The Coptic Saint of Lost Objects
The police officer calls out, waving his arms in my direction.
Can you see that you have just crossed a red light?
It is late December. I am driving past the same square that I come across almost every day when I am in Cairo. It’s the same one that I used to pass on my commute from home to school every morning growing up. I remember looking out from behind the glass window, suspended and held in time by the dreamy winter fog. There was an eeriness about the unusual quiet of a perpetually bustling city on those empty early-morning rides. Scanning the cityscape across the Nile River, I would spot the Cairo Opera House, the Cairo Tower, and the National Egyptian Museum. I mark these places in my mind’s eye every time I pass by them like a tourist visiting for the first time. As though I still need to pin them on Google Maps and follow the blue line to know how to get to them.
I continue to ask: How do I belong to them and they to me? Can I access and transmit something of them and them of me? Moving within space inside my own internal reveries throughout childhood, I never retained street names and their corresponding visual markers. I didn’t know the square I passed every morning was called El-Galaa Square until I was older. I came to notice the names of squares after the role and significance of Tahrir Square in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Through the imagined possibilities produced by the symbol of the square, I began to question and search for meaning behind other meanings. Behind images, regressions, power dynamics, landmarks, ruminations, ruptures, separations, and associations.
Your ID? the officer immediately asks.
It’s neither one nor many. It is constituted by deviation. It cannot be biologized, but it is not separate from it. It is somatic, but it doesn’t have separate organs. It is an overlap between nature and culture.
You were driving between two lanes. Did you realize this?
I am neither here nor there. I am preserving myself while witnessing that it’s a privilege to afford self-preservation without constant fear of dislocation.
Where were you heading?
I am destined to an object. We should affirm this object, but we should also negate activity that comes from an object.
He examines my ID card, turning it over from front to back several times.
I just want to tell you that I like your name. Can you pronounce it for me? It’s not Arabic, is it?
We are reminded that not everything can be integrated.
He reaches inside his pocket and takes out a picture of what looks like a Coptic Christian saint.
Now remember, look at him next time you don’t know where you are heading, and he will help you find your way.
Is this the famous saint of lost objects? I wonder. I am taken back to when I was eleven years old, on a day when I lost a watch that I really loved. It was a blue toy watch you could ask any question to, and the words “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” would appear on the display. I recall a sense of disorientation in that moment of not having this object to ask my questions to. It seemed to have fallen into the sea while I was swimming, disappearing from sight in an instant. I can see myself at my aunt’s house, sitting and sulking on a leather chair with my wet swimsuit still on, leaving a permanent water print on my seat. The grown-ups were not happy about me ruining the chair. I was consumed with searching for my lost watch.
I can hear my aunt’s consoling voice while I was crying a great deal. She sat me down next to her on the bed and told me that she had an idea. We could pray to a particular saint together who helps people find lost things, and maybe with his guidance it will appear. My aunt’s saint had a French name. It was Saint Anthony, Antoine, of lost things. The officer’s saint’s name is Saint Wanas, Coptic, Ⲁⲃⲃⲁ ⲓⲱⲁⲛⲛⲏⲥ, Arabic, القديس ونس. I look at the object in the officer’s hand, a photograph inside a plastic cover wearing away at the edges. He reaches into the cover to pull out the picture and give it to me. I thank him for the thought and tell him to keep it for himself.
Here is an offering of an image of a saint instead of a fine or a request for a bribe. He is letting me off the hook because he and I share something in common that we can silently locate. An affiliation to a minority group of Christians in Egypt. Religion is required to be written on national identity cards. Legal identity is intertwined with one’s given religion, and for Christians certain personal status matters are governed by the church rather than the state. An embodiment of histories and practices, institutions and affiliations influences the inflections of Egyptian, Arab, Christian, Coptic Orthodox, colonized, colonizing, classed, and gendered layers of selfhood.
The officer sees his gesture as a moral deed and an exchange of solidarity. Or maybe it’s an attempt at flirtation, because we also know that the traffic rules are not rigidly being followed by anyone anyway. I happen to be the one driver needing divine intervention today. He overlooks the transgression of one law for another we have in common through the idea of a shared minority identification. Mythical aspirations, connections to saints, miracles, and revelations sustain a melancholic sense of loss and longing, the fantasy of a lost object, the image becoming both a resistance and a subjugation, an act of rebellion as well as a collusion with other forces of authority.
As he gives me back my ID, his curiosity ensues… But you don’t look Egyptian. Who do you look like? Mama or Baba?
It depends where you are looking from, the margins of the image or the center. To resemble, to look like, to take from, to appear in reference to another is partial and fragmented.
Releasing me, the officer provides me with further unsolicited directions.
If you want to turn back, you can take this left and go around the square again. If you wish to carry on, you can reverse just a tiny bit, take a right, and continue all the way across the bridge toward the river.
I repeat the same drive around the square a few more times, like a Sufi dervish dancing to a beating drum or a transfixed worshipper circling the Ka’aba, caught up in the pulsating sounds of familiar traffic. Across the bridge, the scattered scenery slowly begins to turn into the tall buildings of the Manhattan skyline, merging into the Hudson River. In a state of seemingly constant jet lag, I map my direction on Google Maps, finding my way back home to and through psychoanalysis. I use the same subway lines almost every day. Yet I still search the difference in the duration of time between each train and trace the names of the different stops to decide my direction. Each potential option a yes, no, or maybe.
Yes. I’ll take the B train today.
Mireille El Magrissy is a second-year respecialization candidate at IPTAR and a photographer. She received an MA in psychoanalytic studies from Birkbeck, University of London.
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