Iraqi exercise craze pumps up home fitness business

McClatchy NewspapersJune 29, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Khalida Waleed wants to thank Oprah Winfrey for keeping her fit.

The 34-year-old office manager at an oil company doggedly does her 30-minute treadmill workout several times a week while watching. "I changed my life because of Oprah," she said, sighing. "Sometimes I don't exercise for a while, but when I watch her, I return to it."

Waleed represents a surging trend in Iraq: With or without Winfrey's inspiration, more exercise machines are going into more homes. Neither the Ministries of Finance nor Trade could provide reliable statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of Iraqis are emerging from the fog of war into the sunshine of regular workouts.

Fadhil Hussein, 48, looks as if he just walked off Venice Beach's iron-pumping enclave. And that's just what the personal trainer does five times a week. Besides his own lifting with free weights, he trains young Iraqi men who want to look like the studs they see in American movies or on the Turkish TV dramas popular in Iraq.

He manages a sports club in the fashionable Karrada District of Baghdad and has watched four competitors open their doors in the neighborhood in the past year. Membership in his club has soared to around 350 from fewer than 100 just two years ago. It costs 30,000 dinars, about $25, a month for membership. "Before I would see only a few fit people," he recalls. "Now I can see the majority have had some training."

The trend means more income for Zahir Khalaf, who runs his own sports gear shop on Rasheed Street in the oldest section of Baghdad. He opened in the '90s, endured the Saddam era and six years of urban violence after the U.S. invasion. Since last year, as the gunfire and bombs have quieted down countrywide, business is ramping up.

Sales vary month to month — June has been slow because of student exams — but some months he clears $10,000, double what he did a couple of years ago. His best seller: Fitness equipment like Khalida Waleed's treadmill. "Women don't much want to go out (to sports clubs or swimming pools) and prefer to exercise in the house," he explains.

Hot weather, traffic jams, police checkpoints and the residual fear of car bombs keep a lot of Baghdadis sweating at home instead of in a gym. Of course, the power goes out so often every day in the capital, they sweat wherever they are. When Waleed plugs in her treadmill, the whole family has to do without electricity till she's done.

Most of Khalaf's Chinese-made machines start at around $120 and go up, depending on whether they're electronic or mechanical. Need a portable sauna for that 118-degree June day? Take it home for $80.

A few doors down on what could pass as the Fourth World equivalent of the Nike campus, Murtada Kathum, a 21-year-old wearing a Chelsea soccer jersey, reports a similar boom in exercise equipment for the home. "Most Iraqis are fat," the wiry young man said. Machines with a waist-massage belt are hot items, along with stationary bikes.

(He's even starting to sell a few skateboards, helmets and pads. The only safe place for skaters to practice would seem to be the flat expanse of the drivers' training park beneath the Jadriyah Bridge. All it would take to bail from a board on a Baghdad street would be one trigger-happy checkpoint guard.)

By far, Chinese-made sports equipment, jerseys and shoes fill the shelves on Rasheed Street. Vendors say the Chinese gear is available, reliable and cheap. "They export to everybody," Kathum said.

Why the uptick in home gym rats? Despite the dramatic drop-off in violence, Iraqis keep a wary eye on security, and some don't want to make any unnecessary trips. And no matter what the incident numbers say, you still don't see joggers and walkers along the banks of the Tigris River as you did for a few months after the 2003 invasion.

Turkish TV dramas, which blend western concepts of hard-bodied women and men with Middle Eastern puritan reserve, also appear to have influenced the train-at-home trend.

And however paunchy they may be, Iraqi husbands want their wives to resemble the alluring houri of both Koranic scripture and the Arabian Nights. "They feel fat," said Hussein, the personal trainer, about some Iraqi wives.

Are Iraqis chasing fitness because they feel more optimistic about their future? The personal trainer doesn't think so: "It is a way for them to vent their rage and emotions and energies because there is no other way they can do it."

Back at the Wahleed household, Khalida has just stepped off her treadmill when her younger sister, Alyaa, 21, trim in tight blue jeans, walks into her second-story bedroom.

Does she use the treadmill?

"I don't need to," she said.

(Tharp reports for the Merced Sun-Star.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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