I have many friends and family from the Middle East who are regularly writing, posting or reminiscing about the past. It’s a grand nostalgia project, “those were the days”, a love affair with past epochs, from a wistfulness for early 20th century Levantine culture to longing for some kind of lost Arab unity. Social media has also permitted what lingers in the mind to flourish without limit.
The past lives on in the Middle East as if there were no tomorrow. The region breeds nostalgia, it’s in the very air: music about unrequited love, the smell of the hookah, cafes in Cairo, melancholic songs, and photographs of cities in eras gone by. This indulgence takes place more among those living abroad who can afford to dream and not deal with the infernal traffic or the more infernal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
It seems harmless enough to be curious about a Middle East long gone, and it is certainly very interesting to see what places once looked like.
It may also be positive for families in Australia or Canada, for example, to have a connection to their past and heritage.
However, the heritage of the Middle East is an overplayed theme. No visiting politician passes through the region without praising the pyramids, Islamic civilisation, or Khalil Gibran – and the locals nod their heads passively in agreement.
Nostalgia imbues the airwaves and the minds of the people, whether sad French ballads that Lebanese hum while stuck in traffic in Kaslik, or the deeper drones of “Tarab”, the magical hypnotic songs of classical Arabic music.
Meanwhile, the real Middle East is ranging somewhere between Mad Max and a very bad horror movie (bereft of an ending). The gap between the melancholia for the past and the troubled and dangerous present has become somewhat obscene.
Those who can afford to escape to the past are doing so because the present is so ugly and difficult. But, the people in the region have no choice but to live the choking dust and threat and anxiety of war every day.
Can one really blame people for wishing for or merely contemplating other eras? Some of those epochs were indeed quite decent, whether the social tolerance of the Levantine ports, or the powerful civilisation of a much older era, as represented, for example, by the House of Wisdom in 8th century Baghdad.
This is fine if it had a link to today. Otherwise, those who can afford to escape to the past are doing so because the present is so ugly and difficult. But, the people in the region have no choice but to live the choking dust and threat and anxiety of war every day.
Furthermore, the longing for the past is illusory. The past is gone not to return, and any future positive developments are not likely to have much to do with it.
In the abstract, one can retrieve its better aspects and apply them; however, given the profound demographic, environmental and political challenges facing the Middle East today, the future will almost necessarily be very different, a paradigm leap, from where we are today or where we were in 1950, 1920 or 700 AD.
A fixation on the past is also an unaffordable indulgence. The problems of the Middle East today have to do with deaths on the roads, pollution, socioeconomic exhaustion, and the dangerous politics of exclusivity.
None of these challenges can be fixed by a look back at photos of Bethlehem, 1930, or by listening to a song by Dalida. Instead, a rather sober and difficult work of cleanup of what is in one’s face, ugly as it may be, is required. Many young people know this – it’s their future – but their elders are not yet providing them with the alternatives.
Can one have it both ways, look back to heritage as well as forward to building a future? Only if the past is pure fodder for invention of the future. Otherwise, the mind will reside in the safe zone of nostalgia, safely away from the ugliness of today, and in the consequent inaction.
It is important to remember that what we now see as the past was once unexpectedly fresh, new and even shocking in its time. The appearance of Islam in Arabia in the 7th century was a large revolution of thought and spirit that then spread to create a civilisation.
Today’s obsessions with the past cannot claim that capacity. Only looking forward bravely will generate the necessary shifts.
“Better be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie,” goes the proverb from another land of nostalgia, Russia. Better to face the tough present than delve in the land of illusion.
The Middle East is in desperate straits, and the future of the region won’t have a lot to do with the past. Those who care for it know that, and whether in-country or out, may be better to support the drive to the future rather than the nostalgic gaze on the past. Maybe for every post or article looking back, they should contribute $50 to UNHCR to care for the millions of refugees in the region today.
There’s another long-standing adage about the region: “Too much history too little geography”; Henry Ford contributed an antidote when he said: “History is more or less bunk … and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”
Now, that’s something to contemplate while the shisha smoke curls wistfully away, vanishing into thin air.
John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.