The Souk of Dreams by Keyan Bowes

The full moon brightens the Dubai desert as Dylan follows Samar up the sand dune, having second thoughts. He has no idea where in the desert they are. He has no idea what to expect at the Souk of Dreams. And having impulsively agreed to come with him, Dylan has no idea if he can trust Samar.

They’d met the week before, on Dylan’s second day in Dubai.

This city wouldn’t have been Dylan’s top choice of places to go, especially with its anti-gay laws. But his dad moved here for a new career opportunity, his college dorm was closed for winter vacation — and travel might help him forget the messy break-up with Jackson.

Armed with guidebook and sunglasses, Dylan had stopped at a Starbucks. The strong sunlight slanted through the glass café front. A few customers sat around at leisure: Arab men in long white dishdashas, an Arab woman cloaked in a black abaya that made her pale face look ethereal, an Asian couple with a kid. He leafed through the guidebook as he sipped his cappuccino. Dubai was Las Vegas-on-sea on crack, with added Arab tradition.

A dark, good-looking guy came in. He looked like he might be Arab, but wore t-shirt and jeans, not traditional garb. Dylan glanced at him, suddenly feeling quite lonely in this strange city, and self-conscious about the shoulder-length red hair he hadn’t wanted to cut just for a couple of weeks. But here it stood out.

The man ordered a coffee and settled at a nearby table. He had eyes the color of old-fashioned toffee, and wavy black hair. Tall and wiry, he looked the antithesis of Jackson’s muscular crew-cut aggressiveness. As Dylan looked up from his book, the man caught his eye, leaned over, and asked, “You here from the US?” He sounded American, but Dylan thought he detected a slight accent. “Me too.”

Dylan gestured toward the other chair. “Come on over.”

“Samar,” said the dark guy, bringing his coffee to Dylan’s table. He pronounced it something like Summer. “Everyone calls me Sam.”

Sam was a college student, too; but his father had moved to Dubai years before and he’d grown up here. He was also back for the winter break. They talked about school for a while. Then, noting the guidebook lying on the table, Sam offered to go sight-seeing. Then they’d met every day, exploring the Gold souk, overflowing with hundreds of tiny shops glistening with gold jewelry; Dubai creek, good for a cruise in the evening breeze; even the bird sanctuary with flamingoes within sight of skyscrapers. Dylan wasn’t sure whether this could be pushed further than friendship. Smarting from the experience with Jackson, he didn’t intend to try.

“Seen enough souks, or still up for one more?” Samar had asked yesterday.

“Depends,” Dylan replied. “The carpet souk was boring – all those shops with similar Kashmiri and Iranian rugs. The Sharjah one with the antique stores was good. I’d go there again.”

“There’s an even better one – Souk al-Khwab. The Souk of Dreams.”

“What’s that?” Dylan asked. “Sounds like it sells hash or something.”

“Not in the Emirates,” Samar said. “No, this place is special. And it’s only open one night a month. Tomorrow. Coming?”

“The Souk of Dreams?” he said. Sam was leaning casually against the wall. The way the sun played on his face made him look almost ridiculously handsome. Dylan tried not to stare. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll come.”

Dylan hadn’t expected a Souk to be far outside the city. They joined a tour group, a convoy of vans labeled “Dune Adventures” headed into the desert for an evening of sightseeing. Though each four-wheel drive van seated eight, the only other passengers were a couple and their young son. The boy sat up front by the driver, and his parents behind him. Dylan and Sam had the bench at the very back to themselves.

Outside the city, the desert opened up in miles of sand punctuated with low-growing scrub. The carefully cultivated trees were absent, as were the tall buildings. The convoy stopped, the drivers let some air out of the tires for traction in the sand. Then they turned off into the desert. Dark gold dunes rose high in graceful curves against a vivid blue sky.

Without warning, the van sped up one side of a dune and side-slipped down the other in a natural roller coaster ride. Startled but exhilarated, Dylan was thrown against Sam. The kid next to the driver bounced with glee. “Yeah!” he shouted, “Let’s go faster!” The driver grinned, revved the engine and said, “You want faster?” The other vans in the convoy threw up plumes of sand as they zigzagged over the dunes. Sam steadied Dylan with an arm behind his shoulders.

