Mohammad Mohyeddin was a little out of breath when we sat down on his living room couch to talk on a recent evening in north Toronto. He had a pretty good excuse though. Mohyeddin was fresh off of his third walk of the day.
He’s also 110 years old.
Mohyeddin was introduced to me as the oldest man in Canada. That may or may not be true. In any case, he offered this caveat when I asked him to share some stories from the old days.
“I have forgotten many things. I have forgotten language[s], English, French, Turkey [sic],” Mohyeddin said. One of his daughters added Arabic to the list.
In February, my colleague Marco Werman and I did some reporting in Iran. And to follow up, I wanted to visit Toronto, which has a sizable population of Iranian expats — about 100,000 people who’ve arrived in waves going back even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
I spent about a week in the Toronto area talking with Iranian expats about their connections to their homeland and their thoughts on where Iran is heading. This is the question I was most interested in putting to Mohammad Mohyeddin: With all of his experience and perspective, what does he think about Iran’s future?
But his answer sort of put me in my place.
“I cannot say anything,” he said. “In Iran, I don’t know what is its situation now.”
“It’s a nonsensical question, because I haven’t been there in so long. I cannot tell you what I think will happen. It’s an absurd question. This question has no answer.”
The reply surprised me, because until then, pretty much every single Iranian I’ve had the chance to meet, inside or outside the country, is eager to dive into political analysis about Iran.
Mohyeddin’s relatives, gathered in the living room to sit in on our interview, got a kick out of his bluntness. When the laughter died down, I asked Mohyeddin about a picture on the wall taken just before the 1979 revolution.
The black and white photo shows Mohyeddin in his military dress uniform — he was an army general — shaking hands with the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Mohyeddin said he didn’t remember much about that day, or his army days at all. But he did recount one story that he said he recalled fondly.
At one point in his career, Mohyeddin said he reported two of his military superiors for stealing and corruption. “They thought they could do whatever they wanted,” he said.
As a result, the men were arrested and put in prison. Mohyeddin said one of them was an opium addict who went into withdrawal and died 10 days later. The other committed suicide, he said.
Mohyeddin said he did the right thing by turning them in.
But later, his army uniform would put Mohyeddin in grave danger. Supporters of the Islamic Revolution began rounding up military officers and executing them by the dozens. Before that could happen, Mohyeddin got out of Iran and settled in Canada. So did his wife and their eight children. That was nearly four decades ago.
When I asked Mohyeddin what he missed most about Iran, he said, “everything, particularly its people.”
I asked him about Persian cuisine, which I love, but he got a little annoyed at the question.
“I’m beyond that at this point. Food is just fuel for me. This is not a proper question. What kind of questions are these?”
Mohyeddin suggested I tone down my enthusiasm for eating, especially animal products, if I had any interest in living a long healthy life.
“Stop eating so much meat,” he said. “Eat stuff that grows out of the ground and on trees.”
In addition to a healthy diet, what keeps Mohyeddin so spry at his age, he said, is a strict schedule of daily exercise. He said he eats three meals at the same times every day. And then he prays. The act of Muslim prayer involves prostrations that end in touching one’s forehead to the ground. Mohyeddin says this habit has helped him stay limber and fit all these years.
Mohyeddin also advised me to get to work reproducing. I told him that my wife and I have two young children, but he was less than impressed.
“Why do you only have two children? What’s the matter with you?” he said.
When I protested that children are a lot of work, Mohyeddin told me to simply discipline them.
His wife, Ashraf, begged to differ.
Ashraf Mohyeddin just turned 100. In addition to their eight children, the couple has 20 grandkids and 10 great-grandchildren — No. 11 is on the way. Ashraf’s advice to me? Don't worry about having more kids. She agrees that children are hard work, “especially for the mother.”
As for my question about the future of Iran, Ashraf had a lot more to say than her husband.
“I hope for peace in Iran,” she said.
“We have all been waiting for the day when we could go back and live happily there. Unfortunately, the clerics who rule the country now have made that impossible.”
Mrs. Mohyeddin, who is a former school principal, said she’s never really fallen in love with Canada. Nonetheless, she’s proud that her extended family has been successful in their adopted country.
“All five of my sons are engineers,” she said. “One daughter is a nurse, one is a dental hygienist and one’s an accountant.”
Later this year, Ashraf and Mohammad Mohyeddin will celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary.