines. Others lack electricity; men pump battered barbells in the flickering light of lanterns and square their shoulders, posing in front of cracked mirrors. At every gym, patrons leave their shoes by the door.
Bodybuilding has a long tradition in Afghanistan's male-dominated culture. Even under the Taliban, bodybuilding was allowed, but it was tightly controlled: Men had to exercise and compete wearing T-shirts and traditional baggy pants. Long beards were mandatory.
Now, young men work out while showing off bare chests and flat stomachs. Competitors on stage strip to their briefs and oil their skin.