Secrets of Longevity
On Verdant Slopes of the Talysh Mountains
by Kathy Lally
Published in the Baltimore Sun (Maryland) on April 17, 2001. Copyright 2001, The Baltimore Sun Company
All photos: Algerina Perna, Associated Press.
PESHTA TUK, Azerbaijan - Mahbuba Fatullayeva drops to the floor with all the flexibility of a 12-year-old, sits cross-legged on her mat and waits patiently for the inevitable question to emerge from the gaggle of relatives and strangers crowding around her with enormous bustle and confusion.
These people - women from America, scientists from Baku, a reporter from nearby Lankaran - are demanding one thing, loudly and urgently: How did Fatullayeva, born 103 years ago, manage to live so long?
Left: At 103, Mahbuba Fatullayeva still anticipates more active years as villagers in the Talysh region are known for their longevity.
"I have prayed to God all my life," Fatullayeva says. "I'm a kind person, and I've never envied anyone. I have always been with nature. I knew the value of life. That's why I kept myself from rumors, and I was relaxed."
No one finds old age remarkable on the verdant slopes of the Talysh Mountains, close to the Iranian border and more than 200 miles south of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Old age doesn't begin until at least 90.
Fatullayeva says she has never been to a doctor. She has never, a daughter-in-law says, left this hamlet of 30 houses. No, another relative contradicts, she certainly has traveled to the far sheep meadow.
Looking out the window, it's as if rich green velvet has been draped over the whitewashed stone house, with the mountainside tilting so sharply down that the lush and brilliant grass seems pressed against the window. Chocolate-colored sheep graze peacefully, and turkeys with bright blue necks are on patrol. Freshly washed clothes flutter on the fence.
Though it appears isolated, Peshtatuk is not cut off from the rest of the world. Buses travel the road to the city of Lankaran near the Caspian Sea, and a train and buses run north to Baku.
Still, lives are measured out in different rhythms here, the tone is set by work and it's easy enough for a hundred or so birthdays to pass unsung. "We have never celebrated my birthday," Fatullayeva says. "I'm not even interested."
Above: Fazil Rezayev, 102, and his wife, Bodzhi, 101, live in the mountainous village of Chairud.
Every morning, Fatullayeva rises from her sleeping pallet on the floor, has something to eat and begins to work. "Sometimes I eat milk, yogurt, honey," she says, "anything that comes my way."
She feeds the chickens, she makes butter and she washes. A granddaughter drags in a vase-shaped clay pot, about 2 1/2 feet tall, to show how butter is made. Fatullayeva's job is to rock the pot for 30 minutes or more, until the butter forms. Her hands, she says, are beginning to get weak and she has a rag tied around one to steady it. "The last three or four years," she says, "I felt I was getting old."
Fatullayeva was born into the Russian empire ruled by a czar. She remembers the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin's path to power. She lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and saw Azerbaijan become independent. Now she's disappointed because all that history has left her country poor and jobless. "My great-grandsons have nothing to do here," she says. "That's my biggest complaint."
Sevinj Huseinova, a biologist who works in the Laboratory of Long Life at the Institute of Physiology in Baku, says an extraordinary number of people do live long lives here - long being about 110 - because of genetic factors enhanced by diet, exercise and fresh air.
Eat yogurt along with garlic and mint, says Chingiz Gasimov, the laboratory director. Eat cilantro and chives, saffron and tarragon, and sumakh, a red spice made from dried berries, he says, and such a diet will prevent cholesterol. And, Huseinova counsels, forget about the news. "The less information a person has," she says, "the longer he lives. There's less stress."
Above: Mahbuba Fatullayeva, 103, spends her day doing farm shores such as feeding the chickens and churning butter by hand.
At the end of World War II, she says approvingly, a group of nearby villagers wrote to Stalin, wondering why they had only just been told a war had raged the previous four years. Too much information, Huseinova says, overloads and finally ruins the brain. She looks sadly at the newspaper reporters with her. "Less information," she advises. "Less information."
