Pumping for Arnold in Baghdad

At the Arnold Classic Gym in Baghdad, two things matter: Arnold Schwarzenegger and bodybuilding.

No matter what's happening outside - Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, mortars, kidnappings - this shabby gym is an island of civility. Under hundreds of pictures of oiled and bulging Arnolds, Kurds train next to Christians, Sunnis spot Shiites, and foreigners pump iron with the toughest Iraqi strongmen (Nick Berg used to be a regular). If you show up at the right time, you can even find a couple of Shiite women who come all the way from the distant and devoutly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiyah to bench press right alongside men. Here, at least, Iraq is one nation under maximum intensity training.

"I can't train anywhere else - I was raised here," says Firas Gurgis, a burly young Kurd who went to the Arab World Championship in Amman, Jordan, in May.

"I've been to a lot of gyms, but this is the best, because everyone has respect for each other," says Amjad Najim, a skinny 16-year-old Shiite.

"He is the champion!" shouts beefy gym owner Sabah Taleb Mehdi, knocking him off balance with a hearty thump to the chest. Mr. Mehdi was once a scrawny young Shiite too - until he discovered weight training. Now no one kicks sand in his face: He won Iraq's national bodybuilding championship every year from 1977 to 1990.

But even a strongman has his weak spot. Mehdi's oasis of brawn is under threat, the latest casualty of Baghdad's red-hot real estate market. When the gym's lease expires on Aug. 15, the landlady wants to raise the rent to $1500 from about $287 a month. "She is crazy!" he says mournfully. "I don't know where I would go."

Hence the first annual (he hopes) Arnold Classic Championship. The all-day contest pitted the best of the 400-plus Iraqis who train at the gym against each other. Mehdi gave prizes in all weight categories, as well as one for "the littlest champion." The occasion was Arnold Schwarzenegger's birthday, July 31.

The contest was also a plea for help. "I want Mr. Arnold to know what's happening," says Mehdi, sipping cold orange soda inside his 120-degree gym. "I need his help to solve this problem."

For anyone else, this might be wishful thinking - especially since "Mr. Arnold" has a habit of suing businesses who use his name. But Mehdi and "the Arnold Man" go way back. In the 1970s, when he was a rising champion, Mehdi wrote to Mr. Olympia, and got a reply addressed "To my only friend among the Arabs." He stayed a fan for the next 30 years.

His first son received two names: on government documents it's Abdullah. To family and friends he is Arnold.

In 2000, Mehdi tried to name his gym, then the "Elegant Bodies House," after Arnold. But Saddam Hussein's psychopathic son Uday, who controlled the Olympic Commission, wouldn't allow it: no foreign names for Iraqi gyms. The minute Hussein's statue fell, he renamed the gym. "It was my lifelong dream," he says fervently, sitting in his tiny office strewn with weightlifting magazines and Arnoldiana. Above him, Arnolds flex and prance across the walls, next to a line from the Koran that could be a bodybuilder's motto: "God does not oppress people, but people oppress themselves."

The night Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, Mehdi and his friends stayed in the office until 4 a.m., watching the returns. "When he won," says Mehdi, "I was crying with joy."

His happiness was complete in February, when he got another letter from the Austrian Oak himself. There was no working postal service, so a Coalition Provisional Authority official, making a rare trip out of the Green Zone, actually hand-delivered the letter.

The California governor thanked him for his support and congratulated him on his gym. "More importantly," wrote Schwarzenegger, "I am truly honored to share my name with your son."

Now Mehdi needs Arnold's help. And so he wrote again. "If we lose this gym building it will be a devastating loss due to the great difficulties to find and afford the set-up of a new gym," wrote Mehdi. "Please consider how you might help us to solve this pressing problem." No pun intended.

Mehdi laid out his vision for Arnold Classic: It will be a safe place where all young Iraqis are welcome. "Our gym could be a 'hope chain' through out Iraq with the name 'Arnold Classic Gym,' " he wrote.

He hasn't heard anything back. But like most Iraqis, he puts his faith in strongmen. So he and his bodybuilders believe their hero will come through. "Arnold is a miracle," says Majid Najim, Amjad's 19-year-old brother. "I know he can help us."

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