Many evenings, when I first moved to Islamabad, I used to walk the streets to pass the time. The city is beautiful at night, and it seemed a better idea than watching more MTV and soaps in the native Urdu.
Then I discovered Ultimate Gym, a fitness center just down the street from my house. I was sucked in by the blaring techno music and the earnestness of its young patrons, whom I spied through a wall of windows, gallivanting on treadmills and furiously working half-dilapidated exercise machines.
Life has never been the same.
At first I wasn't serious about the exercise; I thought of it as merely something to do. Joining a gym wasn't something I'd have done back home, but in a foreign place it seemed nice to belong to something.
Then I met Nesar, an Afghan fitness trainer who works for the gym. Nesar is huge, with chiseled jowls any Tajik would be proud of. He looks like he walked off the set of "Rambo III," a mujahideen extra, and talks like it.
"In six year, I made beautiful body," he told me, flexing in the mirror.
The first day I walked in, he suggested I let him train me, giving me a cold look up and down. He inspected my shoulders, patting them skeptically, the way one appraises leather goods or fruit.
"In few months I can make good body for you," he said. Physical trainers, it seems, make the same promises everywhere. I wasn't sure he was right, but he seemed sincere and I had a feeling I'd just stumbled onto a good story.
Every good story comes at a price though. For this one, I have paid with weeks of excruciating pain, the humiliation of knowing my own weakness, and periodic dressings-down from Nesar when I missed workouts or cut out early. If I tell him I have to leave for an interview, he'll just shake his head.
"But I did a lot today," I'll say in defense, suddenly the guilty student. My justifications only prompt his laughter. "You think that's a lot?!" he'll guffaw, then point at my gut, a gesture more powerful and guilt-inducing than any of his words. His real revenge is piling on more weight the next day, yelling, "Come on, big guy!" as I squirm.
Sometimes I feel like I'm paying him to do the exercises for me. Like when I'm doing sit-ups and he just pulls me up and down with one arm. He's pretty energetic. It's the music they pump at the gym. He likes 50 Cent and Shakira, and does a little dance when Michael Jackson comes on. Just don't play Indian music; it ruins his workout.
"Psychologically, I'm feeling very bad when Indian music comes on," he says.
For me, feeling bad comes more from the pain than the music. But it's been worth it, because in addition to getting stronger, I've formed a great bond with another foreigner in this city, and that makes it feel more like home.
Nesar and his family fled Kabul 14 years ago, after his aunt was killed by a missile in the civil war. They were among more than 3 million Afghan refugees who flooded into neighboring Pakistan.
Today, nearly 2 million Afghans have returned to their country, but many, including Nesar's family, still feel safer here. Life in Pakistan has been tough, but bodybuilding has been something of a savior for Nesar. After a life of turmoil and upheaval, joblessness and scrapping by, bodybuilding seems to give him a sense of calm and ease, even a sense of control.
"I spent a really hard time living in Asia," he told me one day over an orange soda, adding later, "Bodybuilding encourages me mentally."
He's convinced that many young Afghans are crazy about bodybuilding, and says they have Arnold Schwarzenegger's film "Commando" to thank for that. "This encouraged us a lot," he says.
Nowadays, with life settled into a routine, working with Nesar is one of the highlights of the day. He says bodybuilding inspired him to make a better life for himself, so he started taking free English lessons a few years ago. Speaking with me every day helps.
"Today I learned, 'fortunately' and unfortunately,' " he said the other day. He thought for a second before uttering, "Fortunately I went to play tennis today." A smile. "Unfortunately it started raining." A frown. "Really, I like that one," he enthused.
I like to think the training is a workout for him as well. Once he asked me to make him a list of vocabulary words - advanced, journalistic things, he told me. So I wrote down some terms on a slip of paper - "Strategic relationship," "Escalating conflict," "Destabilizing factor" - which he went over the next day while I worked out.
I was doing a "special" exercise he'd taught me, standing with knees bent, trying to curl a heavy dumbbell up and down. It's usually not so hard, because Nesar helps me - maybe a little too much.
This day, however, he barely seemed to notice I was there. All of his attention was focused on the list of words, which he clenched in his hands as tightly as I clenched the dumbbell in mine. My arm was shaking like agitated jello as I strained to lift the dumbbell, but Nesar intervened only half-heartedly, barely looking, giving my arm a little push from time to time. I was straining, but there was Nesar straining more, fumbling through "strategic."
When I learned I'd soon be going to Afghanistan, I asked Nesar for advice.
"Even the people serving food, how they're speaking, it will be very exciting for you." It reminded me that he'd once told me about how he saw a concert in Afghanistan and the stage collapsed. "Afghanistan is exciting country," he had said, a bright smile fanned across his lips.
Hopefully not too exciting.