By Shereen Abou El-Naga
13 Dec 2015
The first person to use the term nostalgia was Swiss researcher Johannes Hofer in a letter in 1688. He noticed that Swiss soldiers fighting in France and Italy suffered from homesickness, and so he combined two Greek words, nostos, meaning to return home (used prolifically by the poet Homer in The Iliad), and algos, meaning pain.
Until 1850, the term nostalgia referred to an illness, and physicians even looked for the location of nostalgia in the body. At the dawn of the modern age, nostalgia acquired psychological characteristics such as homesickness for home (these symptoms manifested in soldiers fighting in the first and second world wars.)
Then the term began to mean a sense of loss and yearning for a past that is long gone, yearning for days of childhood (which appears in the works of the Romantic poets), longing for someone who died or is far away, longing for a homeland usurped by occupation or destruction, yearning for what was once familiar and for a sense of safety.
In the post-postmodern age, all that is familiar is disappearing and the language we learnt is changing. We watch a man burn inside a cage, women raped on air, and heads hanging from gallows, in an era when the map we learnt in school is completely changing, and the phrase “hot and dry in summer; warm and rainy in winter” has become a joke.
We now see weapons in real life instead of in movies, we realise the frailty of regimes we thought were invincible, we book tickets to the moon instead of Paris. Everyone is glued to the small screens of their cellphones instead of interacting with the person next to him, and we carry the world in our pocket in order to follow the latest catastrophes.
In such an era, we must admit that the world that we knew has entirely changed. The cognitive condition that we lived in the past is no longer viable in a world such as this. For all these reasons, we are constantly nostalgic and yearning – sometimes mourning painfully – for a past that will never return.
But the past was not always wonderful and benevolent, and so we yearn for what made us feel safe, stable and human, when our feelings were consistent with awareness or at the highest bond between consciousness and the world.
When the bond between consciousness and the world is broken this intensifies nostalgia, which is a deception by the self to circumvent a reality that is objectionable, not understandable, unusual, irrational and cannot be processed by the mind.
Nostalgia and longing are an attempt to remain consistent with memory or resistant through memory. When all other means are lost, memory becomes the only way to deal with a tattered, fragmented reality to create a new horizon and protect a “utopian” past that allows consciousness to penetrate the wall of cognitive bleakness.
Memory is a means of healing a spirit that is heavy with nostalgia and already burdened with loss, a self that is alien to the present moment. One that is lost in a world that is unfamiliar, seeking to return to a world whose elements it had mastered.
In a recent moment that seems so far away now, the moment before 2010, we thought the Palestinians were forced to leave their country, either in exile or by expulsion by an occupying enemy or through emigration in search of humane living conditions, or as a refugee to escape bullets.
Then they were joined by the Lebanese because of a brutal civil war. Then Iraqis followed suit to escape detention camps of torture and endless assassinations. The Sudanese also quickly fled as refugees from “phantom” prisons.
After the Arab revolutions, the Libyans and Yemenis joined the nostalgic picture, although Syria of course is at the forefront of the scene either through emigration, exile, asylum or alienation.
Everyone is equal in the tragedy of yearning for home: the house, the people, the smells, the food, the music, the language, the mosque, the church. All that remains for these people is a memory to bring back what is lost.
Memory is the only solution to deal with homelands we no longer know, nor they us. Nostalgia also applies to those who no longer understand their country – when home becomes synonymous with estrangement, which is even more painful:
“Any town that cannot be identified by its scent is forgettable. Exiles have a common scent; that of homesickness. A scent that reminds us of another scent, a scent that is erratic and romantic, like a frequently used tourist map that leads you to the scent of the starting point. Memory is a scent and a sunset. Here, the beauty of the sunset is scolding the unfamiliar.”
Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence
Not only did the world we know change, but it has become a small computerised world. Our entire life has become digitised and with one press of a button we can restore the past to make it present, as if time had never passed.
Thus, memory no longer relies on unique skill or effort. Computers think for us and store everything we want to save. It is natural, then, for photos to replace words as a more eloquent form of expression capable of delivering a message and reviving a memory.
The importance of the photo emerged decades ago in the press as a tool of evidence and documentation. However, Arab revolutions have transformed the photo into a tool to express nostalgia for a fleeting utopian moment; a moment full of promise; a moment that consciousness has not yet overcome.
The 18 days in Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo in 2011 were enough for Utopia to be created in political discourse and relations between gender, religion and class. Cleaning up Tahrir Square on the morning of 12 February was an exception that erased everything else that preceded; ending the dream and the occasion.
Nostalgia for that period dominated an entire generation whose consciousness was formed in a utopian scene when he lost his best friend in front of his eyes. The photo which documents the moment and bond became a means to compensate for this painful yearning. Successive printed albums emerged, and thousands of photos appeared on Facebook and blogs.