At dusk, the convoy stopped on a rise. The sun set into the desert haze over the ranges of dunes as a full moon rose. Everyone got out; the drivers for a soda and a smoke, the tourists to take photographs. Dylan and Sam stayed where they were. Dylan was conscious of Sam’s face too close to his, his skin, his scent. Impulsively, he moved even closer. Then, mindful of the proprieties in a conservative land, he pulled away.

Just in time. The passengers piled back into their vans, the drivers started up and in the failing light, made their way past camel pens to the desert camp where the Adventure continued into a campfire picnic with belly-dancers.

Dylan and Sam wandered out of the straw and canvas walls of the camp to a dark spot behind it, to look at the stars, bright as they never were in the city. When Dylan tentatively extended his hand, Sam took it. That was as far as Dylan dared go before the tour guides loudly announced food and shisha water-pipes.

“So when does the tour head to the Souk of Dreams?” asked Dylan. “After dinner?”

“Nah,” said Sam. “Not the tour, just us. We’re ditching them. There’s a guy here who knows the way to the Souk.”

They found the taxi waiting among the Dune Adventure vans. “Here, get on in,” said Sam, holding the car door open. The driver spoke broken English, but Sam switched to another language to discuss directions.

“What d’you tell him?” Dylan asked, “And what language was that? Arabic?”

Sam laughed. “Nah. Urdu. Most taxi drivers here are from Pakistan or India.”

It was an unexpectedly long drive across the desert. Dylan was very conscious both of Sam’s arm lying along the back of the seat, and the growing distance from the city. “How come the souk’s so far away?” Dylan asked. Can’t be much business out here.” He turned in his seat to look behind them. “Strange illusion,” he commented. “Looks like the road’s gone.”

“It’ll be back, don’t you worry,” Sam replied.

When the driver pulled to a stop, Dylan looked around, seeing nothing but sand dunes under the big full moon. The place was totally unfamiliar. He’d known Sam all of five days. What if he had it all wrong? What had Sam planned with the taxi driver in the language he could not understand? Dylan was suddenly nervous. His watch was his 18th birthday Rolex, and he had a decent amount of cash in his jacket’s inside pocket.

“We’ll get out here and walk,” Sam said. “Good you wore sneakers.”

Dylan didn’t know whether he should refuse to move away from the taxi; or whether it was okay to go with Sam. What was this Souk-al-Khwab? He was beginning to regret that he’d told no one where he was going. His US Cellphone didn’t work in Dubai.

If Sam saw him hesitate, he did not acknowledge it. He towered over the open car door, waiting. Embarrassed by his unmanly fears, Dylan got out. Sam handed him a flashlight, even though the moon was bright enough to walk by.

“It’s got a UV bulb. We might see scorpions. They glow in ultraviolet.”

Dylan wasn’t sure whether to believe him. But he followed Sam around the moonlit dune, and then up the next one.

They’re cresting the dune, slipping a little in the sand, when Dylan sees it lying below them: A market, brightly lit, crowded with stalls and booths and rugs spread out displaying goods. Lanterns hang from poles planted in the sand, and each stall has a bright Petromax lamp, throwing a glow over their colorful wares.

A throng of shoppers mills around among the stalls. From the top of the dune, Dylan hears the hiss of the lanterns, the chatter of the merchants calling their wares, people talking and calling and bargaining. The smell of kerosene from the Petromax lamps mingles with the smells of roasting meat and camel dung.

He and Sam clamber and slide down the dune, landing in a little spurt of sand next to one of the stalls. It displays some unfamiliar looking objects. Perhaps some kind of artworks?

“Ah, Samar,” says the merchant, a tall Arab in a white dishdasha and headscarf, “You haven’t been here for many moons! Do you have anything to sell today?”

“Hello, Mahmud. I’m studying in America now. I have something small, we’ll talk later.”

“You have not forgotten the special commission? My client is still interested, very interested.”

Dylan feels a chill. Mahmud is looking directly at him, though he can’t see his eyes in the shadow of his brow and head-cloth.

“This is Dylan,” Sam says. “His father is the big boss at Engstrand Corp.”

“Ah yes. An honored guest.” Mahmud smiles courteously at Dylan, and he stops feeling like something small to sell. “Salaam aleikum.” Peace be on you, the Hello of the Arab world.

As they turn to go, Dylan can’t shake the feeling there’s something strange about Mahmud. His eyes, maybe. What color are they, anyway? He’d only caught a glimpse of them when he turned his head, and it seemed they had no whites.

