Gym employees in Afghanistan under pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger last October. Just a few days before the California recall election, bodybuilders were all abuzz about the news that he might become governor. Under the Taliban, photos of Western figures, like Schwarzenegger, were frowned upon.
A crowd of about 80 travel aficionados gathered at the Wings Theater in the Archives Building on Christopher St. last Saturday to hear travel writer and photographer Michael T. Luongo discuss his trip this past October to Afghanistan.
The event was sponsored by Globetrotters of NYC, the local chapter of an international nonprofit travel membership group founded 50 years ago in Britain. Luongo said that his goal in doing the talk was to present photos of things you dont necessarily see in the news. Under that broad rubric, he discussed a wide array of topics, from the changing status of women in Kabul to the breakneck rebuilding remaking the citys streetscape, and from the nations tourist infrastructure to its burgeoning bodybuilding scene.
Two women from the National Portrait Gallery in Kabul. Sabera, on the left, said she was forced from her job under the Taliban. She is now training Shakoria, on the right, who has recently finished college. The arts are an important area where woman can be visible.
Throughout his two-week stay in Kabul, Luongo noted the competing pull of Taliban constraints and postwar freedom. He estimated that about 90 percent of the Afghan women he saw in the streets wore burkhas, and said he was several times chastised, even by his translator, for initiating conversations with women he encountered in public. Unrest in Kandahar made travel there unsafe.
At the same time, he said, many women have gone back to the jobs they held before the Taliban took power, and are now seen working not only in schools, but elsewhere as well, particularly in arts institutions in Kabul. Luongo interviewed women who have assumed important positions restoring both the National Theater and the National Portrait Museum.
As Luongo walked the streets of Kabul, he also picked up visual clues to another phenomenon in postwar Afghanistan the growing popularity of bodybuilding among young men. He admitted that he might have been especially keen in identifying this trend because he is gay, but said none of the practitioners seemed uncomfortable with his interest.
If I had not been gay, I probably would not have noticed, he said. When you noticed they were bodybuilders, they were eager to show their muscles.
On one occasion, as he photographed a bodybuilder in front of a mosque, a group of about 20 men of varied ages Afghan men spend most of their social life in the company of other men gathered to watch, and eventually they understood that Luongo was gay and vocally encouraged the two men to have a date.
There are now 20 gyms operating in Kabul. Luongo explained that gym culture first came to Afghanistan from local men returning from Pakistan but has received a huge boost from the presence of young American soldiers, many of whom were in top physical condition. Several gyms Luongo visited had big photographs of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and there was a buzz among local athletes about their heros run for California governor.
Since the fall of the Taliban, Luongo explained, Kabul has swelled from its population of under 700,000 to 2 million or more. Though overcrowded, the city maintains the tourist amenities, particularly hotels, first developed in the late 60s when Afghanistan was part of the hippie trail of discontented Westerners seeking Eastern enlightenment. The country is not yet the ideal getaway for families, but Luongo said it was ready for intrepid travelers eager to see history as it unfolds.
The guy who is in charge of tourism in Afghanistan believes that when bin Laden is caught, the caves around Tora Bora will be the biggest tourist spot, he recalled, almost a Disney tour based on reenactments of finding bin Laden.
Luongo has been a contributor to The Villager and its sister publications, Downtown Express and Gay City News. He has also written for publications including The New York Times and Budget Travel, and is the editor of the gay travel literary series at Haworth Press.
Globetrotters of NYC celebrates its third anniversary on Sat., Feb. 7, when travel photographer Kenneth Axen gives a talk and slideshow about Mexicos Yucatan Peninsula, at the Wings Theater, 154 Christopher St., from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Admission is $10, $8 for Globetrotters members.