Lebanon’s oldest man shares secrets to healthy life

Friday 14/08/2015
Centenarian Sleiman al-Mal surrounded by his young children.

Heker Hanin, Lebanon - He has witnessed two world wars, survived the famine that swept the Levant during the first war, lived under Ottoman rule and the French man­date, saw Lebanon’s creation as a state and celebrated its independ­ence 72 years ago. At 117, Sleiman al- Mal, a resident of the border village of Heker Hanin in north Lebanon’s Akkar district, should figure in the Guinness World Records for ageing.
The father of 12 children, the oldest being 75 years old and the youngest almost 5, his descend­ents count more than 300 covering five generations — a clear source of pride for al-Mal.
Hard work, plenty of sleep and rest and a varied diet are the se­crets to a long and healthy life, ac­cording to the well-built centenar­ian who, until three years ago was still fathering children, when his second wife Samira, whom he mar­ried while she was in her 30s and he was 110 years old, had a miscarriage with their sixth child. He had seven children, the youngest now 59, with his first wife, also named Samira, who died after they lived together for 70 years.
“Health is good so far, Al Ham­dulillah (Thank God),” al-Mal told The Arab Weekly. “The secret is in the type and quality of food and eating discipline.”
“I eat as much as I need, don’t go near food that contains ingredients that I don’t know and stay away from manufactured oils sold on the market.”
“Pure olive oil, honey and goat ghee are an elixir for good health and long life and should be at the heart of all meals,” he said.
Al-Mal said he takes the best from what nature offers and his rule is “to avoid anything that is not ben­eficial to health”. “For instance beef meat is harmful but cow milk and yogurt are a cure to all ills, whereas goat milk and yogurt are an effec­tive medicine while sheep’s meat is good but their milk is bad. This is the rule that I follow,” he said.
Probably most people of his gen­eration are either no longer of this world or in homes for the elderly but with young children to raise and cater for, al-Mal cannot afford to stay idle.
“I refuse to take alimony from anyone, not even from my elder children I had with my first wife. Agriculture is the only source of income I have and I do not plant any crop that is not useful for me or which I cannot store. We sell what­ever we produce, and this is how we subsist,” he said. His crops include olives, potatoes, wheat and grapes.
The bearded centenarian starts at 5 every morning, goes to the field and works for several hours with­out interruption, ploughing the land, planting vegetables and ir­rigating crops and fruit trees. “The most important is to soak in your own sweat because that gives you force and vigour.” al-Mal said.
After the exercise, a long and well-deserved rest, coupled with a good healthy meal, is what it takes to remain dynamic and full of en­ergy, he said. For him, his modest two-bedroom house, where he lives with his wife and five children, is the place to rest and enjoy serenity and stability.
“Home sweet home. Although it is small and rundown, with damp walls from water leakage, it has magic in it,” al-Mal said. “It is full of good memories and the place where I feel quietude and comfort.”
“Maybe this has helped me to keep on having children until this age,” he added with a big laugh, showing a mouth where a few teeth still stand.
Al-Mal cannot give a definite date of his birth, saying his age ranges between 115 and 117. “It is definitely in the 19th century. At the time, parents did not register their new­born immediately and the age was roughly estimated on the basis of testimonies of witnesses. But I am sure I have reached 117.”
Because of the lack of verifica­tion, al-Mal cannot “officially” be considered the world’s oldest living person. Currently, that is Susannah Mushatt Jones, who was born July 6, 1899, making her 116 years old.
Accustomed to harsh life and hard work since he was young, al- Mal is convinced that his uneasy life helped him build a strong body and resistant stature, claiming that he doesn’t remember having been ill, at least in the past 100 years.
Pitying younger generations, the illiterate centenarian said they are physically weaker, less solid and with a poorer immunity. “They don’t even know how to deal or cope with the difficulties of life,” he said. “It is a totally different gen­eration from mine and I feel pitiful for them and ask God Almighty to bless them with tranquillity and content.”
Asked whether he was still at­tracted to women, al-Mal’s wrin­kled face and tiny eyes glowed. “Who doesn’t like women but I am afraid of my wife, she is a trouble­maker,” he said, with a smile, “I am still capable of bringing children to this world but unfortunately none of my (elder) children has the same capability.
They have stopped having chil­dren a long time ago.”
Al-Mal prides himself for recog­nising the names of each member of his huge family of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. The centenarian has an amazing long-term memory.
He has never travelled outside Lebanon and is the least concerned about new technology and mod­ern life. “Today’s generation is in­terested in luxurious cars, cellular phones and Facebook, while we only knew the shovel and plough­ing and travelled between villages on mule’s back,” he said. “Walk and live long, ride a car and die early. Our generation was blessed with long life, while the (new) genera­tion has illnesses we never heard of.”
If proven, al-Mal could be the old­est person in the Middle East and among the top elderly worldwide. In order to be officially declared as such, he must submit documenta­tion to the Guinness World Records.
In the meantime, surrounded by his youngest children, al-Mal hopes to keep going for another ten years in order to be able to raise them into adulthood.
“Being the father of young chil­dren that make you feel young at heart could very well be the best formula for a long life,” he said.