Friday, June 16, 2006

A small tragedy

The gym I work out at in Agousa has become a small community for me. The same 8 to 12 guys are come just about every day. Some are a little bigger than me. Others are a lot bigger. But everyone is friendly. You can tell that, for the others, the gym is their social network. The 'captain' of the gym, Mahmoud, works out and gives advice from noon until the last straggler (often me) has finished their workout, normally around 11 or 11:30 at night. The gym is on the first floor (it's about the size of a small apartment) and the captain's apartment is on the fourth. Working out is Mahmoud's passion, his religion even - unlike most other establishments in Cairo, the gym does not close on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

Immediately, from the first time I showed up, the captain tried to take me under his wing, giving me different exercises to do, prodding, encouraging, pushing me to work harder. After my second workout, he invited me up to meet his family. He's married (his wife wears a hijaab, the traditional Muslim headscarf) with four children. In his early 50s, the ages of his children range from young adults to a toddler who's around two years old. At one point, I told him that, with four kids and a twelve hour-a-day work schedule, he was quite the busy man. When I arrived, his wife was cordial, if reserved. She gave me a big smile, but words were not exchanged; in the Muslim world, husbands generally entertain male guests, and wives entertain female guests. Mahmoud may not be particularly religious, but some customs are more cultural than anything else. His wife quickly ducked into the kitchen, brought us some juice, and prepared tea. These meetings always make me a little uncomfortable. For one, my Arabic isn't strong enough to just ramble in conversation, and I never quite know what's appropriate conversation, and what isn't. For the most part, we just sat there, occasionally exchanging a smile or pleasantries about the house, family, or life in Cairo and America. It seemed as if the captain led a comfortable life. His horizons were no doubt limited, but there seemed to be a warmth in his gym and in his house that I imaged could sustain a happy life.

A few days later, I found out just how wrong first impressions could be. I arrived at the gym a little late, perhaps 10:30. By 11, I was the last person still there. As I finished up my work out, Mahmoud began asking me a few questions about my program. "Do you know a lot of American women here?" "Um, I know some, mainly through my program," I responded. "Do you think you could introduce me to some of them? I would like to meet some American women." Oh God, I thought. Not this. "Ah, the problem is most of the women in my program are very young, just about my age." I hoped Mahmoud's age would end the conversation, but he persisted. "You know, there's no love anymore in my marriage. I come and I go, and we exchange a few words and that's it." I asked him how long he had been married. He said since 1981. During the 70s, Mahmoud had been a professional body builder. He traveled to Vienna to compete, and claims to have met Arnold Schwarzenegger while he was there. He said those were great times. He had met women there that were fun, that life was enjoyable.

Suddenly, I began to think about the gym differently. Maybe it wasn't just a social network; maybe it was an escape valve, a way to work out sexual frustration, to deal with a life that could have gone differently. One thing I learned from my time in Syria, a lesson reinforced by my experience here, is how much more important outward appearances are than real life. They are important enough to list through a loveless marriage for decades.

Now that's a small tragedy


Post a Comment

<< Home