Summer Reads: Basma Alnsour’s “The Time Our Friend Forgot His Phone”

This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This short story, by Jordanian writer Basma Alnsour, translated by Anam Zafar, ran in the Summer 2022 JOKE-themed issue of ArabLit Quarterly, guest-edited by Anam Zafar.

By Basma Alnsour

Translated by Anam Zafar

black smartphone on black table top
Photo by Silvie Lindemann on

When the forty-something man got back from his boring, joyless job to his fancy fourth-floor flat, he realized he had left his phone at the office.

He remembered plugging it in an hour before the end of the workday. Panic struck him, as if one of his lungs had been ripped out of his chest; confusion, longing, and sorrow hit all at once. Feeling helpless, he cursed WhatsApp, Viber, and all the other apps that so quickly eat up the battery of this incredible revolutionary device.

Then he remembered he was supposed to be meeting friends that evening. They had agreed to get in touch to decide when and where to meet. They would arrange these innocent meetups every now and then to play cards, drink endless cups of tea and coffee, grumble about their monotonous lives, and go around in circles about politics. Dinner was on whoever lost the card game: nothing fancy, usually a trip to Hashem in downtown Amman, where they would fight through the crowd for a table.

He really regretted not agreeing on a place where they’d meet up sooner, but he promised himself that he would still find a way to contact them, and that they, too, would be able to get in touch with him. Facebook wasn’t an option, he realized, because his laptop was at the repair shop—his kids had destroyed it with their never-ending video games. He briefly considered going back to the office to pick up his phone, but then remembered the horrible traffic he had barely survived on the way here. Anyway, he was exhausted and starving and all he really wanted to do was eat lunch, sprawl out on the sofa to watch an Egyptian film on repeat for at least the tenth time, then indulge in a deep and delicious afternoon nap.

And so it was out of sheer laziness that he decided to go without his phone for the rest of the day. He assured himself it was safe, and that there was no way it could get stolen. In any case, he could use the landline or his dear wife’s mobile if there was an emergency, and he needed to get hold of family or friends.

He tried to convince himself of these perfectly logical thoughts as he pressed the button for the lift that didn’t seem to want to come any time soon. Then the super popped his head out to announce that it was out of service again, and that the maintenance company wasn’t answering his calls. He was sure the building superintendent was lying through his teeth. Sly as he was, he probably hadn’t called anyone. Besides, he never seemed to hide his delight on occasions like this, when the residents would realize just how important he was and treat him with extra respect. 

When our friend finally reached his front door, deprived of his phone, suddenly plunged into isolation, gasping and wheezing and cursing the world’s tobacco companies and sheesha cafes and promising himself he’d quit smoking one day (which, of course, he wouldn’t), he flung himself on the sofa, expecting to hear the usual clang of dishes from the kitchen as his wife made lunch. But today, she looked pale and exhausted. Her nose was stuffy and she wouldn’t stop coughing. She said she felt too awful to cook—she looked it, too—and that she hadn’t even been able to call her managers before leaving work early because her phone had zero credit.

She also came bearing the good news that the landline had been disconnected because he hadn’t paid the bill on time. So, that was that: he was officially cut off from the rest of the world. He thought about his beloved phone and felt so alone. Nibbling pitifully on a cold cheese sandwich, he decided to spend the rest of the day in front of the TV. The only thing on was a reality show about outrageously rich, desperate American housewives who couldn’t decide whether to bicker with each other or swap stories about getting caught cheating on their husbands. Occasionally, he got up to make yet another cup of chamomile tea for his wife. God, she was such a pain when she was sick . . . He tried not to think about how his friends must be suffering because of his silence and hoped one of them would come by to check on him, scared because he wasn’t answering any of their calls.

But things didn’t go quite as he expected: before long, our sleepy friend felt a void envelop everything around him, and he well and truly drifted off. Suddenly, a violent banging could be heard from the front door, which swung open to reveal his mobile phone, complete with charger swinging from its behind. The phone grew and grew, sprouting arms and legs, transforming into a terrifying mechanical being so huge that its head scraped the ceiling, and it destroyed the furniture in its path as it began chasing the man with an angry roar.

To the children’s bewilderment and the wife’s agony, the giant phone then vomited out a pile of obscene text messages that the man had been exchanging with another woman. As the words gushed out from the insides of the evil device, covering the bed and the floor, climbing up the curtains and houseplants, his wife shouted at the children to go to their room “RIGHT THIS MINUTE!”

He was mortified. Someone might as well have ripped off his clothes in the middle of Hashemite Plaza while he struggled to preserve his dignity, curled up on the ground like a weak, disfigured fetus while passersby threw him disapproving—but undeniably curious—glances. Then he noticed that not only was his wife still wailing, but she was in fact complaining about her treacherous beast of a husband to a mysterious man with a thick, dyed mustache, who had suddenly emerged from their wardrobe. The mysterious man listened as she cursed fate for afflicting her with such a spouse. “Don’t worry, Ma’am, we’ll make sure he gets what he deserves,” he replied menacingly, putting on his dark glasses. Turning to the husband, he spat, “Al-Basha would like a word with you in his office. He’s invited you for coffee to discuss your Facebook posts. What blatant ingratitude they show to our government. A government that does its absolute best to take care of its citizens! What’s more, our initial investigations have shown your clear involvement in forming a terrorist cell linked to Daesh that’s planning a series of explosions, targeting innocent people and threatening the safety of this very country!”

If the husband hadn’t lost all ability to speak, he would have asked the mystery man what exactly he’d been doing inside their wardrobe. Was he, perhaps, his wife’s secret lover? His wife, who looked so respectful but who might have been hiding a man in their wardrobe? It reminded him of a joke he knew, about a carpenter who had come to fix a woman’s wardrobe that kept opening on its own as the bus passed outside. When the woman’s husband found the poor carpenter sitting inside the wardrobe, he was, naturally, suspicious. It was a great joke, but the man couldn’t laugh—he was too busy wheezing from exhaustion and trying to protect his head from flying chunks of furniture as he continued to be chased by the demon phone. In the end, the phone got him.

“I hope God exposes you to the entire world, you letch,” his wife snarled as he listened to the sound of his bones being crushed mercilessly by the evil phone. She followed this with a mighty “AAAAAAAATCHOO!”

The man got up. He looked around in a panic. His wife was peacefully sipping her chamomile tea. “Goodness, have you had a nightmare? You’re shaking, my love.”

He exploded into hysterical laughter, pulling her into a joyful hug. “Honey, are you still feeling under the weather? Let me make you some hot soup. And a nice dinner for the kids!”

“Aren’t you going out tonight? To play cards?” she asked, surprised.

And with a level of joy that matched her bewilderment, he said, “I’m not going anywhere. Not tonight, at least!”

Basma Alnsour is a Jordanian writer, journalist, and editor-in-chief of Tayki magazine, which focuses on women’s literature. She has published several short story collections and her work can be found in translation in Banipal, The Common, and the anthology Snow in Amman. Apart from writing, she is also an attorney and the former Jordanian Minister of Culture.

Anam Zafar is a UK-based translator working from Arabic and French to English. She won the 2021 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation and the inaugural Stinging Fly New Translator’s Bursary, and was longlisted for the 2021 John Dryden Translation Competition. Her translations have been published by ArabLit Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and The Stinging Fly among others. She also runs translation workshops for young people and volunteers for World Kid Lit. Twitter: @anam_translates;