GQ Dispatch: Sofiane Si Merabet

01 June 2020
GQ Dispatch, Sofiane Si Merabet, French, Algerian, Nostalgia, Coronavirus, Covid-19, Self-care, Self Isolation, Home Quarantine, Lockdown
Image: Illustration by Aistė Stancikaitė
The French Algerian creative wonders if looking back can take us forward

At this very moment, writing anything other than an Instagram DM or, say, a grocery list just feels like an impossible task. My daily struggle for words is only punctuated by a reminder from my phone that I’ve gone way beyond my self-imposed three-hour daily digital limit. But even that’s useless.

Useless. That’s a word I use regularly to describe my days right now. Too harsh? Well, I haven’t turned my place into a gym. I haven’t read Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy, and I’m as far away from writing the book I had planned than I’ve ever been. In light of such lethargy, ‘useless’ feels the most appropriate adjective.

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From the very beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, I took a sense of protection from our state of isolation. Actually, I felt part of some never-before-seen occurrence. Us, in our homes, we are living history. Never before has a population been asked to stay home in such a way.

Sometimes, I felt a bizarre excitement reading about the virus, its symptoms and the effects this invisible enemy has on our way of life. I referenced it, by way of contrast, with the Albert Camus’ 1947 existential classic, The Plague and its spotlight on Oran. It led only to more questions. Our only certainty right now is uncertainty. When will life return to normal? When would be the next time we could spend a day at the beach? The situation is unique and nobody has answers to the questions we are asking. No manager to speak to, no search engine to quiz. We need to accept the unknown and get on with it.

But no matter how hard we try to embrace the unusual times, surprise and curiosity can quickly became sadness. The routine we were keen to install soon starts to crumble. I haven’t engaged in multiple Zoom calls or Instagram Lives – at least, not yet. But I have taken solace in nostalgia. It seems others have, too.

On Instagram, it’s been easy to see that many have turned to cooking as a way to cope. So much so that it got me into the kitchen, too. I found myself preparing classic North African afternoon (mint) tea combos as well as baghrir and sfenj, local interpretations of pancakes and donuts from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. But what I enjoyed most wasn’t just the output – which I swear was very good – it was the feeling. Cooking these sweets took me out of the fuzziness I had found myself in. This wasn’t about following a recipe, it was about connection. About calling your mother to see how she makes it, about sending pictures to her over WhatsApp and checking you were doing it right, it was about remembering moments when we were all able to sit and share this food together. Suddenly, I was gone. Not in my Dubai flat anymore. The shakshouka and handmade fries I had just prepared had taken me back to summer days in Algeria. There it was, the joy and pain of nostalgia laid bare.

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The word ‘nostalgia’, in several European languages, gets its roots from the Greek “nostos” (return) and “algos” (pain) linking it to a distress or an affliction. Arabs use the word hanin to express nostalgia. I like to see it not as pain, but as something meaningful which takes me to a fluffy, comfortable and soothing state. But make no mistake, this is not about being stuck in a moment. It’s about taking strength and reassurance from the past and moving forward with it.

The majority of my own work, whether research or art installation, is based around celebrating the “future of nostalgia”. Our history and memories can inspire us to build new futures embracing who we are. At a time when life feels like part of some bad sci-fi film, we are not just condemned to wait, we can discuss and define how we would like tomorrow to be.

Creative industries are a great example of how nostalgia can be used to heal the current wounds using contemporary tools. International museums such as Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the British Museum in London are offering digital tours and sharing online content. In our region, the Dubai arts district, Alserkal Avenue, has been very proactive by setting up access to all the galleries it houses, as well as featuring the Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi’s exhibition online. Meanwhile, Cinema Akil, Dubai’s arthouse cinema, has shared a selection of classic movies for viewing in your isolation station.

Music is part of the nostalgia movement, too, with the UAE Ministry of Culture recognising as much, organising the screening of a classic concert on YouTube starring the late Emirati icon Jaber Al Jassem and Bedouin-inspired voice of Samira Tawfik. Not that you can’t find the warm embrace of nostalgia on a new release chart, too. Enter The Weeknd, with his 1980s aesthetics and sound references that give Khaleeji fans an homage to Saudi superstar Mohammed Abdu.

When you begin to examine it, you notice that nostalgia soon flies at you from all angles. Our restricted movements took me back in an entirely different way, highlighting a time in my youth when going to the supermarket would be a major event of the week – freedom!

Previously, you might have thought of radio as dead, but here lies a freedom of space and thought. One of the most refreshing Instagram accounts right now is @radiokarantina, offering sounds and videos from isolation. Okay, not radio per se, but the Beirut-born show shares eclectic playlists, letters, images, and video collages created by musicians and artists in self-isolation. The audience dedicate songs to their friends and the Karantina team creates a personalised montage. You kind of want to climb into these videos and dance along with them.

Elsewhere, my quarantine highlight will definitely be Radio Al Hara. Imagined as a communal radio station project based in Bethlehem and Ramallah, it’s an open and collaborative platform with very diverse segments from music to culture and cooking. The plan is to extend across borders, into other places in Palestine and beyond. Finally, in the evening, I listen to Bahr al Leil (mis)translated by Midnight Ocean, a selection of cosmic, tropical, and urban fantasy music by Karim Kattan, the writer who decided, crucially, not to write during the pandemic.

The painful – but necessary – part of our lives right now is accepting that we don’t have control. For decades, we have prided ourselves on a need to be efficient and proactive. Particularly when it came to work. We would take meetings, send strict deadlines, send emails and follow-ups to those emails… but this is all redundant right now. Life is different, altered. The reality is that so many people have worked on events, projects and launches that won’t ever happen.

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But as tragic as this all is, it has perhaps offered perspective on what’s important in life. The luckiest of us are only symbolically grieving: mourning the temporary loss of our freedom of movement, or our summer plans or birthday parties, all these taken-for-granted moments that have fallen by the wayside. But these moments are all recoupable. And then, of course, how we recall it all will likely take on a rather different light.

Ultimately, nostalgia is a filter. The most ancient of all filters. It’s how we choose to remember the various episodes of our lives. But when, in years to come, I look back on the pandemic, I won’t see the virus as something that brought people together. I know in my heart that, really, togetherness was already within us. Now, I simply pray for better times.