The Elders

Writer

John Burns

Photographer

Moylin Yuan

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Age is a difficult topic to introduce without sounding like a fridge magnet. ‘You’re only as old as you feel!’ people say, as though there were a special feeling that age brings, instead of just being oneself but older.

Of course, everything and everyone has an age, and with each passing day, whether we like it or not, this age increases. Never being older or younger than we are today, older versions of ourselves can only ever be imagined, and those years that can’t are often segmented as a winter that must be prepared for, with savings and velcro shoes.

But aging is not something that happens after a certain point; it is a lifelong process – much like living. So, when Brownbook reached its fiftieth anniversary issue, and decided to dedicate it to ‘The Elders’ of our dear region, we did not seek out people over a certain age. Rather, we looked for those whose lives were being well-lived.

Across the following pages, Brownbook meets six people from the region, who, with an average age of 81, confound any stereotypes that society may foster towards growing old: being happy, dynamic and beautiful is not just for the young. Despite the archiving of certain, even crowning, achievements to memory, their stories are not ‘old news.’

Whether wearing the symptoms of age with grace or abandon, grey hair and laughter lines are not the most distinguishing features of those we interviewed. ‘Growing older’ has not brought these individuals the decline often feared, but exactly what the phrase suggests: growth.

And yet personal growth, it seems, can be a grey matter: as difficult to recognise at 81 as it is at 18. ‘I confess I was initially astonished to find myself included,’ says Magda Saleh, the former Prima Ballerina of Egypt, now 70 years old. ‘I forgot my age!’

Others explained that though they see a sameness inside themselves, and the slowing of life’s metronome only appears in the mirror: ‘For the first time in 90 years, I don’t look the same,’ says 93 year old composer Halim El-Dabh of his recent haircut, which was administered without his knowledge.

From ballerinas to bodybuilders, and from legendary to little-known figures, we embraced longevity and spoke to people who, during their interviews, occasionally forgot what was once remembered, and also remembered what was once forgotten. We found people who, over the age of 70, could still bench press their body weight, write an opera before breakfast, and hold their own in front of millions. While one shares the grief of losing a loved one, another shares the joy of falling in love at 60.

In the Middle East and North Africa, respect for one’s elders can be tantamount to reverence; older people are still served first at a meal table, greeted before others present, and hold the deciding say and sway on familial matters.

It is hoped, here, that one can navigate the waters that one’s elders have chartered. ‘Inshallah al-omr kulloh, ya rab!’ people cheer to their loved ones, when adding a new candle to a birthday cake: ‘I hope you live forever.’

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