x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A Syrian seeking refuge from the tragedy of home

For Nour Yousfi, a once happy 29-year-old resident of Abu Dhabi, the conflict tearing apart his country sees him spend hours in the gym bulking up to forget, writes Chuck Culpepper.

Lifting helped 'release the stress' from the conflict and the harrowing images of 'soldiers dragging a woman through the street or beating her up' emanating from his homeland, Syria, for Abu Dhabi resident Nour Yousfi. Photos by Christopher Pike / The National
Lifting helped 'release the stress' from the conflict and the harrowing images of 'soldiers dragging a woman through the street or beating her up' emanating from his homeland, Syria, for Abu Dhabi resident Nour Yousfi. Photos by Christopher Pike / The National

Atop my favourite places in Abu Dhabi would be my not-very-plush gym, a window on the world only with sweating and grunting.

From the trainers I have gathered snippets of Kenya from Michael, of the Philippines from Marlon and Raul and Jonner, of Kerala from Sunil (what an athlete!), of Egypt from Ahmed (a bodybuilding king of Egypt), and of Bangladesh from Noyon and Mohammed, the attendants with their great kindness.

Some fellow members have commandeered my workouts, lending advice, while others have lent some of the endless cultural details of Mumbai, Cairo, Amman, Moscow and on and on. I even learnt more about a place called the United Arab Emirates, whose workout fiends include a charismatic sort who, asked his profession, replied with a gleam, "Fighter pilot".

I do apologise for my absurd request to go for a ride someday.

And then there's Nour Yousfi, Nour from Syria and the University of Aleppo, Nour with whom conversation started near the dumbbell racks, Nour who has trouble sleeping, Nour who has altered my thinking utterly.

As Nour explains, most men work out for one of three reasons. They want the six pack or whatever will look good on the beach, or they want the Bruce Lee-Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger aspiration, or they want more self-confidence, and respect from others.

Nour works out for none of those reasons, but for a reason I have never encountered in all my gym days: "I just think of those pictures that I see of soldiers dragging a woman through the street or beating her up."


"Or people burning a guy."

As of March 2011 and beyond, he said, "Lifting became the only shelter for me, to release the stress and feel that I'm doing something, being prepared."

And so we began conversing and within moments on a semi-crowded night in the gym, this unbearable 17-month war in Syria took on a sharpness. That's what we outsiders need, right? We can follow the news, grasp the events, wish them untrue, recoil at the agony, but for a worthy comprehension of the astounding brunt of it, we need somebody right in front of us.

We need someone to take out his smartphone and show us video of one of his former English students, a 22-year-old farmer back home, suddenly demonstrating a mighty rifle. We need to look right into the big eyes of someone telling us of the day he dialled his parents from a car in July 2011 and his mother answered sobbing, the bombing from the sky audible in the background.

We need one of 22.5 million to tell us the toll this has robbed from him, his family, the best friends he scarcely can contact.

When it began, he and his friends here could not sleep for excitement. They, like many, thought Bashar Al Assad, an educated man, would relent and gain a wide heroism. Their story arc would resemble that of Egypt.

Then, of course, their insomnia regenerated.

"I sleep maybe three hours, or sometimes I don't sleep at all," Nour said. "Maybe my eyes close for two minutes and then my eyes open again like this. [He widens them.] Finally, I say, just have a Red Bull."

The news has become his 29-year-old life. He washes his face with the news. He has breakfast with the news. He drives with the news and works with the news, the stress relentless with the stream of video piling in, horrible images fresh enough to have accrued only 10 or 15 viewers.

When he does sleep, he has awful dreams or even happy dreams of demonstrating in a free society. In his job evaluation, his supervisor said, "I don't know what happened to you, Nour." Colleagues remark such as, "You're not focusing, you're not concentrating as before." ["Yeah, because I'm not sleeping."] Friends have said, "Are you sick or something?"

