I might come upon it randomly, find it on the sidewalk or perhaps a forest trail during a stroll when I need to clear my mind or work out a gaping plot-hole in my latest novel project. I look down and there is a grocery list penned in looping cursive letters, or a broken locket turned brassy-green on the leaf-carpeted ground. My mind instantly races: who’s the owner? What is their story?
In my creative writing classes, I ask emerging writers to examine a series of found objects and compose a sketch or a micro-story. My amazement never ceases at the results. A sneaker in the middle of a busy intersection inspires a grim crime scene or the journey of a teen runaway. Or even a sign that someone has passed. The sneaker’s initial randomness diminishes, and the object is infused with life, like a light bulb suddenly blazing at the touch of a cord switch.
In museums where objects are deliberately and purposefully assembled, I wonder if others experience a kind of dissonance when viewing a beautiful relic. In a tragic way, it appears disembodied from its total existence. Or perhaps it’s my nature as a fiction writer to explore all the invisible filaments extending from an excavated object to its original owner and circumstances.
a bracelet from egypt
For me, this jade-colored bracelet captures my imagination in the most wonderful way. Its outward utility tells me something about the culture of a civilization, the value a community placed on ornamentation. But what of the human being who wore it? What had their life been like? Was it filled mostly with joy or woefully with unrest?
The bracelet is a gorgeous piece, a swirl of amber and yellow breaking the circumference of smooth black-speckled green glass. According to archeological classification, it heralds from a culturally thriving period as well as one marked by disease and plague. During this time, Islam is flourishing. The color green, incidentally, is a celebrated symbol of nature and life, and is the fabled favorite color of the Prophet Muhammad. Green also appears multiple times in the Holy Quran, including a lovely verse about Paradise:
They will be adorned with bracelets of gold, and will wear green garments of fine silk and brocade…What an excellent reward, and what a wonderful resting place!
I imagine how powerfully this serves as tender solace for the faithful who endure a lifetime of strife and pain—centuries ago and today.
So here’s what I see as I regard the bracelet:
Three unwed sisters, skin the rich color of palm dates, gather around their dying mother who has summoned them to impart her final wisdom. A warm breeze drifts through a high window, rustling the fringes of an embroidered tapestry that hangs above the mother’s bed. It is asar—the declining day—and the call to prayer echoes from a distant masjid.
The young women are inconsolable: their own children will never meet the matriarch of their family, the woman who raised each of them to honor her name through daily acts of kindness and forbearance. She taught each of them that to be a woman is not to submit as much as to bend so that she is never snapped from her powerful roots.
The mother lifts her weakened hand and slides the bracelet from her thin wrist. “Unto my first granddaughter shall this gift be bequeathed, Allah willing,” the matriarch declares, her voice hoarse, yet her words firm and clear. “And she will remember the hearty vine from which she was originally harvested. Each season it produces golden and red grapes, bringing joy and nourishment to those she loves …”
Or perhaps the story begins with a talented goldsmith who is charged with designing the marriage trousseau of the daughter of a beloved imam …
Or maybe the story continues centuries later when a traveling European couple discovers the piece in a hot and dusty souk in Cairo and tirelessly haggle with the merchant who insists his price is quite fair for such a gem …
That’s the power of a single found object: stories abound if we spend a bit of time with it.
—Sahar Mustafah, writer and educator
Outside Voices articles feature creative thinkers and makers from Chicago’s rich cultural community engaging with artwork in the collection.