Keys to Yesterday

"Mohannad Suleiman"

Every photograph carries a story imbued with violent nostalgia, so it dwells in the subconscious. When we tell its story, the photograph levitates like a poem, salting our tears. I don't remember if this photo was taken on a specific occasion. Perhaps it chronicles an intimate moment witnessed by my mother, who was passionate about photography (though I never once saw her holding a camera). Her fascination with photography had always inspired her to place the various branches of our family tree in ornate frames. 

This photo was taken at Studio Mansour, located in Gamal Abdel Nasser Street (my birthplace, and an extension of my heart). One of the most prominent studios at the time, it operated for years until it shuttered its doors a little before 2011. In the years after it closed down, I grew keen on buying a camera to reignite my mother's passion. She loved collecting photos, and carefully placed them in albums, organizing them alphabetically. To her, photographs were devices capable of stopping time dead in its tracks. Meanwhile, my father enjoyed keeping old documents and collectibles. 


Perhaps I inherited this sweet affliction for preservation from them; I don't hesitate before stealing old photographs or documents, even if they don't concern my life. This obsession may shed light on my subconscious plight; perhaps I’m looking to extend my squandered life. Despite punishment and retribution, I couldn’t stop collecting old objects. Whenever I stopped to examine my acquisitions, it felt as though a river were running between my feet, as memory flung me into the bosom of those good old days. 

On Eid, for instance, we carried joy’s alphabet in our pockets. And on weekends we dreamed of going back to school, if only to pick on our classmates, or to see that beautiful girl again, the one we insisted on loving in the grace of silence. We learned to love even the distance and preoccupation of our fathers, whose mystique colored the canvas of our early days. 

A photo album allows us to browse through opulent memories. We can hear echoes of our faint voices as old obsessions resurface. In a flash, our present-day concerns are neutralized by the momentum of memories held safely in a box whose keys have not yet rusted. Even the earliest existential questions we poured into our mother's lap come rushing back. 


The boy returns to the nipples of his first meal, a return that fills him with bitter joy. I don't know how to write to you, mother. I’ve built an entire language, an entire vocabulary in the years since your absence. You used to say I’d only become something when I lost everything; do I begin there? What words can I use after death cruelly claimed you? How do I leave behind your departure, or the first toy you gave me? Death has not extinguished our relationship; it still feels like you’ve not left–like you’ll never leave. 

My mother's story has not yet begun, so how could it end? Drunk on dreams of my mother in her heavens–imploring me to explore the depths of joy and love–has led me into the arms of the photo album. 

Nostalgia holds the keys to the tides of distant pasts, and ensures a return to a captivating despair, and to the ship from which we jumped as everything changed around us. Nostalgia shows us the fears we managed to hide, and reminds us of the reckless spontaneity with which we once faced the world. This is the ordeal of nostalgia: as we remember who we once were, we savor the same fate that has brought us sorrow.

Born in Tripoli, a writer and journalist editor working for the cultural section of Al-Sabah Libyan newspaper and the cultural website of Balad Al-Tayyeb. His literary texts have been published in the book “Sun on Closed Windows”.

Mohannad Suleiman
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