“You har veek! Veek Amereeken!” Mahmoud, self-proclaimed Master of Muscle and my personal trainer bellows at me. “VEEK!” he screams, as I struggle heroically with the weights on my arms and ankles to finish the lap around the track before awkwardly collapsing a few feet from the finish line, panting as my veek Amereeken frame shudders from exhaustion.
“Hah! You Amereekens!” Mahmoud spits at me, a scornful smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “My mutter, she ees stronger than you” he grunts before striding away, leaving me splayed, humiliated on the hot asphalt.
This was my first session with Mahmoud after joining the Fitness and Dance Academy of Cairo, where he is a personal trainer. I know what you’re thinking, Cairo? Fitness? Together? What may seem incongruous at first glance – after all, what culture better personifies laziness and inaction than that which invented late nights, the 12-course meal and the hookah – is actually a match made in, well, not quite heaven, but as close as one gets. Unlike the West, Egyptian culture seems to glorify the indolent, the decadent and the obese. Fat and lazy are, or were, “in” here for the better part of several millennia.
Indeed, celebrated and now sadly deceased Egyptian writer (also the only Arab winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) Naguib Mahfouz frequently sings the praises of “the rolls and swells” of the rotund figure and makes multiple references to “the pillowy folds of overindulgence.” Apparently the idea was that a fat ass would make most go wild with bestial desire – even to the point of rape (see The Cairo Trilogy, especially Palace Walk). However, surprisingly enough (or perhaps, unsurprisingly), the influence of the super-fit and carb-conscious West has finally caught up with shisha-worshipping Egypt. Before the late 1990s, health clubs, gyms, and spas were relegated to Western hotels – and, even then, many still lacked amenities such as treadmills. Hotel managers would tell visitors that they would get enough exercise “browsing the bazaars of Khan al-Khalili” and “taking the fresh desert air on a trip to the Pyramids.”
But, with the surge in oil prices and the resultant focus on the Middle East, Cairo and Egypt (along with pre-bombed Beirut) became virtual Meccas of Western culture. And, of course, with the Gucci and the McDonald’s came the fitness clubs. Appearing like empty candy wrappers after a night of THC-induced debauchery, these clubs came complete with ellipticals, aerobics classes and muscle-bound personal trainers. Catering to the Cairene elite, the gyms cover all the bases: massage parlors, multiple steam rooms, kickboxing and hip-hop classes and, of course, the smoothie bar. Emblematic of Western culture, these temples of the corpus attracted uppercrust Egyptians in droves, slowly revving the drowsy fitness movement (as nothing EVER moves quickly in Cairo) into a full-fledged craze. So, upon arrival, I was told that I needed to join a gym, and, being the trend-follower I am, I acquiesced. Despite being a foreign exchange student, I was not about to spend my time in the Cairo equivalent of the Mazo Family Game Room for Socially Inept Foreign Exchange Students. Thus, I reluctantly discarded my hitherto decadent and exercise-free life (I have a very languid constitution – see Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park for striking similarities) to embark on an existence of asceticism, sweat and fitness. However, as I am in Egypt, it seemed only fitting that I follow the Egyptian way of doing things: very slowly. No full-fledged cardio, lactic acid-producing gym for me. I needed something that moved a bit more sedately, something I could adapt to. Slowly.
I started my search with the fitness clubs in the Western hotels. The assumption was that they would be largely empty (who comes to Egypt to exercise?), so I would be spared the humiliation of trying to force my body back into some semblance of “fit.” Also on the list of requirements was that it had to have a hands-off approach to personal fitness. I didn’t want some beefcake breathing down my neck every time I came in to work out. Unfortunately, from the Sofitel to the Hyatt to the Marriott, I consistently met throngs of slim, toned Westerners visibly aching to lose their love handles or a dementedly cheerful and fanatically fit tour guide who praised the “expert trainers who would closely monitor my progress.”
