x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Qasr Al Hosn evokes much nostalgia

The celebration of Qasr Al Hosn has undoubtedly evoked much nostalgia, an emotion that generates positive mood, elevates self-esteem and fosters social connectedness.

Justin Thomas

For many, Qasr Al Hosn is the heart of the city, and the heart metaphor is particularly apt. The heart is the first organ to develop and its fortification is essential for life. While outward appearances may change, as long as the heart remains constant and unwavering there is continuity, integrity and a connection to our earliest past.

The past holds particular significance for Arabian Gulf nationals, attested to by the importance Arabs - since pre-Islamic times - have attached to the careful preservation of lineage (known as nasab). In my capacity as an instructor at Zayed University I have met numerous Emirati students who can proudly perform a roll-call of their direct ancestors, all the way back to the 7th century. Some can even recount the quirky, romantic and heroic deeds associated with particularly notable ancestors.

Qasr Al Hosn stands as a powerful reminder of the past, all the more outstanding for its contextual contrast with the surrounding glass skyscrapers; architectural symbols of the UAE's rapid economic progress. Perhaps more than any other structure in Abu Dhabi, this fortified palace has the ability to evoke the emotion we generally call nostalgia.

Historically, nostalgia had been conceptualised as a psychological disorder, not a sentiment to be celebrated. Derived from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain), nostalgia was characterised as a consuming desire to return to past places or lifestyles. The nostalgic were fixated on past happiness (or imagined past happiness), unable to enjoy the present or anticipate future pleasure.

The pathological aspect of nostalgia could be described as a rose-tinted retrospection, a reminiscence that selectively edits everything negative and painful, offering up a sanitised, idealised and perhaps even delusional view of the past.

Within medieval monasticism nostalgia was viewed as a key symptom in Acedia, a psychological disorder particularly common among monks and ascetics who, on some level, arguably longed to return to their pre-monastic state. Similarly, within the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition, nostalgia was termed repressive compulsive disorder, viewed as a subconscious desire to return to an earlier life stage.

However, recent empirical research suggests the experience of nostalgia is ubiquitous. And perhaps more importantly, nostalgia was, in one study of UK undergraduates, frequently reported as being experienced as a positive emotion, bittersweet perhaps, but generally more sweet than bitter.

Other recent experimental research into nostalgia has found that nostalgia generally gives rise to positive moods, increases self-regard and strengthens social bonds. In other studies nostalgia was also found to reduce how lonely individuals feltand increased the sense of meaning life held for them.

It appears then that nostalgia is more like a medicine than an illness; it tends to strengthen us, helping us to preserve our psychological wellbeing.

The celebration of Qasr Al Hosn has undoubtedly evoked much nostalgia, an emotion that generates positive mood, elevates self-esteem and fosters social connectedness. And to preserve sources of nostalgia for current and future generations is, in and of itself, an important - even medicinal - feat.


Justin Thomas is professor of psychology in the department of health science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi