When he isn’t lying on metal spikes with grown men beating a stone on his chest with hammers, Shah Mohammad Pahlawan lets tractor tires drive across his body. The Logar strongman is known throughout his province and beyond for his death-defying stunts and acrobatics, which include pulling two vehicles with his ponytail, riding motorcycles with 100Kg sacks tied to his biceps or tractor pulling.
“I discovered my strength when a villager’s donkey was stuck in muddy water with its load and I grabbed the donkey and lifted it out,” says Pahlawan, who has no official training as an athlete and works as a farmer to sustain his family. With no government support and a large family to feed, Pahlawan dedicates most of his time to his fields. When he competes in local events, he pays his own expenses to showcase his unusual skills, to the delight of his extensive fan club, for whom he is a hero.
“Pahlawan is strong-built but he is very soft spoken and a kind person,” says Safiullah, a resident of Shah Mohammad’s village, Yosufkhel in Baraki Barak district. “He assists the villagers in work, people are happy that he is our villager and we honour his success and name among Afghans.” Fans as far afield as Logar’s capital Pul-e Alam admire Pahlawan, for his humility as much as his stunts. “I saw him performing and I thought he would be arrogant but he was rather nice to everyone and clicked pictures with all. He is down to earth: his skills and good behavior made me a fan of his,” says Gulab Khan, from Logar’s capital.
Despite the standing Pahlawan enjoys in his province – and even in the national media - the government has not yet helped the strongman compete in international competitions, such as the World’s Strongest Man, in which contestants from around the world pull tractors and lift heavy weights.
Pahlawan says he has asked the government to help him turn his stunts into a career, but that so far no help has been forthcoming. Most of his showcasing has been funded by residents in his village, leading him to near bankruptcy. “I owe money to many people in the village, at the moment I don’t see any means of paying them back,” Pahlawan told Afghanistan Today.
The head of the Sports Directorate of the province Doctor Abdul Wali Stanikzai says the provincial government plans to subsidize the homegrown strongman in the near future however. “Although we have not assisted Shah Mohammad so far, we will try to provide him this chance in the near future to demonstrate his skills to the world, which will give him the chance to compete on the national or international level,” Stanikzai told Afghanistan Today.
Strongman with 29 children
Pahlawan has equally preoccupying domestic challenges. “Sometimes I don’t remember the names of my children. There are so many of them it is hard to keep track,” he says. Luckily his children have picked up some of his unique physical traits, a useful distinction when he is looking for them in the playground. “When I see them playing with other children, I can tell from the build that this is my son or daughter,” he chuckles.
He hopes however that his children will seek an alternative career choice to his own. “I would like my children to do something else, there is not much in my profession in this country,” he told Afghanistan Today. Three of his children however have already started to learn the skills from their father and are trying hard to be like him. Pahlawan says he has no time to train them, but must support their dreams. “I encourage them because this is what they have chosen and want to do, even if it will be difficult for them,” he says.