She shares information, though. Huseinova recalls a man of 128 she once knew. "He had three wives," she says. "With such a man, a woman can't live long - they each had 12 children."
"I know of a woman of 105," says Aghaddin Babayev, a local journalist who covers a vast territory by bus, "and she doesn't look a day over 80. Another woman - she looks as good as a 75-year-old."
But times are growing more difficult, Babayev says, and people are feeling it and dying younger. "Ten years ago, it was a ridiculous thing to die before 90," he says. "We used to say if someone doesn't live until 100, it's their own fault."
Elkhan Gambarov, a mere 55, lives higher in the mountains, in Lerik - elevation about 6,000 feet. His grandfather, he says, lived to 167, a record widely reported but not conclusively proved to Western scientists, who are skeptical about documents in this part of the world. But Gambarov encourages today's pursuit. More than 200 people older than 90 live in the region, he says, as the travelers head deeper into the mountains.
The great silence of the mountains is unbroken except by ringing cell phones. There are four Azerbaijanis in the car - townsfolk all - and each has a cell phone. "It's our great achievement," Gasimov says.
Nearly the entire country is covered by a network, which overnight began offering cheap cellular service to customers who had been waiting years for regular phones.
Gasimov's phone rings. "I'm above the snow line," he shouts to a friend in Baku, calling to invite him to a party.
The car climbs, bumping up, up and around the narrow roads, which narrow even more as the mountain plunges precipitously down to a ravine. The driver stops, the group frets. Can they drive on without plunging downward?
A solution: There's a car in the distance, on the other side of the dangerous patch. Gasimov shouts to a nearby house, asking the woman standing in the yard to shout the message from house to house across the mountain: "Send a car."
A few minutes later, a 30-year-old Soviet jeep rounds the bend and screeches to a halt, gravel spewing under its tires. A man leans out the window, looking like an old-time film star in silky flowing scarf and a sweeping purple overcoat. "Get in," shouts Abusahad Gurbanov, who teaches Russian at the local school.
The car roars off, more gravel spraying, up and around the mountain, coming to a halt in front of a small stone house in the village of Chairud. The group disgorges and dashes in, hurrying to find the secret to old age-and get off the mountain before darkness falls.
A group of neighbors quickly gathers and enters the house, too, excitedly shouting and pressing close to Fazil Rezayev, 102, and his wife, Bodzhi, 101. She rises stiffly to her feet and says she feels old.
"I am a religious person, and I have always fasted and always prayed," explains Fazil, a Shiite Muslim, the traditional Azeri faith.
An 80-year-old neighbor, who looks much younger, offers a running commentary above the cacophony of questions and the answers, which are nearly all contradicted by at least one bystander.
"Everything I eat I get from nature," says Aghamirza Ahmadov. "The cow drinks clear water and eats nourishing grass, and I drink the good milk."
He expects to live to 110.
Darkness threatens, and voices rise even higher, urging a swift departure. The Rezayevs' 65-year-old son, Nasir, jumps in the car for a high-speed interview on the run.
His father, he concedes, has lived through epic and tumultuous change.
"But now life is unprecedented," Nasir says. "Previously, it took dozens of years to change. Now, you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."
Now, he says, the cemetery is rapidly growing larger. In the past four months, four people older than 100 have died, he says. "There were years in my life when not one person in the village died."
The ancient car has reached the treacherous spot in the road. The visitors jump out and into their own car.
They speed off into the night. Soon, the cell phones are ringing again. Behind them, on the receding mountain, all is calm.
For more on Azerbaijan's centenarians, see "Centenarians in Azerbaijan: Heredity as Stored Environment" in AI 2.3, Summer 1994 and "Azerbaijan's Legendary Centenarian Shirali Muslimov" in AI 4.4, Winter 1996.