QALAWAI, Lebanon: Most stories about 100-year-olds focus on their secret to a long life: the morning swims in ice cold lakes, the fresh mountain air, the secret superfood.
Halloum al-Amin has a very different answer: long days of backbreaking manual labor and olives.
It’s a startling answer, but all the more astonishing coming from a centenarian who, just last summer, made the dangerous journey from Syria to Lebanon and is now living as a refugee.
Lucid and humorous, Amin is clearly the matriarch of her large family, 20 members of which live with her in a drafty house in a village in the southern Bint Jbeil governorate.
She can no longer remember the exact day of her birthday, just the year: 1914. So she and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren celebrated on Jan. 1 – UNHCR’s default birth date.
“I had a good birthday,” she says as she retucks a scarf around her feet, which were purple with cold. “But I was also sad for the people left in my village. Not just one of my sons and his family, but all my neighbors, too.”
If Amin had been born in Britain, she would be getting a personalized greeting card from Queen Elizabeth II to mark her achievement. If she had been Japanese, she would be receiving a silver cup and a certificate from her prime minister.
But she is Syrian, and despite having already lived through a tumultuous century of coups and uprisings, it was the Syrian civil war that finally forced her to leave her home in rural Idlib, a largely rebel-controlled northwestern region that has seen heavy fighting.
Not because she fears for her life, she explains, but to visit those of her family who fled to Lebanon a year before. She insists she is going back soon, but her family seems less convinced. Regardless, she packs up her clothes and belongings into two bundles every morning, just in case.
Amin refuses to talk about anything to do with politics, brushing away the questions with an impatient flick of a bony hand.
So she will say nothing of how the Ottoman Empire crumbled as she learned to walk; nothing of how the Middle East’s borders were redrawn before she was 10; nothing of how the modern Syrian state was born as she mourned the death of her firstborns; nothing of how a coup installed the Baath Party just a year before she turned 50; and nothing of how the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising was mercilessly crushed by President Hafez Assad as she continued to work her land rather than retire.
Needless to say, she has no comment on the current situation, which erupted just a year after her husband, Badron, died at the age of 85.
“He died young,” jokes one family member.
“I don’t know what is happening in Syria,” she says, before smiling mischievously and adding, “If I know, I forgot.”
Instead, she tells stories of her family and her land filled with cherry and olive trees that her family has lived on and worked for generations.
Used to being self-sufficient and eating whatever she could grow, she complains that food is expensive in Lebanon. Like hundreds of thousands of other refugees, she and her family are currently fighting to be included in the U.N.’s new targeted food-assistance program.
“When I was in Syria I could work,” she says. “I planted, I harvested, I cooked. I lived off the land. Not like here.”
“I would walk 5 km a day just to get water. How do you think we did it? With a car?”
As a result, when Amin stands up she can barely raise her shoulders above the level of her hips. Yet despite her stooped frame, she remains active, agile even, and moves around with surprising speed. She still busies herself with household chores, one of her daughters-in-law says with a shake of her head.
To her family, Amin is the storyteller, the one who reminds them of days gone by.
“These are the stories we like the most,” says one of her sons, Abdullah. “The stories of the past. Of people in our village fighting over breakfast and making friends by dinner.”