In the famous Egyptian film entitled ‘Ana il Madi’ (I am the Past), actor Zaki Rostom plays the role of a wealthy virtuous man who is imprisoned for 25 years for a murder he did not commit. The crime, we discover, was the result of a conspiracy between his friend’s wife (played by Lula Sedqi) and her lover, who also happens to be Rostom’s brother in law (played by Farid Shawqi).
The lovers get married after framing Rostom and getting him out of the way. But Rostom vows to avenge himself, as soon as he gets out of jail he seeks the couple that destroyed him only to find out that they had died. He discovers that they have a daughter together (played by Faten Hamama) and so he changes his planned scheme of vengeance. He marries the young girl and together with his sister (played by Negma Ibrahim), they conspire to make the girl’s life a living hell. The poor wife, faithful and in love with her significantly older husband, could not understand why he was torturing her like that.
In this film, the character played by Zaki Rostom lived in the past and was completely detached from the present. Even after the lovers had died, his desire for revenge was still burning inside of him, blinding him from seeing anything except the past and what had happened then. It is only when his wife falls pregnant at the end of the film that comes back to his senses and finally is able to see the possibility of the future through his child. When his wife finds out his real story, she understands and forgives him. His sister, however, who remains enslaved by the past, suffers a grisly demise in the end, and thus the future triumphs over the past.
It would not be inaccurate to make a comparison between the current Arab situation and this film. The past is the common thread that ties the story to this reality; everyone is seeking revenge and retaliation for issues that occurred in the distant past. They torture and are tortured, losing the present without redeeming the past whilst remaining completely unaware throughout.
If the situation continues as it is in the Arab region, the day might come when the whole region is transformed into a living museum of history that the rest of the world could visit in tours to see what the world was like when it was drenched in blood and burdened with vendettas and vengeance, all while remaining unconscious and disconnected from the events unfolding in the outside world. It is a place where man has no value for his humanness alone. His worth can only be regarded though additional attributes whether nationalistic, religious, sectarian, or gender based.
What is happening in this region of the world, which belongs to the rest of the world geographically but does not want to belong to it on a mental level or in terms of lifestyle? It is a region that is living in and is governed by the past. The population of this region, or rather this area that is immersed in the past, believe that they are living in the contemporary world. The reality is that they are living a historical legacy full of blood and hatred that controls every inch of their minds. As such, these people have become a burden on a world that lives in the present moment and the upcoming one not the lost moment that lies in the depths of the past in a history that only exists in their own minds.
In Iraq the battles of Jamal, Safeen and Karbala are still raging and consuming the minds of all warring parties. The only thing that has changed is that guns, bombs and trapped cars have replaced swords, spears and arrows. Apart from that, the rest has survived unchanged and fixed as boulder rocks. One party bombs two imam shrines [the shrine of Imam Hussein and Imama Abbas] so the other party retaliates by bombing the tomb of Talha bin Obaidullah. In fact, they wish they could bring the dwellers of these shrines back to life only so they could kill them once again. Perhaps they would do what the Abbasids before them did to the Umayyads Caliphs; after killing them they would impale them on stakes for all to see.
In Gaza, the same parties want to revive the Islamic Caliphate after ‘liberating’ their lands internally at a time when they are incapable of liberating the land occupied by external forces, and are furthermore unable of provide sustenance for the people they are responsible for.
In Lebanon, a group seeks sedition making declarations that it is in defense of the Islamic cause a common slogan employed by those seeking power and strife nowadays. They view it as the required spark that can reignite and revive the glory days of Abu Bakr [al Seddiq] and Umar [ibn al Khattab] in Lebanon. Moreover, the Libyan leader never tires of calling for the revival of the Fatimid era.
We are a nation embroiled in infighting in the name of the past and it is as though other nations never had a past with all its benefits and detriments.
Yes, we are the past. Nothing in life relates to our lives and nothing in our time has to do with the time elapsing in the rest of the world. When addressing the dominance of the past in our present world, our distinguished philosopher, the late Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, was correct when he said, “Despite all that is left of them are silent and numbered pages, bearing nothing that could instill fear in us as some in power have, and yet this is the past that we can explain but can never deny.” (‘Tajdid al Fikr al Arabi’ – The Renewal of Arab Thought’ Dar al Shuruq Press, fifth edition 1978, p.51).
But today our condition has surpassed what Zaki Naguib Mahmoud wrote about. In the past, people in power used those who clung to the past and its symbols to further their power but nowadays, those who cling to the past are the ones who use the stick against anyone who dares to deviate from the ‘righteous path’, which is only known to the predecessors.
But who are these predecessors? No one knows who they are except themselves. Some figures in the past are ultimately the ones who determine how we should think, live, eat and drink, and how our dealings with others should be despite the fact that we always reiterate proverbs such as, “Every era has its competent men” and “Every era has its own conditions and circumstances”. It seems that they are doomed to remain proverbs and nothing but.
We are no more than people who echo sayings that might have been suitable for the age in which they were said but no longer belong to ours. We have become consumers on two levels: Consumers of the products of modern civilization in our material concerns so that we have become dependent on the world. But moreover, we have become ruminators of past sayings that are fixed in our minds and have thus frozen us in a moment in time.
We, and this condition that we live, need to be reset so that the balance can be adjusted between our practices in daily life and what we adhere to in our minds. This will never happen without establishing a knowledge of the prosperous past and engaging in the contemporary world that recognizes the future and is forward-looking.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this article would be to quote the eminent philosopher Zaki Naguib Mahmoud again when he said, “Frankly and clearly I will state it: Either we live in our era with its ideas and its problems, else we reject it and close all the doors against living out our legacy. We are free to choose [between the two options] but we are not free to unite between the two thoughts” (p.189).
With respect to the choice between the two options, I would say that we no longer possess the freedom to choose between them. In a rapidly evolving world, we are left with no choice but to belong to our era. Otherwise, all will be lost and destroyed and history is not merciful to those who cling to the past.