What You Don’t See When you Look Back
by Kamal Al-Solaylee

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Scarboro Beach Bathers

City of Toronto Archives

The photographs appear periodically on my Facebook wall. Friends and acquaintances post them and reminisce about simpler, and if not better, then at least the living-­was-­easy times. A chorus of approval and a flood of “I remember when” gestures follow in the comments section as if a call to action had been answered.

The message is consistent but the content of the photographs themselves can vary considerably. They’re usually of a long-gone Toronto or Montreal or Winnipeg, but I notice the ones from Toronto more since I (and most of the commentators) live there. While existing photographic evidence of life in the city dates back to the 1850s, the golden age of nostalgia runs from the late 1940s to the early ’80s. Not surprisingly, that time span coincides with the childhood and coming of age of baby boomers, my generation. Men in suits. Women in gowns. Children living up to the seen-­but-­not-heard parenting style left over from the Victorian era (which, as anyone who’s been to a “family friendly” restaurant lately will attest is long overdue for a revival).

The streets in these black-and-white, sepia and, later, garishly technicolour photographs are sparsely populated. Public transport is charming. Gas-guzzling cars look like Matchbox toys, all boxy and collectable. Admittedly, many of the photos are posted with an ironic smirk, the digital equivalent of shopping in the trendy retro clothing and antique stores that litter Toronto’s hipper streets. Who needs cat videos or images of puppies sleeping with their plush toys when the Internet keeps churning out pictures of subway train interiors or vintage streetcars and buses on roads that look like a set from a Rock Hudson-Doris Day movie from the fifties?

I’m not above indulging in some nostalgia and blasts from the past myself. My CD and DVD collections (and the formats alone date me – digitally downloading anything is beyond my ken) stand as testimony to my refusal to move on from these late-twentieth-­century cultural artifacts. My first book, a family memoir, raised the flag for a Middle East that once existed – at least in my memory – but is no more. Still, my heart sinks whenever I see posts about life in old Toronto so I’ll admit it’s very possible that I’m being oversensitive, paranoid or worse. The pictures depict a world where only white people roamed the streets or were allowed into the frame. I can’t help but conclude that the friends who post them would have preferred it if Toronto had stayed that way: small town, white, exclusive and free from people who look like me. It’s a world of dynasty-owned department stores where only the elite knew what the inside of a plane looked like. There are no South Asians immigrants, no Arabs, no blacks or Chinese, despite the documented presence and lasting legacy of at least the last two ethnic groups at the same historical juncture. (Chinese immigration to Toronto can be traced back to the 1890s and the black community’s roots in the city, which go back to the 1830s, predate the existence of Canada itself.) Have they been excised from the collective experience that is Toronto? Written (or photographed) out of the city’s narrative – a narrative that’s heavily invested in its multicultural prowess and harmony? Incidentally, the same people who post these pictures also tend to draw attention to cheap and delicious ethnic restaurants in Toronto as if unaware that the pleasures derived from the first set of images are premised on the exclusion of the future owners of these joints.

The recent controversy in Brampton, Ontario over a flyer distributed by an anti-immigration group was a toxic mix of nostalgia and racially charged anger. The flyer contrasted a vintage black-­and-­white picture of an exclusively Caucasian gathering with a colour one that featured Brampton’s largely Sikh community. “From this . . . To this” was the editorial point. Although the flyer featured additional textual content about the “changing face of Brampton” and some census data, the two images reduced the immigration debate and the demographic shifts of suburbia to one of pre- and post-multiculturalism. Pre means good, white. Post means bad, brown.

While I’m not advancing a conspiracy theory or calling out my own friends on Facebook or elsewhere on their unintended racial obliviousness, I am suggesting that nostalgia needs to be examined far more carefully when it intersects with race, immigration and ethnicity. What you don’t see in these pictures may well be a historical reflection of the times – Toronto was, by and large, a white town back then – but it’s also typical of a long-standing tradition in cultural and social history of documenting progress and charting change through a white, European lens. My experience of this phenomenon predates my time in Toronto and is not exclusive to it.

For me, growing up in the post-colonial Arab world of the sixties and seventies meant, paradoxically, coming of age immersed in the very colonial cultural legacy that a previous generation of nationalists rebelled against. To be a cultured person or to be considered a member of the intelligentsia in the Arab world, one had to study, analyze and admire European music, books, plays, films and even dress styles that didn’t include or reference anybody who looked or talked like you. I gained awareness of my identity as a young Arab man in seventies’ Egypt, but my earliest recollections are of my native tongue framed in a Western cultural context. The European past became part of our own somehow. We fantasized about horse-drawn carriages while getting in and out of taxis in Cairo’s murderous traffic and dreamed of snowy winters during Cairo sandstorms. My father forced us to watch British ­dramas – Upstairs, Down­stairs was practically a ritual – on the giant black-­and-white TV in the living room of our downtown apartment. I think my desire to learn English came from watching Gordon Jackson as the butler Hudson on that show.

