No. 1 Afghan Piste-Head
By Simon Urwin
The veins in his arms are as thick as mooring rope, his inflated bulk pumped with more artificial protein than a flock of factory chickens. Somehow he has managed to tilt his neck – which is as thick as my waist – to peer down and discover a black censorship square painted over the steroid-filled contents of his posing pouch.
Incredibly, in a country where the baggy, cover-all pyjama (or shalwar kameez) is the conservative clothing of choice for almost all Afghan men, this surreal image of a redacted, half-naked, muscle mountain is just one of dozens I spot while driving through the streets of Kabul on the way to the airport.
These homoerotic hoardings, designed to catch the eye of every passing bodybuilding fanatic, are all the more surprising in a land where any kind of sport is often decried as un-Islamic by the many holier-than-thou who consider it morally corrupt and too ‘Western’.
I realise as I walk towards the check-in area that I’ve rarely seen kids enjoying football in the street here. I did once see a man doing aerobics down at the mosque in Herat though, and I’ve also witnessed the national game ‘buskashi’ – a wild and unruly version of polo played with the corpse of a headless goat instead of a ball, which lacks both obvious rules and much entertainment value.
At Kabul airport I board an old Soviet-era Antonov aircraft for the flight to Bamiyan where I’m due to meet an unlikely but inspiring revolutionary within Afghanistan’s limited sporting arena. It’s a short 30-minute hop from the capital to the mountainous heart of the country and the aerial views of the Hindu Kush are even more exhilarating when seen through a cracked plane window loosely sealed around its edges with strips of gaffer tape.
Strikingly handsome like a movie star, Ali Shah Farhang arrives on his motorbike and we sit down to chat by the crumbling shell of a former hotel, looking out towards the 6th Century niches whose towering Buddhas were dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban back in 2001.
“When you live in a country like Afghanistan, you have a different way of thinking about danger”, he tells me, sharing green tea from a battered Thermos. “I think this is one reason why I am a good skier. I am a fearless person. Here, the snow is dry so the slopes are very fast, there are lots of avalanches, the weather changes regularly throughout the day, adding to the danger. I love the excitement of it all.”
Born in the remote village of Khoshkak (population: 200) high above the Bamiyan valley, Ali Shah had his tutoring in the ways of the mountains from an early age. “When I was very young I would walk for 5 hours every day across the peaks to school and back home in all kinds of weather, in temperatures of minus 20 degrees, through deep snow, all on my own,” he tells me. “These mountains are in my blood.”
Working as a shepherd-boy tending the family flock in between school terms, he would have been a goat herder still were it not for a chance encounter with a foreign visitor just as he was turning 20. “An Italian skier came to teach at the Bamiyan Ski Club (a project funded by a local charitable organisation to help develop tourism in the area) and I got offered the chance to go ski training which was very serious, very tough. In Bamiyan there is no ski lift so it was one hour to climb up and just two minutes to ski down!” he laughs. “But I loved it. It came very naturally to me.”
Fast-forward four years and Ali Shah now boasts the title of Afghanistan’s number 1 skier and is the reigning champion of the annual Afghan Ski Challenge, the only competition of its kind in the country. “I love what I do. I feel freedom when I’m skiing, freedom from the restrictions and repressions of my country,” he says thoughtfully.
A natural prodigy, Ali Shah was recently talent spotted and a group of sponsors now fund his training in St. Moritz, Switzerland during the European winter. There, Ali Shah is working towards the goal of representing his homeland in the 2018 Winter Olympics. “I started my sporting career late, but I’m working hard to catch up to international standards”, he tells me. “I’m not sure yet if I want to do downhill or slalom – it all depends on my progress here on in.”Now that spring has sprung in Switzerland, Ali Shah is back home to not only work on the family farm but battle with the bureaucracy of the Afghan Olympic Committee. “The AOC is part of the Pashtun government who are very prejudiced against us Hazara people”, he explains. “The International Ski Federation is also campaigning on my behalf to help get me the necessary licence so I can represent my country. Inshallah it all works out ok.”
Despite the many challenges which lay ahead, Ali Shah is laser-focused on about becoming the first ever Afghan to compete in a Winter Games. “I am part of a new generation who want to be the face of change in my country, but corrupted politics is what we face, and closed minds. No matter what it takes though, my dream is still the same – to carry the flag, win a gold medal at skiing, and be the hero of Afghanistan, with all the world watching.”