JISR A-ZARKA, Israel — Her tired eyes jumped from person to person, and she is obviously scared and confused by the excitement that she has caused. And who could blame her? Until now, she has never been exposed to so many foreigners and cameras, or been the object of so much curiosity.
Miriam Amash, a resident of the northern Israeli Arab beach town of Jisr a-Zarka, is 120 years old.
Miriam Amash, born in 1888 in el-Makhaber (now Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael), lives in the northern Israeli Arab beach town, Jisr a-Zarka. This relatively poor fishing community numbers 12,000. There are no street names to guide newcomers around the town, but it really doesn’t matter because everyone seems to know where Amash lives. Mention her name and residents say, smiling, “She’s the oldest lady in the world! Go down to the end of the road, turn right, then left, and you’ll be near her house – just ask anyone!”
Wearing a flowered skirt, striped colourful sweater and a white headscarf, Amash sat surrounded by three generations of family members. At the tender age of 120, she just might possibly be the oldest person in the world. As of now, 114-year-old Edna Parker of Shelbyville, Ind., is the holder of the title. Whether Amash will be entered into Guinness World Records is yet to be seen.
A trip to Hadera, Israel, to the Ministry of the Interior to replace her lost identification card brought the world to Amash’s front door. Although her wrinkled hands proudly held her new ID card, displaying the year of her birth, her most highly prized possession seemed to be her Israeli passport, for this was her ticket to visit “God’s house five times,” referring to the Muslim pilgrimage (hajj) to Saudi Arabia.
Oblivious to the reason why so many people in the world are fascinated by her, she sat patiently answering what questions she could. Her hands, covered by tattoos, hugged her great-great-great-grandson, Iyad, to her chest, an act that seemed to give her the courage to face her audience.
Although it is not clear just how much she does remember, she does have faded memories of the years of the Turkish and British rule, and the events that led to Israel’s creation.
She was married twice, but it was her second marriage in 1914 that produced 11 children, three of whom she has outlived. Her eldest child is in her late 80s, and her eldest grandchild is 55 years old. How many people can boast about having 120 grandchildren and 250 great-grandchildren? When asked if she would be interested in marrying again, she emphatically replied, “No,” and kissed her hands, raising them to the heavens. However, she did take that opportunity to point out several of her grandsons and great-grandsons who were present and just happened to be of marrying age.
Amash said that she has lived a good, easy life. Her second husband was a well-to-do landowner. They raised camels, sheep and cows, and they made their living from their animals and from the sale of milk, cheese and yogurt. Her husband passed away in 1989 at the age of 105.
She now lives in a large room that is attached to the lower level of a family member’s house. Um Hilmee, as she is called, comes from another era but seems to enjoy the modernity of today’s life. She has everything that she needs – a bed, a small kitchenette with a refrigerator (although she shares in the family’s meals) and, most important, she has family all around her.
In a way, she maintains a sense of independence. Although her granddaughter sleeps in the room with her, she walks without the aid of a walker. While she is a little hard of hearing, she does not have any obvious health problems and is probably the envy of many much younger then her.
So what is her secret to living to such an advanced age? It seems that the key to her good health is living tension free and indulging in good, hearty, preservative-free, salt-free and fat-free meals. She eats only natural foods such as yogurt, milk, meat and olive oil, as well as “khubazi” and “ilik” – wild, leafy-green mountain vegetables. No food passes her lips after six in the evening. She spends a part of every day walking around the village visiting friends and family. And, of course, she never smoked in her life. She calls her long life “a gift from God.”
Amash is a woman who avoids problems. When asked what her hopes for the future are, she replied wisely: “I like everyone. I want all people to be friends, and to get along well.”
As the day progressed and the strangers’ questions continued, she grew increasingly tired. Not impressed with the commotion that her age had caused, she said with frustration, “If only I had not gone to the ministry, none of this would have happened to me!” Several times, she raised her hands and said “halas,” indicating that she did not want to talk anymore or be the subject of the photographers’ cameras.
She had her moment in the spotlight, but clearly was waiting for the world’s attention to be turned elsewhere.
NOREEN SADIK is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st-century Israel. Printed by courtesy of the Jerusalem Post.