BAGHDAD â€” Starved of entertainment in their violence-racked city, many Baghdad residents are turning to food as one of their few remaining pleasures, and paying the price as they pile on the pounds.
Anecdotal evidence suggests many are eating out of boredom or stress, but Iraqis, not traditionally a nation of calorie counters, have an unhealthy, oil-soaked diet that combined with a lack of exercise makes gaining weight all too easy.
Baghdad residents complain that exercising is difficult in a city where raging sectarian and insurgent violence killed more than 3,000 people in July alone, kidnappings are common, power cuts frequent and fuel shortages chronic.
â€œDuring Saddamâ€™s time I used to go to the market, visit friends or just go walking in the district, but Iâ€™m too afraid to do that now,â€ said Nada, 33, a chemist whose weight seesawed before the war but is now an average of 7kg overweight.
Many Iraqis get their exercise from outdoor pursuits like swimming, playing football or simply walking, but the capitalâ€™s lawless streets keep many people housebound, too afraid to venture out for long.
That has led to more people buying home fitness equipment, Baghdad gym store owners said, fuelled by exercise shows broadcast on state and satellite television.
â€œI like to watch exercise shows, but where is the electricity?â€ said 24-year-old university student Sura Abdul Razaq, bemoaning the frequent power cuts in the capital.
The producer of Iraqiya state televisionâ€™s â€œGood Morning Iraqâ€, NassirÂ Samarrai, said its daily aerobics segment was popular, despite being broadcast at a time when most Iraqis are either still asleep or at work.
â€œWe get many letters from inside Iraq and outside about it,â€ he said, while admitting he had no idea how many people actually exercised to it.
But he has a captive audience in people like accountant GhinaÂ Kasam, who worries about the five kilogrammes she has added to her slim frame since the explosion of insurgent and sectarian violence to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
â€œBefore we used to walk a lot, but now we canâ€™t because of the security situation. There is no social life, so I stay at home and eatÂ at an outlet.â€ Baghdad pyschiatristÂ Harith Hassan said Ghinaâ€™s case was all too common: â€œPeople feel isolated. They are tense and anxious and are staying at home more and more, not visiting friends or family, so they tend to eat food.
â€œBut Iraqis are pitifully ignorant about their diet, which is unhealthy,â€ said Hassan.
Ahmed Tamimi, 38, a local journalist, blames his sedentary lifestyle, enforced by nightly curfews and daily violence, for his weight gain. Like many Iraqis, he spends his evenings watching television or using the Internet.
â€œWhen I think about going out to run, I worry about being killed by random shooting. The other day I went to a gym and I found out there was no electricity and no water,â€ he said.
Jamil Fawzi, a gym owner in Harthiya in western Baghdad, said he had seen an increase in the number of people using his establishment since the end of the war, but he spends too much time worrying about security to enjoy the boom in business.
â€œIn general we are in a difficult situation. I am sure that in the end, fear of abduction will force us to close the gym.â€