A life once spent studying English literature and then as a car-insurance supervisor in the UAE since 2008 has veered to unforeseeable tasks. He can show clear, detailed, multicoloured charts of regional fund-raising for food baskets, for field hospitals with blood bags hanging on tree branches, for milk for children.

His trip to an Abu Dhabi cafe might stall with somebody calling to ask if he will call to alert Al Jazeera on something. Friends have mastered international satellite phones, to his astonishment. He has had to move his parents ... thrice.

"This year, or year and a half, makes us grow older or feel older," he said in his office last week. "Now we all feel older. I don't feel this responsibility before. I'm refocused."

He and his 15-odd Syrian friends here prefer to meet online, he said, with gathering too sombre. "You don't have any fun," he said.

When he finishes a work shift at midday, he said, "I can't go home and take a nap. I can't go to a happy lunch with my friends."

When he scrolls through his Facebook, you might feel the whole thing, or as much of it as one of the outsiders he yearns to make aware of the situation.

A guy in a video carries a two-way radio: "I used to beat this guy arm-wrestling. Can you imagine?"

A video shows a gutted-out neighbourhood in his hometown, Marrat Al Numan: "This used to be a very crowded area, a very busy area. And it's called the Vegetables Market. It used to be hell to pass through this street because it was very busy. Now they don't open."

There are tributes to martyrs, to his chemistry teacher's son: "He's a kid. That's his funeral."

There is grisly scene after grisly scene after grisly scene: "Can you imagine seeing this every day for a whole year and a half?"

Then, at some point, Nour comes across older photos of himself. Here he is as a baby. Here he is, going diving. At a car show. At the zoo in Al Ain. The Burj Khalifa. Parasailing. The Metallica show. The Ferrari park. "When I see these pictures, I see myself as a happy person in the past," he said, bewildered that it's the same life.

From that bygone life, then, comes a photo from mid-2010. It's the "before" of a before-and-after gym sequence. It's Nour, I think, but it's Nour in previous shape, not a lumpy blob or anything, just undefined.

So let's unfurl some statistics from the healthiest way to vent the anger. Nour's weight has gone from 88kg to 83kg, yet has redistributed itself into blossomed shoulders and chest, plus biceps that seem to have doubled. Body fat, then 20 per cent, stands at eight per cent. His bench press has gone from 72kgs to 110kgs; his squat, from 174kgs to 224kgs; his bicep curl, from 30kgs to - whoa - 60kgs.

Telltale veins, once hidden, now pop out giddily from his shoulders, especially while he lifts. He looks something like an American-football linebacker. He looks - and here's a strange word - enviable.

Two years ago, a barbell accident wreaked a phobia, but the last 17 months have eviscerated that. "Now I don't care anymore," he said. "The idea of fear is erased from by brain. Not only me, but all the Syrian guys."

He has moulted from old health habits.

"Now I can't smoke anymore," he said, "because of all this running and all this lifting that I do. I don't have the appetite for smoking. Now my friends take me to the shisha, and I can't take it ... And I used to have a chocolate bar after workouts, but now every time I go to the supermarket, I have it in my hand and I drop it back. I comfort myself with an orange or an apple, or maybe honey, or a piece of a date."

He unveils a plastic bag of dates and amino acids.

And as he lifts, as he reaches that point everybody reaches while lifting, the moment of decision about whether to stop or push through one or two more excruciating repetitions, he pushes through for reasons unforeseeable in all the gyms on all the continents I have seen.

"Whenever I'm lifting or I'm running, I just imagine one of those guys ... the faces of those guys laughing and killing someone ...," and so he thinks, "'No, you've got to fight the barbell back, and lift it up'."

In the Abu Dhabi gym I have loved, I have come to channel this whole awful saga through the anguish shared willingly by one 29-year-old man whose muscles keep growing. After a recent trip abroad I returned and mentioned that Nour looked even bigger. He replied with the common gym theme that he wants to be careful not to get too big, but to me it's too late.

In my mind, he's gigantic.