Setting Aside Politics to Lift Weights

Some time after the trend in cafes and plastic surgery emerged, it was clear fitness centers would be next. One by one, they have popped up all over Ramallah.

RAMALLAH - Some time after the trend in cafes and plastic surgery emerged, it was clear fitness centers would be next. One by one, new fitness centers popped up all over Ramallah, attracting hundreds of members - mostly men, but also more than a few women. While Holmes Place is not a familiar brand name here, other companies offer quality fitness centers at less expensive rates.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Ramallah is habitually dubbed the Palestinian "bubble," the Tel Aviv of the occupied territories. While the Gaza Strip is rapidly turning into a faded version of Afghanistan - a focal point of distress, hatred and radicalism - and the northern part of the West Bank is turning into a zealot stronghold for Islamic Jihad activists and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Ramallah seems a world apart with its dozens of cafes, restaurants, designer stores and wealthy properties. Only here can you find a poster of Israeli model and actress Miri Bohadana spread over the front of a downtown building.

The emergence of gyms all over the city is a result of heightened public awareness of the importance of physical fitness. In the evening, Ramallah and Al-Bireh residents walk up and down streets, trying to lose weight or just stay fit. Jibril Rajoub, formerly a key Palestinian Authority figure, used to speed-walk every evening with the chief of police, Ala Husseini. When an Israel Defense Forces patrol happened upon them walking, the two were detained for questioning, because, "Palestinians don't work out," as the soldiers said.

The head of the PLO's negotiation team, Saeb Erekat, spends at least one hour a day on a treadmill and has lost more than 14 kilograms. Satellite television channels broadcast programs on yoga, Pilates and other exercise past-times, and in every newspaper one can find ads for gyms, swimming pools, special food supplements and muscle strengthening devices. In the highest economic echelon, people may choose to purchase treadmills or exercise bikes for their homes, while others work out in the city's new fitness centers. At gyms, members enjoy the company of others while exercising, not to mention (what is largely not discussed) the opportunity of meeting a mate from the appropriate class and family.

Exercising in a hijab

This is not the familiar meat market of Tel Aviv's fitness centers. In gyms like southern Ramallah's Tri-Fitness or the Down-Town, you won't find sweaty macho men bluntly flirting with young Palestinian women. But you will see women in tights taking aerobics classes or running on treadmills next to men, which creates the environment for subtle flirting that may lead to a future relationship.

Tri-Fitness is the largest gym in the West Bank today. The gym is a four-story building situated on a hill in Al-Bireh, several kilometers from the Qalandiyah checkpoint. Members can catch a view of the Psagot settlement from the gym's windows. Those who work out here have access to every form of pampering available in Israel. At the entrance, natural juice is sold in the cafeteria near the reception counter. On the top floor, Olga, a young Russian woman, manages a massage room offering different body treatments. Next to the treatment center, the expansive weight-lifting studio has free-weight benches, advanced equipment and wall-to-wall mirrors. The plasma monitors are set on two channels: Arab music and Al-Jazeera. Further down the hall lies a separate studio, which gives Tri-Fitness an edge over the competition in Ramallah: a gym for women wearing hijabs or headscarves, and secular Muslim women who prefer not to exercise beside Palestinian men (or Israeli reporters.)

Fitness instructor Mohammed al-Rabi, 32, gave us an initial tour. Only several weeks ago, he won the title of Mr. Palestine for the under-65 kilogram body-building competition.

Al-Rabi introduced his Israeli visitors to the manager, who was worried the reporters had brought bad news with them. In Ramallah, they understand that Israeli media is generally interested in terrorist organizations, and less so in the city's gyms, Jacuzzis and saunas. But in fitness centers in Ramallah, contrary to the city's cafes, there is no talk of politics. Rather, people discuss sports, correct posture and the most effective way to lose weight or build muscle.

The bottom floor is dedicated to cardiovascular exercise machines. Walking and running enthusiasts will be familiar with many of the studio's machines: steppers, ski machines and others, which appear extremely torturous to the untrained eye. The spinning trend has not yet reached the club and you won't hear female instructors shouting at a group of cyclers: "Yalla, don't feel sorry for yourselves, just a little more and it's over."

Rulla and Sanna teach the aerobic classes, the first of which starts at 9 A.M. Similar to the scene in Israel, women comprise a majority in these classes.

Thai Boxing and BOSU balls

The Down-Town fitness center is located in the city center in a new building close to Manara square. Contrary to the elitist image Tri-Fitness tries to market, Down-Town projects a younger, hipper atmosphere. Ear-splitting western music welcomes the guests. Huge plasma monitors broadcast movies, the basketball world championships, pop music and hip-hop. Nada Sulluh, a 32-year-old fitness instructor, says the club has about 450 members. "It is a club with relatively high standards, and since the PA officials stopped receiving their salaries, many did not renew their memberships. But we have many newcomers from the private sector who consider it a worthwhile investment," she says.

Sulluh has a degree in engineering but decided to work in the sports industry. She was trained by the gym's chief fitness instructor, Abu Maseb. "We offer various aerobic classes, such as Thai Boxing, and also a BOSU ball class, which is good for the abdomen and the back," she says. "One of our instructors, Nora, also gives massages. Personally I feel better doing work that involves sports and not something immobile."

She walks among the customers, correcting their movements and creating personal training programs. "It depends on what you are trying to achieve. I assume that in your case I would build a program that involved more aerobic work, to lose weight, and less work for building muscle volume. I also advise our customers on correct nutrition. We would gradually improve your fitness. You would start with a 25-minute walk, and then advance to jogging. You can also join the aerobic classes, despite the majority of women there." At the center, young religious women can work out between 9 A.M. and 1 P.M., when the gym is closed to men.

Not a word on the occupation

While Nada Sulluh looks like a basic training sports instructor, chief instructor Abu Maseb resembles a frightening drill master. With a shiny scalp and thick mustache, the only thing that sets him apart from typical drill masters is a fat physique. He worked in Pennsylvania for many years, won several hand-wrestling competitions and returned to Ramallah to be with his ailing father.

"The number of women members is steadily rising," he says. "True, this is a traditional society, but we gradually adapt to the idea that women also engage in sports, and their awareness of the importance of physical activity is also on the rise. The owners invested half a million dollars in this place, and they intend to open another gym in Ramallah." Again, not a single word is spoken on the occupation or the Intifada - Abu Maseb makes sure gym members concern themselves only with sports and not with futile political talk.

Before our Israeli readers rush to cancel their memberships to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem fitness centers, it is important to note that prices in Ramallah are not dramatically different from those in Israel: NIS 2,400 per year. If approximately 60 percent of the occupied territories' population earns less than two dollars a day, then members must come from the higher echelons. This fact makes the gym more attractive for single Palestinian men and women who dream of not only finding a suitable mate, but also one who can pay for their yearly memberships.