My father’s affinity for all things English was the result of growing up in the bosom of the British Empire in the thirties and forties. Aden, on the southern tip of what is now Yemen, was a British protectorate until 1967 when a socialist regime took over. Before that, it was a playground for the Brits and colonial types like my father who took upon themselves the task not only of working with the British but of reinventing them­selves in the image of their rulers. My father discarded traditional clothing and embraced wool suits, ties and hats; this in a city where the average temperature in summer was 38 Celsius.

Al Solaylee_CNE Car_r-2667It all seems more like the Twilight Zone now than actual memories. Is it possible that a large segment of the Yemeni and Egyptian societies of the fifties, sixties and seventies were actually nostalgic for a world that they (themselves) hadn’t inhabited? Or worse, a world in which they were thought of as nothing more than colonial subjects? In hindsight, my father’s nostalgia for a Britain of strict class rules and unabashed xenophobia belies a desire to shed skin, history and cultural identity in order to . . . what exactly? Set himself apart from the nationalist counter-narrative that sought to impart value to local art and culture? It’s all very hard to decipher. I don’t want to play therapist to my late father – who spent much of his forties and fifties in a deep depression and psychoanalysis – but I can’t help but wonder if his nostalgia for a lost England added to his mental breakdown and what his children felt was an isolation from reality.

And yet I not only followed in his footsteps, I took them even further when I did my Ph.D. in Victorian Literature at a British university – a choice that any hack Freudian could tell you stemmed not just from a desire to please my father and his nostalgia for all-white, superpower Britain but from my own personal nostalgia, too. For I inherited many of my father’s obsessions with all things English and old, no matter if or how I see (or don’t see) myself in then. I had a moment of revelation while re-watching The Jewel in the Crown on DVD three years ago. Adapted from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels, the eighties’ TV series set in the twilight years of British India was one of my earliest memories of watching colonial narratives in a colonial setting when it first aired on Egyptian state television in 1984-5. Its Indian characters were the “other,” to use that ubiquitous postcolonial critical term; but I identified with the Brits. In the Toronto of today, I realize that I am, was and always will be the Indian, the story’s Harri Kumar and not its Ronald Merrick. Nostalgia plays cruel but necessary tricks on us.

Shriners Santa Claus at Empire Theatre. - December 23, 1925When I first I arrived in Toronto in 1996, I was surprised to find it culturally diverse in ways that, despite claims to the contrary, Britain could and would never be. But I quickly learned that not all ethnic communities are recreated equal by the nostalgia industry. A community’s place in the history of Toronto – and the act of remembering it fondly or otherwise – depends on its origin story. If your ethnic group hailed from Europe (Italy and Greece in particular, Portugal not so much), then your neighbourhood, your food and your history – fascism notwithstanding – will be romanticized and made more desirable. It will get gentrified and turned into a hotspot of organic butchers and cupcake shops. Black-clad Italian grannies strolling College Street or talking to their neighbours on front porches evoke a desirable form of Old World Charm that their counterparts from South Asian or black communities will likely never attain, no matter how long they’ve lived in this city. When we imagine those grannies’ childhoods in old Sicilian villages I suspect many of us base our assumptions on the character of Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls, whose own trips down memory lane began on the same scene-setting note: “Picture it: Sicily, 1920. A young peasant girl . . .”

But what do we really know about the streets, food, stories and dreams of the black immigrant of a comparable age? Why is our collective habit of urban nostalgia so dependent on privileging communities and images that underline the city’s white roots and heritage?

Which brings me to those historic photographs of Toronto on Facebook and why I find them, and the nostalgia they elicit, so problematic: they advance a history of the city pitted against its multiethnic present. They repatriate immigrants by implication and homogenize the city by default. I said it earlier and I’ll say it again, perhaps there’s a hint (or more) of paranoia in how I see these pictures; but then again something like the Brampton flyers incident makes me think there’s something in this picture worth looking at. It’s the sinister side of nostalgia that studies don’t dwell on. A much-quoted and circulated recent academic research project from the University of Southampton in the UK suggests that “Nostalgia confers psychological benefits.” It goes on to add that “When engaging in nostalgic reflection, people report a stronger sense of belonging­ness, affiliation, or soci­ality; they convey higher continuity between their past and their present; they describe their lives as more meaningful; and they often indicate higher levels of self-esteem and positive mood.”

But I see nostalgia in slightly less benevolent terms. Nostalgia in the context of a city like Toronto, with its phenomenal immigration history, implies a yearning to return to an Old World order where “outsiders” and their stories are silenced. So the next time you get the urge to post one of those quaint Toronto pictures of workers digging out the subway or shoppers on Yonge Street, think about who’s not invited to your nostalgia party. Think about a wishful form of segregation, not just of people but of time periods in the life of the city. The past in one corner; the present in another.

Maybe I am that

From CNQ 91, The Nostalgia Issue (Fall/Winter 2014)

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