KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip - About 70 men with big muscles and small shorts posed and flexed on stage before a panel of judges and a few thousand fans, all seeking prizes in the Gaza bodybuilding championship.
But the sight of men lathered in oil and wearing little more than underwear on stage was unusual for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where the Islamist militant group has imposed a so-called virtue campaign that mandates head scarves and form-concealing gowns for women and girls in government offices and schools.
As part of its campaign, Hamas strongly encourages such dress elsewhere, and its policemen have recently forced men to wear shirts on the beach and asked mixed couples seen together to prove they are married or related.
But Hamas doesn't reject bodybuilding - as long as only men are around to see it.
Participants said their sport - along with just about every other aspect of life in Gaza - has been hurt by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory from forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. The closure keeps even the buffest contestants from competing outside.
On the other hand, some of the musclemen have had more time to train since Hamas took over. Many of the Gaza bodybuilders are former security men loyal to Abbas and continue to draw a salary from his West Bank government, on condition that they stay home and not work for Hamas.
Tuesday's event at al-Aqsa University was a manly man's affair, complete with flying chairs and brawls in the audience, but also with a dash of religion and politics. Some of the contestants wore tight shorts with stripes or rainbow patterns. Most wore their underwear.
A few slathered their freshly shaved bodies with oil or tanned them with make-up. Some rubbed on lipstick, turning their skin bright red. One man used sparkly gold body paint, making himself look like an Oscar statue.
As the fans arrived, some contestants did rapid push-ups to force blood into their muscles, increasing their size. Most seemed more interested in posing for pictures.
But reminders of Gaza were all around. Some men touched their foreheads to the ground for evening prayers before stripping down for competition. And the event opened with a man in a track suit reading verses from the Koran, followed by a rowdy rendition of the Palestinian national anthem.
Then, to raucous applause, four 60-kilogram (132-pound) musclemen strutted on stage, the first to compete for trophies in nine weight classes. An emcee led them through a series of poses. Then each came to the fore to grit his teeth and show off his personal flex routine.
Mohammed Afana, 50, has been competing since 1981 and has collected 20 trophies over the years. He has also won prizes abroad, he said, competing in Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Egypt and Syria, where he earned a diploma in bodybuilding.
"But in recent years, with the blockade and Israel - they won't let us out," he said.
He came in first in his class again Tuesday, beating out men decades younger.
Initially, four bearded Hamas policemen toting rifles sat in the wings to keep order. As the competition progressed, two fights broke out among fans who threw punches and plastic chairs, claiming the judges were fixing the results. The police called for backup, and the remaining rounds went smoothly.
For contestant Hazim Abu Jidyan, 32, merely competing was a victory. Jidyan said he was throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers in Gaza in the late 1990s when they shot him in the stomach. His friends and family rushed him to the hospital, thinking he was dead. But after numerous operations, losing part of his small intestine and ignoring doctor's orders that he avoid sports, he started weightlifting.
"And now," he said, kissing his second-place medal and spreading his arms to flex his biceps, "I'm praising God."
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