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Jerusalem Diary: Man of iron

Mohammed Shehadeh in his Jenin gym
There is room for only three people in Mohammed's gym, and there is definitely no smoking

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

JENIN'S MAN OF IRON

Jenin is, by most accounts, a city transformed.

For years, it was one of the darkest places in the West Bank: a centre of Palestinian militancy and a target of frequent Israeli incursions.

The streets of Jenin were rough, tough and poor.

Now, thanks to a virtuous circle of international, Palestinian and Israeli investment, security decisions and political will, the atmosphere is markedly brighter and more relaxed.

Mohammed Shehadeh in his Jenin gym
If I hit someone, with two fingers, I will kill him
Mohammed Shehadeh

But there is one unlikely corner of the city that remains resolutely and proudly untouched.

The doorway to Mohammed Shehadeh's gym can easily be missed. It lies off an anonymous side-street.

A few elderly pictures of muscled men adorn a gloomy corridor. The sanctum itself, though, is a thing of wonder.

Mohammed's boast is that he opened the Palestinians' first gym, back in 1965.

From floor to ceiling, in the tiny reception room, the walls flicker and curl with history: hundreds of photographs of alumni, grimacing as they make their pectorals stand to attention; many, many photographs of Mohammed himself, in action as a boxer or wrestler, or reclining, bearded and imperious, with a full glass balanced on his massive, iron bosoms.

Mohammed is 71, now.

But graceful retirement appears nowhere in our conversation.

He leaps and skitters with the energy of a teenager.

Now he is bounding into his dark back room to produce a jar of honey, from which each of us must eat a teaspoonful. Now he is picking up a set of thick wooden discs to crash them repeatedly into his forehead (the unspoken subtext: I laugh at pain). Now he opens the top drawer of his desk to reveal the pyramid of half-full cigarette packets left by his born-again students.

Mohammed Shehadeh balancing a drink on his pectoral muscle
Mr Shehadeh is immensely proud of his strength

His is a Manichean belief in the goodness of sport and the evil of dissoluteness.

"If I have 100 million Jordanian Dinar," Mohammed announces, "without good health, it is nothing."

He takes us into the tiny room which is kitted with scuffed weights and antique gym equipment.

With no warm-up, Mohammed bench-presses 100kg (220lb).

He smiles: "If I hit someone, with two fingers, I will kill him."

We leave the claim unchallenged.

He still has students. He can fit three at a time into the gym.

But it is a hard job. Once, when travel in and out of the West Bank was easy, he trained Israelis as well as Palestinians.

"Now," he says, "no-one says thank you. In 15 years, no-one has come to support me."

The economy may have improved in Jenin, but one thing still irks Mohammed more than any other.

"The youth in Palestine: they're still smoking the whole time."

A NEW LINE IN MODESTY

Where Mohammed's approach to sport is raw, Marci Rapp aims for greater refinement.

Marci Rapp
There is a market for 'modest' swimwear, Mrs Rapp says

"Marsea Modest" is an attempt to plug what Marci, a fashion and textile designer newly arrived in Jerusalem from Canada, thinks is a large hole in the market: products for those women who want "more coverage" in their swimwear.

This, says Marci, is much more than an appeal to the haredi (ultra-orthodox Jewish) market.

"There are various reasons women want to cover up more," she says.

Some, like her, are orthodox Jewish women who want to be "modest" in their bathing costume.

"Others want to cover up from the sun; and some women want to cover up for medical reasons, or because of their age or their weight."

For the time being, she is operating - small-scale - out of her apartment in Jerusalem.

But she is convinced that three-quarter length sleeves, adjustable necklines, and a dress that finishes below the knee, all in highly coloured spandex, are a strong combination, at about $70 (£45) a go.

This is neither the bikini nor the Islamic full-length burqini.

"This," Marci says succinctly, "is for women in between."

CRICKET IN THE MIDDLE EAST

"The Spirit of Cricket" is the source of much anguished debate.

The sport once prided itself on providing that timeless, generic putdown for those without manners or respect: "It's not cricket."

These days, the old fogeys, such as me, wonder if the professional game has lost a little soul.

In an effort to fan the embers, the International Cricket Council awards an annual prize for what it calls the "Best Spirit of Cricket Initiative".

The European Award Winner this year is the Israel Cricket Association (ICA), for a project to bring Bedouin Israeli and Jewish Israeli children together through a bowdlerised version of the game, called "street cricket".

I reported on the scheme last year and was smitten by the enthusiasm of the children and the commitment of, among others, George Sheader, from the ICA.

Often, co-existence projects can feel worthy but self-selecting.

This felt fresh, and involved planning for the long-term.

And it had a clear impact: one 11-year-old Bedouin boy I spoke to had never, before the culminating cricket tournament, visited the town of Beersheva, 8km (five miles) from his house.

Now, George Sheader tells me, plans are in train to expand the project to East Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron.

And on 28 February, the ICC will announce whether Arab-Jewish street cricket has beaten other regional winners to the global award.

Not many people, in this part of the world, look back on the British Mandate (1920-1947) with much fondness.

Rather, they think that we only helped stuff things up.

Now, perhaps, cricket will be a more widely admired export.


Here is a selection of your comments on Tim Franks' Jerusalem diary:

Mohammed Shehadeh is a normal person, there are lots of them all over the world. He smiles: "If I hit someone, with two fingers, I will kill him". It is just a claim. I am the same age, like him I can lift 100kg. And I agree sport is very important.
Geo Gab, Montreal, Canada

Some 30 years ago my club carried out a cricket tour in Israel. We palyed in Domona, Ashkelon and Jerusalem, mainly against immigrants of Indian origin and their children. Their enthusiam for the game was unbounded and it is good to learn that, that enthusiasm continues and has extended into other communities.
Victor Leaf, UK



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