They might look as though they could lift houses with only one arm, but during this 2009 all-Arab competition, the 17th Annual Body Building Championship in Amman, these bodybuilders proved that they too are human. Dubbed ‘The Gaza Martyrs Tournament’, the competition featured men from seventeen Arab countries, squeezed into tiny speedos and flexing their hearts out in front of the audience.
The series is shot by Tanya Habjouqa, a photojournalist born in Jordan. She began her career in Texas, USA, documenting Mexican migrant communities and urban poverty, before returning to the Middle East. Tanya Habjouqa’s work deals with topics like gender, social conditions and human rights; she has covered LGBT-communities in Jerusalem, heroin addiction under occupation in Palestine, and abused female foreign workers in Jordan. She lives in Jerusalem, where she explores with her work the socio-political dynamics, occupation policies and subcultures of the area and the wider Levant. Together with five other photojournalists, Tanya Habjouqa makes up the all-female, Middle East-based, photo collective Rawiya.
In 2009, the 17th Arab Body Building Championship was held in a modest hanger in Amman’s Sport’s City.
The competition was open to eleven different weight groups, two for “youth” and nine for “men”. After the initial round, six finalists in each category progressed to compete during the following day.
Pre-stage preparations are simple: after the men have squeezed themselves into minuscule colourful trunks, each with a circular number, a teammate or a trainer starts painting their skin with a layer of glittering tanning cream.
The process takes between 15 and 25 minutes and, after tapping repeatedly with their open palms to even out the cream over their bodies, the palest Syrian to the darkest Saudi have blended into the same shade of dirty bronze.
Each team from the seventeen countries prepares in a corner of the tented backstage area behind the main hall. Here, conversations are kept to a minimum; smiles are even scarcer.
Once painted, some of the competitors go for a round of push-ups; others grab rusty dumbbells laying around to do bicep curls or overhead pulls before entering the stage.
Iraqi competitor Ahmad Abu Hawa faints backstage. Coaches and players gather around, asking people to give him air or salty chips. The team members of the 75kg-bodybuilder attributed his fall to a sudden drop in blood pressure.
The pressure also overcame Egypt’s Mahmoud Fadali, a silver medalist at the 2007 International Federation of Body Building and Fitness World Championship. After this year’s third place, he runs off stage, dropping flat on his stomach, crying.