Age shall not wither
I wouldn't have given the elderly man a second glance if the young mechanic down the road hadn't yelled out to me.
'Do you know how old he is?' he says. 'He's 105 years old. Can you imagine?'
I couldn't. For a man more than a century old, Abu Husni is incredibly agile. He gives me a toothless grin and comes closer. 'You must always be happy,' he says to me. 'Never let anything get to you. Sadness. Anxiety. Worry. They're all bad things.'
Avoiding funerals, he warns, will also bring me happiness. By this time, half the block has gathered around the old man to hear his advice.
'Abu Husni,' says the mechanic, 'tell her about the past. Tell her about how you were a champion surfer in Lebanon. Show her your workshop.'
Obligingly, Abu Husni grabs my arm and jauntily climbs up some shaky wooden steps to the first floor of his family's building overlooking the Tripoli coast line. Much more slowly and grasping the handrails, I follow suit. The neighborhood clan soon follows and we crowd into the small workshop. Here and there, several wooden surfing boards are strewn about. Some of them are painted and some are obviously still works in progress.
'There was a time when people came from all over Lebanon to see me,' he says. 'They came from Jounieh, Tripoli, Sidon, everywhere to buy my wooden surfing boards. But no-one comes anymore. People are buying fibreglass boards now,' he says wistfully. 'They don't want wooden ones.'
Shrugging his shoulders, he runs his hands lovingly across the boards. Urged on by the mechanic, he reaches out to a shelf and gives me several well-handled black-and-white photographs.
In them, a handsome muscular young man is standing on his hands on a surfing board. In another, he is displaying many bulging muscles.
'That was me,' says Abu Husni, chuckling. 'I was the champion in surfing.'
But his most precious memories are of the British and French servicemen who were based in Tripoli during the Second World War.
'They were so good to me,' he recalls. 'And I was good to them. I brought them food every day. Whatever they wanted, I got for them.'
The soldiers are now long gone. The Khan they stayed in, once a majestic Ottoman building, is a rundown and filthy dwelling for about 50 poor families.
'The soldiers liked me. They gave me trousers, shirts and shoes,' he says. 'And in the evenings, I use to get drunk with them.'
It takes some time for the elderly man to come out of his reverie of bygone days. I am obviously forgotten.
'Abu Husni, show her your rabbits,' prompts the mechanic.
Smiling proudly, Abu Husni pulls out an old shopping cart. In it are remnants of lettuce and cabbage leaves.
'These are for my rabbits,' he says.
After securing his cart behind a door, he begins climbing the four floors to the roof - keeping well ahead of me.
There, tens of rabbits are either in cages or hopping about - all lovingly cared for by Abu Husni.
He can't remember exactly when he started raising rabbits, but he knows he was 'very young'.
For Abu Husni, the day starts at two in the morning. It is the perfect time to wheel his cart to the empty vegetable market. Over the years, he has learned to steer the cart deftly between the empty stalls. At one end of the market, he finds what he was looking for: several cabbages and lettuce leaves placed on one side. Vegetable-sellers are apparently well-acquainted with the century-old Abu Husni and his rabbits and put any leftover leaves aside for him.
Then he wheels his cart back home and carries the vegetables to the roof.
'My rabbits like to eat at this time,' he explains.
The furry animals are well acquainted with their feeding time as they climb on to their hind legs and follow their master around.
Suddenly Abu Husni looks up at me with twinkling eyes.
'Just remember, stay happy,' he says. 'And you'll live long.'
Reem Haddad is a journalist for the Daily Star in Beirut.
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