They walk slowly past the stalls. Dylan hears German and French and languages he can’t recognize. There’s definitely something different about this crowd. They don’t seem quite normal. Some have pointed ears, like elves. He can’t tell if they are really good prosthetics, or an actual body-mod.

But it’s not just the ears. It’s like a freak show or a sci-fi convention. That woman over there, she has short fur all over her face and arms, gleaming silver in the moonlight. The little girl running by has a fake nose, long and curved like an anteater’s. Then the kid starts twitching it.

“Hey, Sam? What place is this, anyway? Who are these people?”

“The Souk-al-Khwab? People come here from all over’¦not just from the countries on our maps.”

A little girl darts past him, using her stretchable arms to snag things from the stalls, until her mom catches her and lifts her firmly onto her back. She returns the purloined goods, smiling apologetically at the shop-keepers.

“It’s real, right? Not just ordinary people with Teflon implants and tattooed designs. It’s real.”

Sam lays a hand on Dylan’s shoulder. “Like it?”

Dylan turns to him with open excitement. “The Goblin Market!” He’d worried for nothing. This place is amazing, and it’s cool of Sam to share it with him.

“Goblin Market?” Sam doesn’t catch the allusion.

“It’s this poem,” Dylan explains, “and it describes a market like this, with strange creatures selling and buying things.”

“They’re usually friendly people here, but they might mind being called creatures,” Sam says in a low voice.

“Oh, I didn’t mean…” Dylan quickly pulls his gaze away from the elegant man with a giraffe neck swaying through the crowd, and joins Sam at the nearest stall. This carries the ubiquitous blue “evil eye” charms he’s seen in other shops, but as he lifts one up, the blue eye gives a long, slow blink. Surprised, he drops it. It rolls in among the other charms, which all shove back with seeming annoyance, and blink themselves.

“Never mind, never mind,” says the shopkeeper, “They’ll settle down.” Dylan and Sam move on, carefully skirting a small group of tall thin individuals wearing tunics that shimmer in the lights of the souk. They turn in unison to look at him, and chorus “Salaam aleikum.” But their accents are strange, and they mispronounce the second word.

Sam stops Dylan at a display of rugs.”That’s what I want some day,” he says. “A flying carpet.”

Dylan has a dizzy sense of unreality. “What?”

“Ali has some good ones,” Sam says. “The new models, with invisibility screens and climate control.”

“Yo, Sam old man!” says Ali, “When can I sell you a Toyonda Ispahan?”

“When I’m as rich as you, you old bastard!”

“Hey, I’m not the one going to Caltech!”

“Differential equations won’t make me rich.”

“Nope, but your other stuff might. Got any tonight?”

“Small one. Mahmud gets first dibs.”

“If he doesn’t buy, come back here. Any time you’re looking for an agent. I’m your man. Some serious collectors are interested.”

Dylan looks at Sam, wondering what Ali’s talking about. Sam looks away. “Oh, I make stuff and sell it here sometimes. Pays for college. These guys buy it from me. They sell it to collectors for a bit of a profit.”

“Bit?” says Ali. “Mahmud made 70% on the last sale. I’ll work on a 20% margin. Your Mahmud’s a good businessman.”

“And you? What margin do you make on those carpets?”

“Dude, that’s different. My folks make those things. There’s a lot of technology in them. Continuous improvement over 900 years. You’re buying knowhow, man. Skill. See if you can get anything like it in this souk. Any souk. You’ll be lucky to find one that even gets airborne.”

Ali waves, and five of the rugs hanging on the frame behind him take wing, flap around the sky over the souk in a wide circle, dip over Sam’s head and make him duck, and with a soft whoosh return to their places on the frame. Dylan stares.

“There’s a whole new market waiting for you, Sam. You could be big.”

“Later, Ali,” says Sam. “Another time. See you surfing up in California.”

“Later, bro!”

A nearby booth has rows of shelves lined with bottles and cans labeled in a language Dylan guesses is Arabic but might be something else; and with spools of fancy braids and laces. “Happiness by the pound,” calls the shopkeeper, “Joy by the liter. Confidence by the quart. Misery by the meter.”

“Check out that stall!” Dylan says.

“Shuja’s stuff is overpriced,” says Sam grudgingly, but he follows Dylan.

“I heard that, Samar my friend,” calls Shuja. “My prices may be high, but my quality is the best. Has anyone complained?”

