The bare essentials
Profile by Yasmine El-Rashidi
It is rare to be captivated by another person. Brief encounters may leave us enchanted, charmed, delighted. Longer interactions may bring admiration and sometimes awe, but seldom is it that one is captured by the sheer radiance emitted by another. Yet that is the sort of effect that Vart Alexanian has.
Not that he is particularly good-looking, or snazzily dressed, or seductive in manner. When he walked into the reception area of his metal factory, Etalex, one Thursday morning, though, something quite clearly happened.
“Hello,” he said, speaking to our backs as the Weekly's photographer and myself peered at objects housed in a glass cabinet. “You made it,” he said. ?
I turned round, fully expecting to blurt out my pre-prepared apology about being 20 minutes late. We got lost, I had intended to say. I'm terribly sorry. It's a pleasure to meet you.
I had heard a lot about Alexanian and, admittedly, I was excited. But when I turned round no words came out. Not for a few seconds, at least, though the silence seemed to last significantly longer.
Dressed in Bermuda shorts, with a relatively long T-shirt, Teva (hiking) sandals and socks: my first impression of Alexanian is of long arms, of big hands, of height. And of baldness. He is an interesting looking character, certainly by the standards of the so-called norm. It was not quite the image I would have associated with this paragon of yoga and spirituality and nature, with a man whose lifestyle is shared by just a few hundred fellow travellers around the world, all of whom survive on raw foods, but only those that grow in or on the ground. Yet despite this unexpected exterior, still he managed to project an aura of serenity and peace.
“I am now 71,” he says, sitting in one of several immense, and immensely bare, rooms in the factory. “I ride a bike, a motorcycle, I train in my gym every day, I don't have the least physical problem. I have four gyms, and I do lots of physical training. I don't smoke, or drink coffee, or alcohol. I eat healthy foods.”
“I don't eat animal products, or dairy products — 99 per cent of my diet is free of these things. And I don't take salt.”
He needs prodding to divulge the source of his internal well-being. His wife, Nevair, sits opposite, behind one of his assistants' desks. She mutters something to him in Armenian.
“He fasts,” she says. “He has been known to fast for 30 days.”
Fasting, for Alexanian, means drinking water. Literally. For 30 days.
“That was three years ago,” Alexanian says. “Two months ago I did a 10-day fast. My wife also fasts,” he adds. “Fifteen years ago she fasted for 24 days, and 20 years ago for 20 days.”
Their faces are calm, relaxed, a smile budding from the corners of their mouths. Their tone implies a normality and ease at what, when you come to think about it, are quite mind-boggling feats of endurance.
Alexanian is momentarily amused by my astonished expression. He laughs, saying that “there are only two or three hundred people in the world that live like me. My wife is more moderate.”
Nevair nods her head. “I only follow the principle about 75 per cent. For the rest, I eat what I want.” Nevair makes no bones about her belief that her husband is too extreme, but she accommodates him, and he her. And they laugh about his peculiarities with affection.
“I wasn't always like this,” Alexanian offers. “I found out what life really is in 1957. I was at a lecture, and from that moment on I started to understand what life is, and what the requirements are for living that life, and that the body also needs to take certain steps — psychological, social — to live that life,” he says in his tranquil voice.
Alexanian's eyes sparkle. He smiles, shifts in his chair before leaning back, exhaling, ready to reveal more about this life-changing event.
“It was a lecture about life,” he says, precise in his choice of words. Nothing wasteful, no exaggerations. “About how to be healthy, wealthy and wise. About exercise and eating and stamina.” He turns to his wife, puts his sizable hands on the desk, and laughs.
“I've survived 45 years with this lady,” he beams. “That takes endurance.”
She laughs with him. And it is agreed that in terms of endurance she must have even more. “One reason for my good health,” Alexanian says with unusual sternness, “is this good lady. She lets me do as I want. We are partners. She doesn't interfere.”
Even if Nevair had wanted to, though, you cannot help but suspect that it would have been hard. Alexanian follows the principles that comprise his lifestyle with an admirable vitality and vigour. He is a devout raw-foodist, macrobiotic follower, and naturalist, a dogged follower of a lifestyle that remains confusing and strange to the rest of the population.
“There are two groups of people in the world,” Alexanian explains. “The intelligent — among whom I consider myself — and the desperate.”
He is not conceited, nor does his tone suggest superiority. He simply considers himself blessed, and grateful for what he has.
“I was lucky because I was on the intelligent side,” he says. “I always had this 'heavy feeling' when I was a boy,” he recalls of his upbringing in an Armenian-Egyptian household. “We are Middle Easterners, and our mother used to make very heavy food. My mother used to fry potatoes first in oil, then in samna (gee). I felt slow. I didn't wake up early, I didn't jump from my bed. And I was searching for another style of life.”
His search began through reading.
“I read about the body and how it works, and I asked my mother to start making light food. I wanted to try to apply this principle.”
It was the principle of 'you are what you eat', and immediately he began to feel changes.
“I started to read more and do research, and then I attended a lecture given by a doctor of physiology and psychology.”
It was then that he started to take things to what others might consider extremes.
The foods he eats are predominantly raw — vegetables, fruits, nuts. All are unprocessed and uncooked, all retain the same form they had in nature. “Heat destroys natural enzymes,” Alexanian explains. “And cooking or boiling removes some of the natural vitamins and minerals in the foods. They are best for you when they are most natural,” he says.
And everything, of course, is best when it is organic.
“I grow my own fruit and vegetables,” he explains, organically, in the garden of his home in the Ahmed Orabi area by the
“Meat makes you aggressive,” he insists. “That is why I am so calm. We are meant to eat fresh, not flesh. We are herbivores and fruitivores, not carnivores. Bread is also very bad. It is not natural.”
