x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A website’s old Abu Dhabi photos evoke sweet nostalgia

Finding old photos online sparks an emotional response tom memories of an Abu Dhabi childhood.

I’ve never thought much about nostalgia, and I don’t think of myself as a nostalgic person.

In my mind I had always understood “nostalgia” to mean pining for days-gone-by and wishing that they would come back, and I’ve never particularly experienced that.

People grow up, they grow apart, you miss them and wish the good old days hadn’t ended. There are good times that will always remain in your memory. But for me it has always stopped there. I remember the good times and sometimes have pictures to remind me how good they were. But then I move on.

That was until I got added to Life in Abu Dhabi 80s 90s, a Facebook group dedicated to all the little things that characterised growing up here, and elsewhere in the Emirates, in the 1980s and 1990s.

I have to tell you, this group really had an effect on me. I felt like I wanted to curl up into a little ball and cry. I felt that I needed to be held and reassured that everything would be all right. I felt a bit nauseous. My tummy felt jittery and my head felt light, but I couldn’t turn away. My self-diagnosis was an acute attack of nostalgia.

It’s odd, because there is no shortage of documentation on the changes that have happened in the Emirates since the country was born, over 40 years ago.

It is not difficult to find pictures that show the unbelievable advances, such that our cities look completely different now, except for certain telltale signs that we all know to look out for. Even with those clues, you need a fair bit of imagination to fully connect those old pictures to the metropolitan sights of today.

But those pictures document buildings, roads, shorelines, infrastructure. What this group encouraged was documentation of another type; the little, everyday, almost mundane things that we all had and experienced as children: the stationery you used at school, the cartoons or dubbed shows you watched, the brands of sweets and crisps you ate … all the little things that defined growing up in the Emirates at that time.

It’s amazing what you forget, the simple little things that brought you so much joy that you can’t help but smile when you see them again now.

It seems quite basic now, but for us it was the future. Pencils with lead you could replace, by taking out the old one and pushing it into the end for the new one to appear, were a must-have. A Walkman was the way to go. Special pens that erased the mistakes you made with your ink pens were lifesavers. Hanging out at a certain now-defunct fast-food place meant you were cool, having a Nintendo 64 meant you were cutting edge, and riding a white and gold taxi was a rite of passage. These were the things that defined a generation who were lucky enough to grow up here.

What makes all this even more heartwarming is reading people’s comments and realising that the childhood you thought was yours alone was actually shared with people who today cover the globe.

The group makes you realise you weren’t the only one who wrote cool farewell slogans to your BFFs on items of clothing, or who was driven mad by a coiled-up telephone cord, or who couldn’t figure out how the blue part of the brown and blue standard-issue rubber was supposed to erase pen marks.

Then there are the pictures of where people lived, the pictures of their buildings, the scenes of their neighbourhoods. All these things make the landscape seem more human and familiar.

This is not official documentation of how the Corniche used to look, for example, but a peek into personal memories people have documented, that are linked to locations other people recognise.

There are a few locations in Abu Dhabi that uncontrollably tug at my heartstrings whenever I see old pictures of them, and it’s comforting that I’m not the only one.

I’ve spent hours looking at pictures, laughing at things I didn’t realise anyone else knew about, and reading how much these things meant to people. I have often been on the verge of tears over things I didn’t realise I missed so much.

It’s not that I want to bring them back. But it’s great that they take their rightful place in the stories of childhood for me and anyone else who was here at the time. I thank the creators of this group for teaching me the meaning of nostalgia. It was a lesson worth learning.

Su’ad Yousif is a civil servant based in Abu Dhabi