“Those who got the misery?”

“Without misery, there can be no happiness. Without tears, no laughter. The world is full of opposites. Will you buy some joy?” Shuja asks. He takes down a gleaming glass canister, embossed with unfamiliar designs Dylan finds a little unsettling. They seem to writhe under his gaze.

“Here, take a look,” says Shuja. “Just a sniff.”

He opens the container. It’s full of a fine oily liquid that almost glows in the light on his counter. Using a long-handled spoon with a tiny mother-of-pearl bowl, he dips out some. “Come nearer,” he urges, “No charge for a sample.”

Dylan looks, wondering if it’s safe to try. With a long suffering air, Sam leans on the counter. Dylan joins him. With a flick of his wrist, Shuja tosses the liquid into the air above them, where it evaporates immediately. All at once, a feeling of intense joy sweeps over Dylan. The brilliance of the night, the wonder of the souk, the marvelous kindness of his companion, they all overwhelm him, bring tears to his eyes.

Sam smiles, and Shuja says, “What a wonder this world is!” Gradually, the intensity of emotion ebbs, but a mellow feeling remains.

Shuja pulls a few threads from a brocade on a spool, and rubs it on his wrist. Immediately his face becomes more stern.

“What did you do?” Dylan asks.

“A businessman cannot afford to spend his business hours consumed with joy,” says Shuja dryly. “That was just the merest thread of misery.”

Sam shrugs. Dylan is still amazed. “How much do you charge for the joy?” he asks. “Can I pay in dirhams?”

He buys a tiny amount, which Shuja packs it in a glass phial with an aerosol top. “Would you care for some love?” he asks, “It’s sold by volume.”

Dylan shakes his head. “Love has to be free,” he says, wondering what Sam’s thinking.

“With my prices, it’s nearly free,” says Shuja. Everyone laughs, and Dylan and Sam move along.

They find themselves in the live animal section. There are camels for sale, and unicorns. Half-fledged canaries and phoenixes and infant dragons that can hardly breathe fire at all. One stall sells eggs, but the 6-packs have pictures of dragons and griffins and creatures Dylan cannot identify. “Guaranteed Fertile” reads a hand-lettered sign.

They wander on, and then Dylan sees them, his favorite mythical animal. “Hippogriffs! Goddam are those really hippogriffs?” The pens hold a small herd of them. A foal, only eight hands high, comes up to the fence and snuffles inquiringly. “Hey baby!” He allows it to sniff at his hand. It nuzzles him with its beak, looking for a treat.

“Look, there’s a feather!” It’s lying inside the foal’s pen, a plume like a long golden leaf. Impulsively, Dylan vaults the fence and grabs it.

“Move back quickly, sir!” says the stall-keeper urgently. But the warning is too late. The young hippogriff’s mother, a mare perhaps nine feet tall, jumps the fence, and hissing fiercely, grabs at Dylan with its beak. It catches only his hair, but he’s trapped.

Immediately, there’s an uproar. Everyone nearby comes closer. The merchant who owns the hippogriffs run in. “Sultana! Back! Back!” he shouts, advancing and waving a cape, but Sultana is not listening. Instead, she hisses louder, and turns her head to look at the gathering crowd, giving Dylan’s hair a painful yank each time. The merchant makes another ineffectual pass at Sultana, irritating the animal further. One strike of that beak could open his skull and spill his brains.

“Cut off his hair,” suggests somebody from the crowd, “Bring a sharp knife.”

“No, no, don’t do that!” shouts Samar, and he pushes past the crowd, runs around to the other side of the hippogriff pens, and whistles. Distracted by the crowd, the big female doesn’t respond. But the foal does. Bored with its mother’s preoccupation with its erstwhile friend, it canters over to where Sam’s standing. Keeping an eye on Sultana, he reaches out and pats the baby. “You’re a cute little chap!” he says loudly.

Perceiving a new threat to her child, Sultana drops Dylan’s hair, and wheels around to roar. Sam instantly backs off, while friendly hands pull Dylan out of reach.

“Why do you keep such a mare, Babu?” the next stallholder asks indignantly. “Who knows what will she do next?”

“What can I do? Everyone knows that female hippogriffs cannot be truly tamed. But I could not bring the foal without her.”

Dylan’s trembling a little from the shock, but he hides it. “Hey, thanks, dude,” he says. “You saved my scalp.”