By which, I now know, he means it does not grow on trees.
“Baladi bread is better than regular bread,” he offers, attempting a compromise. “Fish is flesh, but it's better than meat and chicken. It's an animal product, but it's less harmful.”
For Alexanian, avoiding animal products is the key to peace and serenity.
“It's about purification,” Nevair offers. “That's why he fasts. But it's important that people fully understand the principles and how the body works before trying anything like this. You can't just start fasting straight away. So you must be careful what you write,” I am admonished. “It's a responsibility.”
It is also chemistry, in a sense — and before dabbling you must have a thorough understanding of the basics.
A typical day for Alexanian begins with a breakfast of mango juice mixed with orange juice, and four figs.
“You must try it,” he says, pouring the blend into two mugs. “But you have to drink it slowly, and really taste it. People don't take the time to really taste and smell, and feel what they are eating.” Both the mangoes and oranges, he quickly adds, are cultivated organically.
“I grow all these things myself,” he tells me.
Lunch is at noon, and could be a few spoons of beans, a freshly chopped green salad, a vegetable dish.
“Sometimes he eats courgettes with lemon and some pepper,” Nevair says. “Maybe some steamed brown rice.”
And at night it is, needless to say, light.
“Fruit,” he says. “Only fruit.”
The question of protein comes up. Most people believe that animal flesh is the sole source of protein, but Alexanian shakes his head at the absurdity of this belief, one of many nutritional myths rampant in the culture, he feels.
“There is protein in everything,” he says. “Anything that grows has protein protoplasm in it.”
It is a simple logic, and simply put. And it appears to make perfect sense.
He looks around the room, and summons someone to him.
“The jar of libb (seeds),” he asks of the young woman who comes into the room. He speaks in a mixture of English and Arabic, and both sound distinctly foreign.
The jar arrives.
“Try it,” he offers. “Go to places that sell nuts and things, and ask for raw seeds. They must be raw.” And they must — I am getting the hang of it now — be unsalted.
“If you understand how your body works you will understand that salt is harmful,” he says, explaining that it “hampers” the natural flow of fluids in the body.
“It makes you hold water,” Nevair elaborates, blocking the natural detoxification of the body. When you eat meat, and bread, and fatty, greasy, spicy foods, that flow is blocked anyway.
“You have to re-adapt your body to this lifestyle slowly,” Alexanian says, “But it must be followed as a whole.”
He shifts to the fasting.
“I started by fasting just one day per week. I did this for one-and-a-half years before I started my longer fasts. That means that in one year I fasted 52 days.'
He still maintains his weekly one-day fast, but now his body has become accustomed to much more.
“As I told you, I fasted for 10 days two months ago. When I'm fasting like this I don't work. I sit in peace, and I read and listen to music. And when workers come to me at my home or in my room and ask me questions, I feed them.”
With his kinds of food, naturally.
Alexanian turns in his chair and asks one of his workmen about a recent visit.
The fellow laughs, and remembers the dried fruit and nuts.
“But they know that it works,” Alexanian quickly adds. “When you live like this your body changes,” he continues. “I don't have susceptibility to disease. I don't have the aptitude.”
He opens his mouth to say something but hesitates. The caution in his voice is clear — Alexanian does not want to offend anyone, to argue with beliefs others might hold dear.
“I am more than a doctor,” he says, explaining that he understands the workings of his body — physiologically and psychologically — inside out. “I have helped people in my factory.”
And the proof is certainly all around me. Alexanian has a following. On the various floors of the factory employees share their tales. From headaches and pains to lethargy, depression and even psoriasis, those that have acclimated their bodies to the 'Vart way', as they call it, swear by the results.
Yet to the rest of the public, though, Vart might well appear something of a nut-case.
“I have been laughed at for years,” he says casually. “They say I'm a rabbit.
Now they tell my grandchildren that their grandfather is strange, so stamina is important.”
“My method purifies the body incredibly,” Alexanian continues. “It is something from God. Something divine. All the prophets fasted. Jesus fasted for 42 days. Ramadan is a month of hunger. It should actually be a very cleansing thing.”
He does not like to use the term 'spiritual', though he will talk happily of a certain insight, about his understanding and intuition about the world around him when he is on one of his longer fasts.
“Your body becomes purified to such an extent that you are more in touch with the nature around you,” he says. The process, Alexanian feels, brings the body back to a more 'natural' state, which in turn makes it more sensitive to the quintessential elements of life and the environment. And it is in this state that Alexanian is most at peace.
“I am very relaxed,” he says, as he takes us on a tour around the factory. “When the world appears to be collapsing I'm still calm. It is because my blood is alkaline,” he explains. “If I eat meat, I become aggressive, and so I need to fast,” he says, adding that once every year or two he gets a craving and indulges himself in copious amounts of flesh. “When I need to make a big decision, and need to be a bit aggressive, I ask my wife for meat.”
He is amused and amusing, but also serious about what he says.
“If I get too happy, or too sad, I fast. Why? Because if I get too happy I start doing stupid things.”
Indulging in extreme emotions, he believes, is akin to being seduced by desire. It is too intense, too complicated, too much of a distraction from the peace, the quiet, the serenity and the solace of wholeness to which we all, in different ways, aspire. To reach that state, however, Vart has placed himself, as perhaps one must, somewhere most would consider extreme.
Al Ahram Weekly online.
Al Ahram Weekly online.
31 Oct. – 6 Nov. 2002 Issue No. 610
31 Oct. – 6 Nov. 2002
Issue No. 610
E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]
URL for this article: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/610/profile.htm
Photo by Ayman Ibrahim