The private clubs were no better. My self-esteem at rock bottom and my pack of cigarettes close to the same, I headed for the pastry shop after a long day of fruitless searching, hoping to console myself with a sugary delicacy. My patience and perseverance at an end, I decided that I was fated to a life of laziness and poor muscle tone. However, Allah was watching over me that Saturday afternoon and after lighting my last cigarette, I looked up to see a simple, faded billboard with the acronym FDA and its legend Fitness and Dance Academy of Cairo right before me. I was transported. The ad, devoid of tanned, sweaty people excited about working their posterior deltoids, had me hooked. I did a bit of research, found its location (on the eighth floor of a decrepit shopping mall—huzzah!) and headed over for a visit. Although clean, modern and filled with all sorts of dangerous-looking fitness equipment, it was empty. The treadmills and free weights stood disconsolate and silent. The aerobics classrooms had mirrors but no chiseled figures perusing themselves in them. A cleaning man pushed a dust mop around in a desultory manner. The receptionist was slightly overweight. I was in heaven. I immediately paid for three months, got my card and became a full-fledged member of the Fitness and Dance Academy of Cairo that afternoon. However, little did I know that the FDA had far more nefarious plans for me than a few minutes on the treadmill and the occasional hip-hop class.
I showed up two days later, iPod in hand, ready for a relaxing workout and was greeted by a bright, Spandex-clad nightmare named Samira. She glanced at my card and said with a winning smile,
“Oh, you don’t have a plan yet.”
“Dr. Hany is here, let me see if he’s free,”
“What? Plan? Dr. Hany? I don’t…” I spluttered.
“Everyone has a plan here,” she said, bounding to her feet and stuffing a mess of brochures into my hands.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she replied before bouncing off, leaving me gasping and fumbling for ground. I glanced down at the brochures. “VOTED BEST IN THE MIDDLE EAST!!!”, “TOP GYM IN CAIRO”, “GET FIT QUICK” popped out at me from all sides. Shit. What had I done? Could I get my money back? Before I knew it, Samira had returned and was guiding me forcefully down the stairs, chattering all the while about how wonderful Dr. Hany was and how great of shape I would be in with his “plan.”
“WELCOME!” a huge voice boomed at me. “YOU NEED A PLAN?”
“Um. No, not really. I just wanted..”
“EVERYONE NEEDS A PLAN,” the voice said, trampling over my weak protests. “COME IN!” The voice now had a face, a big one. With a unibrow. A large hand was shaking mine vigorously and suddenly I was on a scale.
“HMMMM. YOUR WEIGHT IS FINE.”
“Ok, but I don’t really need…”
“LET’S GET YOU MEASURED,” the unibrow was back, holding up a tape measure.
What happened next is not PG, so I won’t write it. But, let it suffice to say that I was treated to one of the most humiliating experiences of my hitherto decadent and exercise-free life. Every angle of me was taken into account by the unibrow and his henchman, the tape measure. Arms, legs, neck, waist, ankles, wrists, everywhere. Although it seemed like forever, it probably only lasted about five minutes. After a brief bit of grumbling in Arabic and some sounds of a pen scratching on paper, I was handed a sheet with some scribbles.
“HERE IS YOUR PLAN. YOU’LL BE WORKING WITH MAHMOUD. HE’S OUR BEST.”
And then I was out of the office, clutching my “plan.” I was immediately escorted upstairs to the workout area and handed off to Mahmoud.
A giant of a man, his arms were easily the size of my legs and he, like much of the English rugby team, didn’t seem to have a neck.
“Eye yam Mahmoud, Master of Muscle,” he said. “Allo,” he continued, looking at my “plan.” After perusing it for a minute, his eyes lit up.
“Umf,” he grunted at me. “Veek,” he grunted again, eyeing me like a piece of meat that would do nicely for his supper. He left with the “plan” and returned with ankle and arm weights, gesturing for me to put them on.
“Kuwayyis,” he responded, after I struggled into them. “Yella” he said and walked off, me trying bravely to keep up. We went downstairs and outside, over a couple of blocks and into a school yard with an asphalt track running around its perimeter.
I stood there. What was this? What were we doing here?
“RUN!” My questions were answered as a bellow that seemed to shake the firmaments resounded in my ear. So I ran. And I ran. And I ran some more, my limbs crying out in protest. Mahmoud jogged behind me the entire time, treating me to shouts of “VEEK” and “RUN” whenever he thought I was flagging. Nearing the end, I collapsed.
Upon revival, I divested myself of the weights and asked for some water. I was refused. I vowed never to return.
Before I left, he gestured me over to him and put an arm with the girth of a small antelope around my shoulders.
“You come back, ok?” he said, grinning evilly. “I know ver you live, ok?”