07/07/2011 06:34 EDT | Updated 09/06/2011 05:12 EDT

Bodybuilding In Afghanistan: Shuja Momuzai Among Thousands Of Afghan Men Who Choose The Gym Over Violence (PHOTOS)

KABUL - Ten-year-old Shuja Momuzai was collecting wood on his bicycle when the rockets hit, dozens of them of them strafing his street in Kabul. One struck the boy, but the explosive lodged in his bike spokes and failed to detonate.

Momuzai was spared but hundreds of civilians died that day. It was 1991, the early years of Afghanistan's civil war.

Fifteen years later, Momuzai was at a police checkpoint near the Pakistan border when suicide bombers with shopping bags full of explosives set off their blasts. Shrapnel sprayed Momuzai's cheeks, neck and eyes, nearly blinding him.

Today, at 30, Momuzai is a vision of robust health, aided in part by a grueling regimen of weight training and a strict low-fat diet. A faint scar above his right eye is the only reminder of a lifetime spent dodging attacks in a war-torn country.

Momuzai is a diehard bodybuilder, an Afghan strongman dedicated to peace. He's one of thousands of ripped and cut young Afghan men who have sworn off violence, spending hours pumping iron in sweaty gyms across the country.

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"It makes me feel good to grow my strength, make my muscles big," Momuzai told The Huffington Post Canada. "I want the same thing for my country, to be strong -- but with no fighting."

Bodybuilding, which first captivated the nation four decades, has resurged in popularity since the Taliban's defeat.

Today, there are more than 400 gyms in Kabul and 1,100 more across the country. The streets are cluttered with billboards of grinning, barrel-chested men advertising Kabul's latest bodybuilding outlet.

Momuzai said he's found solace in the sport. Kabul's violent streets can be a source of despair, but training helps him cope with the chaos he can't control, he said.

An avid athlete since childhood, Momuzai switched to bodybuilding from kickboxing after he accidently broke his friend's nose in a match.

"I felt bad," Momuzai said in an interview in a quiet Kabul restaurant garden, where the soft-spoken athlete -- in a body-hugging T-shirt and tight jeans -- studied the menu for low-calorie selections.

"Kickboxing was too violent for me, so I decided to try bodybuilding. It's a peaceful sport. You're not hurting anybody."

Within a year, Momuzai was winning competitions. His first title was Mr. Junior Karachi in Pakistan in 2005.

Last year, he stepped up his training and entered the wildly popular Mr.Kabul contest, where he took second place. The televised event made Momuzai a celebrity in his hometown. Last spring, he missed out again, settling for runner-up status in the 2011 competition.

He takes pride in his toned physique and the double-takes he gets from young women on the street.

Minor fame is about the only perk that comes with reaching the top echelon of Afghanistan's bodybuilding circuit. There are no cash prizes for Mr. Kabul finalists; just a plastic trophy. The sport enjoys no support from Afghanistan's struggling government and Momuzai doesn't have a sponsor.

That hasn't put a dent in his rigorous training regimen, beginning at dawn with a three-minute cold shower, followed by three daily workouts at the gym.

In the final 30 days before a competition, Momuzai nearly starves himself, eating plates of boiled chicken and nothing else. In the last three days, the deprivation is extreme. No fluids to further shrink his frame and make his bulging muscles pop.

"My mother doesn't like me when I look like this," Momuzai said. "My face becomes tiny."

The competitions are flamboyant productions. In stark contrast to the modest dress requirements placed on women in public, the Afghan bodybuilders, clad in tiny bikini briefs, their bodies smeared in tanning paint, flex and strut before a cheering crowd.

"I'm really good at posing," Momuzai said as he scrolled though reams of risqué photos of his Mr. Kabul bid on a laptop. Later, at the Iron Man Gym, he and trainer Wahid Arab gleefully flex their biceps for the camera.

The sport's rising popularity has also brought scandal and accusations of steroid use and contest rigging. The sudden death last year of 26-year-old Arif Sakhi, the winner of the 2010 Mr. Afghanistan title, shook the bodybuilding community, leading to speculation that steroid abuse had destroyed his organs.

But Momuzai and others claim the young title holder was poisoned at a restaurant by rivals, an allegation which hasn't been substantiated by authorities.

Momuzai's father was a bodybuilder but gave up the sport during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The family fled to Pakistan not long after the Taliban seized power.

They returned in 2005 to pick up the pieces of their old lives.

Momuzai quit school to work when his family moved to Pakistan. Back in Kabul, with few job prospects, the gym was his sanctuary. He later found work as a contractor and handyman.

Married, with a three-year-old son, Momuzai thinks he's a good role model for young Afghans.

"I'm proud that I have a really good body, that I'm fit," Momuzai said.

At last year's Mr. Kabul competition, a policeman in the crowd asked where he worked out. The next day, the officer joined the same gym and stopped smoking. His toddler son takes cold showers just like his father.

Kabul's gyms are stark and dingy; the equipment basic. Many men work out in bare feet and street clothes. Iron Man waived the $20 monthly fee for Momuzai because of his runner-up titles. Even with the reprieve, Momuzai said he struggled to raise the $5,000 to train for Mr. Kabul.

Next year, Momuzai has his sights set on winning the Mr. Kabul title that has eluded him two years running. But he's out of cash and needs a sponsor.

"What I'm doing is positive and it sets a good example for this country," he said. "I'm hoping someone will help me."

Jane Armstrong is a Toronto freelance writer who is in Kabul for the summer. She is the recipient of the 2011 Michener-Deacon fellowship.