Short Fiction: Maqbul al-Alawi’s ‘Phantom of the Sands’

Maqbul al-Alawi’s “Phantom of the Sands,” in Andrew Leber’s translation, was shortlisted for the 2020 ArabLit Story Prize and appeared in the Winter 2020 DREAMS issue of ArabLit Quarterly.

It appears here online for the first time.

Phantom of the Sands

By Maqbul al-Alawi

Translated by Andrew Leber

It’s a fact—and I grow more certain of this as time goes by—that no matter how many folks we encounter as time goes by, some of their faces strike a chord deep within us. They somehow burrow into our souls, forever marking the course of our lives.

Sands of al-Dahna, eastern Saudi Arabia. Photo: Richard Mortel.

It happened to me one afternoon, as I returned home from work in the heart of the desert.

They threw me, an Arabic teacher, out in that place, while the children “of means” were appointed to the best schools in the cities—not far from home and family.

I had nobody to vouch for me, so I was forced to take a position in that far-off place.

It wasn’t entirely bad, as I certainly had a… unique set of colleagues. We called ourselves “the oppressed,” and came here to work from every part of the country. You’d find that this teacher hailed from the Eastern Province, and that one from the North, while yet more came from the Western and Central regions.

Coming from all different walks of life as we did, of course we differed in our ways of thinking and customs. But with all of us so different from each other, the diversity only helped us to bond out there in the middle of nowhere.

There was one clear rule, however. Practically every time somebody came or went from the school, especially at the end of the day, you’d hear the warning: “Don’t stop for anybody on the desert road, for any reason. There are no end of smugglers and wanted men out there.”

But on that particular day I ignored their advice. Perhaps too many warnings can make a person curious.

I was on my way, listening to the afternoon news bulletin on the car radio when—

All of a sudden I saw him there, as if my imagination had conjured him up from the desert—a phantom of the sands.

He gestured toward me, and I slowed down. I hesitated for a moment but decided to go against colleagues’ advice. I drew up next to him and rolled down the window. 

The dry, dusty air of the desert wafted over me as I caught sight of his face. Somehow it seemed different from all the faces I’d seen before. Fair and handsome, with a well-groomed beard and a neatly trimmed moustache. A gleaming white thobe fluttering in the desert winds, crisply ironed ghutra carefully arranged on his head. The kind of broad smile that makes you want to strike up a conversation.

And so I asked him, “Where to?”

He replied with a smile, “Take me to the nearest place with people.”

I motioned for him to get in, and he sat down in the front passenger seat.  He ran through a string of greetings and thanks, still smiling, as I replied in equal measure.

Eventually I got back to asking about his destination. He said the name—same direction I was headed.

After a bit of silence in the car, he surprised me with a question that felt a bit like an invasion of privacy.

“Do you smoke?”

“Yes,” I said, uneasily.

Then he asked, well, more like ordered: “Show me your pack of cigarettes.”

I didn’t like his tone, and instantly regretted offering him a ride—and ignoring the advice from my colleagues.

I glanced over and saw him looking at me as though set on some hidden plan. I took the pack out of my pocket and handed it toward him, but he didn’t move to take a cigarette …

Instead he told me quietly, “Want to make a bet?”

“About what?”

“That I can tell you how many cigarettes are left in your pack here.”

I looked at him.

“Shall we begin?” he said.

I thought it over, then posed a question of my own: “What’s the wager?”

He went quiet for a while, then said, “Get me back to my home, wherever it happens to be.”

“Sure,” I answered. “It’s a deal.”

After a beat, he said with absolute certainty, “You have seven cigarettes in the pack.”

I stopped the car and pulled over on the shoulder. I opened the pack and counted up the cigarettes. Seven!

I chalked it up to chance and smiled at him. He continued, however.

“Well, what do you think?”

“About what?”

“About what I told you. Was I correct? Shall we continue our game?”

“Correct. And sure, let’s continue…”

I became a bit anxious.

“Do you have any cash on you?” he asked.

Here I started to grow afraid. I felt for the club that I kept in the car—not far from my left hand, under the seat. When my fingers touched it, I relaxed a bit.

“Yes, I do.”

“Then I’ll tell you exactly how much cash you’re carrying.” 

He scratched his head, then said, “In your shirt pocket, you’re carrying a wad of cash worth one thousand eight hundred and fourteen riyals.”

He rubbed his nose, then went on.

“That’s two notes of five hundred, six one-hundred notes, four of the fifties, two fives, and four singles.”

Then he went silent.

I pulled the car over again, claiming that I could hear a funny noise from the undercarriage. At least, that was the excuse. I couldn’t resist the urge to count up the cash on me, away from him. I went around to the back of the car and carefully took out my wallet. Praying that he wasn’t correct, I started to count up the money…

It was exactly as he said! I started to sweat even more. I leaned out to look at the side mirror near him and found him looking back at me, smiling and sure of himself as ever.

Was he some kind of autistic savant? Or “gifted” in some other way? It didn’t seem like it to me, even if some of the symptoms were present. 

We left the shoulder of the road and got back on the asphalt highway. About five kilometers along, I reached a gas station—I’d always stop there to fill up the tank on the way in, before heading to my school in the heart of the desert. A thought occurred to me…

I stopped the car next to the attendant and asked him to fill the tank all the way. Then I turned to my guest, holding out a fifty-riyal note as I asked, “Could you get some water and some snacks from the store, while this guy fills up the car?”

He nodded in agreement, then opened the door and headed toward the small store beside the gas pumps. The idea sprang to life—I asked the attendant for the bill, pressed the amount into his hand and then sped off.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I felt I was finally rid of him. I reached the house, parked the car, ate, and slept. 

I woke up after the asr prayer in the late afternoon. I went to my car to go grab some essentials for the house. I opened the door and put the key in the ignition, then checked in the mirror to make sure my ghutra scarf was fixed firmly in place by the black agal coils atop my head. 

I reached out to the tissues on the dashboard to wipe the sweat off my face, only to find, at the bottom of the box, a single fifty-riyal note.

Fear gripped me as my heart beat faster. I jumped out of the car as if I’d been stung, looking around me for the face that had been with me on my drive home just a few hours before. 

A lost face—one that might otherwise disappear among the treacherous ruins of my memory, yet I cannot manage to forget him. 

I still don’t know whether what happened was real or a hallucination—I’ve searched and searched but never found him again.


Maqbul al-Alawi (born 1969) is a Saudi writer and schoolteacher from the Red Sea city of Al-Qunfudha, whose novels and short stories have examined the social transformations as well as major historical events within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Through novels and short story collections such as The Copt, from which this story is taken, he has sought to shed light on the realities of rural Saudi life and the ways that economic development has changed or erased traditions of the past.

Andrew Leber is an occasional literary translator currently based in various locations up and down the East Coast of the United States. He has translated works by authors such as Arthur Gabriel Yak (South Sudan); Diaa Jubaili (Iraq); Dareen Tatour, Anwar Hamed, and Atef Abu Saif (Palestine); Nahla Karam (Egypt); Basma al-Nsour (Jordan); and previous works by Maqbul al-Alawy (Saudi Arabia). His translations have appeared in outlets such as ArabLit Quarterly, The New Statesman, Guernica, The Brooklyn Rail, and several compilations of short stories from Comma Press.