Tanned, buff and ready to pose, Gaza bodybuilders feel weight of blockade

Rain, shine or war, one bodybuilder’s day begins with a cup of instant espresso — no sugar or milk — and a power walk, usually along the beachfront boardwalk of Gaza City.

On a chilly spring morning, with a smattering of rain, the beach cabanas were shuttered and the boardwalk’s corn shacks closed as Suhail al-Asaad began his daily workout.

But come summer, the beach will be crowded and al-Asaad, 43, and his fellow bodybuilders will spend hours lying on the sand, tanning their skin to an inhumanly bronze shade before competitions abroad.

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The beach is their best option; there are no tanning salons in Gaza.

Bodybuilding is popular in the Gaza Strip among men, young and old, and a tiny but growing number of women. They are spurred to strap on back braces and heave weights by a 50% unemployment rate, a lack of other recreational options and the feeling of strength it provides amid a sense of powerlessness in the besieged strip.

“The Gaza Strip is closed off, so for young men, one of the few outlets they have to release their energy is bodybuilding,” said al-Asaad, who gels his hair into a wide, spiky fin, giving him the appearance of a buff shark.

In part owing to bodybuilding’s popularity, Gaza has experienced a boom in gyms. There are nearly 130 now. A decade ago there were fewer than 30.

“The sea is in front of us, but because of the occupation I can’t take a boat and go out. We have the mountains in the West Bank, but I can’t reach them. We have deserts, but I can’t reach them,” said Mahmoud Ammar, a trainer and judge with the Palestine Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. “But bodybuilding is something that’s accessible.”

But some of the factors that make the sport particularly appealing here also render it challenging for those like al-Asaad who want to establish a name for themselves beyond the narrow strip, which has been under a 16-year land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt.

Tareq Abu Aljedian, center, of the Palestinian Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation, gives a lecture on bodybuilding to trainers in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, March 2022. Bodybuilding is popular among Palestinians living in Gaza City, but travel restrictions and other obstacles as a result of the Israeli block make competing abroad a struggle. (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)

There are no sponsors. Traveling to international competitions can take days, and many countries are off-limits. The food, supplements and protein powder needed to bulk up are expensive. And getting enough steroids to prepare — bodybuilders say that championships turn a blind eye to widespread steroid use — requires trusted friends willing to smuggle in a little at a time.

“In the end, there is no real payoff for us. It’s just making a name for yourself and competing in the name of Palestine,” al-Asaad said as he walked with his chest out, back straight and arms swinging by his side.

At home after his morning cardio, al-Asaad carefully weighed out and made his breakfast, an oat and egg white omelet with 2 grams each of salt and cinnamon.

The eggs from the previous day’s grocery shopping, which also included 3 kilograms of turkey breast and 1 kilogram of ground veal, will last him just three days. The items cost $50, nearly what the average worker in Gaza earns during three days of work. He ate the omelet with little pleasure, as his wife, Sally al-Madani, woke up their three sons.

Al-Asaad has been following his strict diet since 2019 with only one cheat day every few months. Even conflict can’t update his routine.

During the 11-day war between Hamas and Israel in May 2021, the Israeli airstrikes made it too difficult and dangerous to reach the boardwalk, so al-Asaad stuck to his neighborhood streets for his morning exercise. But even that was too much of a risk for al-Madani.

“I would say, ‘How can you?’” she said. “I’m the type that gets very scared, but he would go out and walk no matter what was happening.”

One such he came upon a roadblock set up by residents, who warned him that an Israeli raid was imminent. He thanked them, changed direction and continued his power walk.

Three months later, he was in Lebanon competing in his first international competition and won first in his size division.

Al-Asaad prefers to compete in Lebanon, where he was born and where his grandparents fled to from their ancestral village of Akka, or Acre, in what is now northern Israel during the 1948 war that led to Israel’s independence, an event Palestinians refer to as the “nakba,” or catastrophe. His family moved to Gaza when he was 17, after the signing of the Oslo Accords.

In 2004, he got a job in the health ministry under the Palestinian Authority, which at the time ran Gaza. Three years later when Hamas won an election and then wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, the 70,000 or so government employees like al-Asaad no longer had jobs, but they still collect their salaries.

Al-Asaad earns extra income as a trainer at a gym and by making instructional online videos, money that goes to his competition preparation, which can cost more than $5,000 per tournament.

He is still paying off debts incurred from an international competition in November in Beirut, where he took two third-place finishes and one eighth place.

He is now preparing for the Mister Universe (Amateur) competition in August, also in Beirut.

The supplement and hormone routine of Suhail al-Asaad, a top Palestinian bodybuilder, in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, March 2022. Bodybuilding is popular among Palestinians living in Gaza City, but travel restrictions and other obstacles as a result of the Israeli blockade make competing abroad a struggle. (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)

Once that date gets nearer, he will switch from eating lean turkey and veal to even leaner fish, as he works to get his body to no more than 5% body fat.

Despite Gaza’s 25-mile Mediterranean coastline, fish here is expensive because of Israel’s maritime blockade under which fishermen are only allowed to go out 12 nautical miles, severely restricting how much seafood they can catch. (While recreational boating is allowed, there are many restrictions and obstacles, many a result of the blockade, that make it largely unattainable.)

Getting championship-ready in Gaza is just part of the challenge. Getting out of the blockaded enclave presents its own obstacles, including needing to call in favors just to get on the list of people allowed to exit at the Rafah border crossing to Egypt.

Every bodybuilder has a story about a championship or nearly missed because of the uncertainty of the border crossing.

In 2004, Tareq Abu Aljedian was heading to a championship in Egypt but was turned away at the crossing because Israel had banned men younger than 35 from traveling.

Months of training went to waste. It was the last time he tried to compete, overwhelmed by the obstacles.

He now heads the Palestinian bodybuilding federation and is responsible for helping get bodybuilders like al-Asaad to competitions abroad. It’s not easy.

“These we can’t get visas to, these we can’t either,” he said as he scrolled through the list of International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness competitions for 2022, including in Sweden, Norway and Aruba. “Anything in the European Union we don’t get visas to.”

In March, the Gazan bodybuilders were invited to the Asian Cup and Fitness Challenge, but they couldn’t accept. It was held in Iran, which has long backed Hamas.

Had they gone to that competition, it could have raised the specter that they were going for reasons other than to flex their muscles in tiny bathing suits.

“We have to make many calculations,” al-Asaad said. “We need to make sure we don’t anger any side.”

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