Monday, July 6, 2009

Sweating with Syrians

I have been working out for the last several years. Not much to show for all the weight work but it has taken me to some sweaty gyms I doubtless would have otherwise missed.

My gym is Damascus is right off Tahrir Square, northeast of the old city. I was directed there by a Christian Arab after coming to the conclusion that the city's most well known private gym, known as Nadi Barada, was too far from my pad for daily visits. Nadi Barada draws an eclectic mix of spoiled rich teens, iced-coffee sipping gals, and foreigners. An even more impressive group of weight lifters are at work right nearby the entrance to Nadi Barada. For a few dollars, the gruff old man outside this second gym explained that his outfit is a government complex. The equipment was decades older than what I would find in Nada Barada, he admitted, yet his gym was "where the men of muscle come is the gym of champions."

While the coffee crowd and the men of muscle were enticing, I turned down both offers for a more modest gym that is just a ten minute walk from Bab Touma. The owner of the gym is a spitting image for the former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg. And so I was not surprised when the manager, another lumbering guy by name of Fadi, told me during one of our many conversations that like many Syrian men, he is a devoted fan of professional wrestling and a fan of Goldberg in particular. Considering that the wrestler is, of course, Jewish, I cannot think of a better way to jump start American-Syrian relations than for the US government to sponsor a barnstorming tour of the country by professional wrestlers. If ping-pong diplomacy worked in China, no reason why wrestling cannot serve a similar purpose thirty years later in Syria!

Fadi and the other regulars are very friendly, spotting my lifts and amiably chatting me up about life in America whenever they can bear to look away from eying their own selves in the full length mirrors. Perhaps I am the only one who finds our easy socializing disconcerting, harboring as I do the knowledge that my training in this Damascus gym is in preparation for serving in an army whose opponents are likely the buff Arab men that surround me.

As the temperature rose in Damascus, my futile search for a place to swim led me back to Nadi Barada. During my last two weeks in Syria, I swam for over an hour every morning in the gym's outdoor pool. Men only have access to the water from six to nine and by seven am the pool would already be full of legs and arms flailing away. One day, after the lifeguards had blocked off a third of the pool for kiddie swimming lessons, there was almost a revolution. As I smiled and sputtered "viva the resistance," two regular swimmers, an Arab and an Italian, vehemently protested the lifeguards attempt to press a dozen grown men into the remaining three lanes. Their protest was squelched but at least for one moment, in one pool, west and east came together in harmony to advance the rights of men.

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