The photo relied on glorifying the normal and daily life in the Square. They became icons to maintain the memory. At other times, it is used to show yearning for a scene that will never be repeated.
There are also photos of martyrs that appear in a variety of contexts: protests, eulogies, anniversaries and most importantly to revive a memory in order to deal with loss. The case of Egypt is an ideal model to explain how photos are used to express yearning for the past based on people, events or locations.
Archive black and white photos of Cairo's streets in the last century and of women’s dress are becoming prolific in social media.
There is also plenty of video footage documenting many scenes during the 18 days, or the famous speech by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in which he declared the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
Despite differences in the pictures, they all confirm a latent nostalgia for a moment of victory, a moment when a dream is realised, when consciousness and the world came together.
Personal pictures also serve the same purpose for us; they are photos that give us a sense of continuity and allow us to build psychological and cognitive storage about ourselves.
By the same reasoning, music and song compensate for a cultural era that is long gone. For example, listening the diva Om Kalthoum or Abdel-Halim Hafez or Abdel-Wahhab means returning to an artistic sentiment that no longer exists in the present.
Watching video of Om Kalthoum singing, for example, is likely to stir yearning for an era that is completely different. The importance of these different types of art is that they build a collective cultural memory that makes the entire society nostalgic. It is the same feeling for old movie buffs.
The consumer market has not ignored this yearning. Commercials are now using nostalgia to add value to the product being promoted, and thus the product acquires its own special history and viewers begin to believe that it is an integral part of collective memory.
For example, the Pepsi ad “We will come together again” and the lyrics of the accompanying jingle say: “We have come to you from the past, reminding you of the best memories.”
The commercial combines scenes that brought together the late singer/actress Sabah with Ahmed Mazhar; actor George Sedhom and comedy trio Tholathi Adwaa Al-Masrah.
Finally the shot that is painful for many to see, when the late actor Ahmed Zaki is superimposed to appear to be looking into the eyes of his son Haytham.
After some Arab revolutions turned into a bitter and painful autumn, growing numbers of emigrants are leaving Arab countries – which is no easy feat.
Emigration essentially means someone leaves behind his homeland with all its particularities to start a new life (not necessarily a happy one) in an unknown place, and his consciousness is removed from home painfully and without warning.
Emigration puts people in a difficult confrontation with themselves to create a rich memory mixed with difficult questions, which is sometimes abundant with self-pity. It is loss in all senses of the word. Loss of a homeland that can never be recovered, even partially, except through storytelling and chronicling.
The Arab library has a good stock of literature in exile which chronicles the homeland in several ways. Some writers document major political changes, others highlight a specific experience such as being imprisoned, while others combine the two.
There are those who write a biography that chronicles the history of the country, a genre that always tries to reconstruct the homeland by chronicling, even they though they are “not on site”, as Edward Said noted in his autobiography.
In general, literature in exile has become a means to reconstruct a lost homeland, uphold its heritage, and document history (either personal or public). Most importantly, it’s a way to deal with the deep alienation that leads to a wound about the world that never heals in consciousness.
The novel Tashari by Iraqi author Inaam Kajiji is an example of what literature based on nostalgia can do. Tashari means a bullet that comes out and fragments in all directions, like Arab emigrants everywhere and the family of physician Wardiya Iskandar, the heroine of the novel who is a Chaldean Christian from Mosul.
Tashari is a painful novel because it reminds the reader of the glory and prosperity of a nation that turned on its sons. The story of Wardiya, a gynaecologist since the 1950s, confirms that in the past Iraq was a flourishing nation that did not know sectarianism. An Iraq that respected women and believed in science.
An Iraq that was lost to rivers of blood and devastating sectarian sentiments.
Walking back through time, Wardiya recovers Iraq as a homeland after she reaches Paris as a refugee. The genius of the author is that she brought back to us an unknown part of Iraq’s story.
She did this through a personal account that does not focus on politics, but is implied through period references. For example, she writes that events occurred in parallel with the “displacement of Jews” or the word “Afalqi” (in reference to Michel Aflaq from the Baath Party) referring to a certain segment in society.
Most literature and art document memory and record the moment of fulfilment that the self is yearning for. Consciousness can restructure its relations with the outside world in unfamiliar surroundings, although the wound has not healed entirely.
Restructuring allows for a new outlook on reality which helps the identity to restore some of its lost balance. Nostalgia then becomes the only means not to fall into the deadly trap of identities.
Shereen Abou El-Naga is Professor of Comparative Literature at Cairo University. This article was originally published in Democracy Review Quarterly, a publication of Al-Ahram Foundation.