Afghanistan's Real Strongmen

Bodybuilding is all the rage in a society where the state is a little short on muscle

Jason Motlagh

Shuqrullah Shakili, a native of Helmand province, appears moments after he was selected Mr. Afghanistan 2009

It's just past 9 a.m. and people are already filing into Kabul's Park Cinema. The venue's usual fare — shoot-em-up Bollywood matinees — may be popular, but they can't compete with the display of homegrown muscle that makes up the annual Mr. Afghanistan pageant.

Backstage, bodybuilders from all over the country crank out push-ups and curl dumbbells for a last-second pump as groupies slap them down with oil and bark encouragement. Armed guards scan the main room for troublemakers as VIPs take their seats in the front row and a standing-room-only gallery of at least 1,500 people...

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