Sam gives Dylan’s deep red locks an appreciative look. “Worth saving,” he says.

After that episode, they decide to leave, but Sam needs to settle some business first. They head back to Mahmud’s stall.

“Here it is,” says Sam, and draws from his pocket an exquisite tangle of gold wires. As he holds it, it fluffs up into a maze that dazzles the eye as it tries to follow the gleam on individual threads. At the center is a miniature garden. Dylan can’t tell if it consists of actual little models of trees and flowers and fountains, or if it’s an image of some sort. It looks very real.

“It needs – a touch of life,” Sam says to Dylan. “Activate it, dude!”

“What do you mean?” asks Dylan.

“Push your finger into the center,” Sam says, “and wait for a count of ten.”

Dylan does. A tingle runs through his finger, but he waits for ten seconds to withdraw it.

In the center of the tangle, in the garden, is a tiny simulacrum of himself. As he watches, it moves in unison with him.

“What is it?” he asks.

“A wire sculpture, centered on an image field. Once it’s inside the power-perimeter of the souk, any living thing can activate the image-grabbing program. Now it will exist as long as you exist.”

“Does it do everything I do?”

“Within limits. When you’re very close, within its range. Otherwise, the movements are pretty random, but bounded by plausibility.”

“I’d prefer it didn’t do things like pissing. Or worse!”

“Not likely. Unless you do it in the garden.” As he speaks, the figure sprawls on the grass. A bottle appears in one hand, a book in the other. The miniature swigs its drink and settles down to read. Without looking, Dylan knows it’s drinking a pale ale. Sam carefully sets the object on the counter, where it sparkles in the artificial light of the Petromax.

“Brilliant!” says Mahmud, behind them. “My client will be pleased.”

Dylan’s finding it creepy, this living model of him being sold to an unknown stranger. But caught off guard, he doesn’t quite know how to put that into words without pissing Sam off. Before he can protest, the transaction is over, and he and Sam are scrambling up the dune. The eastern sky is beginning to pale just a little. In the shadows on the other side, they pause to catch their breath.

“Dude. Hope you don’t mind my using you for a model,” Sam says. “You’re just perfect for it, with that hair. The minute I saw you I needed you in that sculpture. It’s my best ever piece.” He leans in, as though for a kiss. But Dylan doesn’t want to, any more.

“Is that thing connected to me somehow?” he asks Sam.

“How d’you mean?”

“Has it stolen a piece of my soul?” Even as he says it, he feels silly, superstitious, like tribal people who believe that photographs stole your soul. In his head, he can hear his ex-boyfriend Jackson’s contemptuous tones: Don’t be such a retard!

“Doubt it,” Sam says slowly.

Dylan hears the unvoiced retard anyway. He really wants to leave. They slide down the dune, go back to the taxi. The driver is asleep in the back seat. Sam thumps on the door. Sleepily, the man emerges and stretches.

Sam opens the car door, but then doesn’t move. “Get on in. I forgot something. Back in a few.”

“Okay.” There seems to be nothing else to say. So that’s what the whole friendship had been about – getting an exotic redheaded guy into the power-perimeter of the Souk for Samar’s artwork. He’s been played. Dylan supposes he should be grateful he hasn’t been robbed or kidnapped, that it wasn’t that kind of a set-up, but he’s not. A sense of betrayal washes over him as he waits in the dark

The driver, realizing they’re not leaving immediately, walks some distance away and lights a cigarette.

After an age, Sam returns, carrying something. He hands it to Dylan as he gets in the car. “This is for you,” he says. Dylan removes the soft cloth cover. It’s the sculpture. He looks at Sam questioningly.

“Just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t part with it, except to you. Wanted you to have it.”

“Bet Mahmud was not pleased,” Dylan says, not saying what he really means, not wanting to admit that he’d been profoundly shaken.

“Nah, he wasn’t. But I’ll do another for his client. Maybe a phoenix.” He leans over and gives Dylan a hug. A gesture safer than a kiss. Is the driver watching?

“Say, do you have to go home tonight?” Sam asks. “I have the keys to a friend’s apartment. He’s away this week.”

Dylan holds the sculpture carefully, thinking about risk, about Sam, about Dubai. A shining path seems to open up in front of them as the taxi drives back across the sand.

He leans over to Sam. “Sure,” he says. “I’ll come.”

Keyan Bowes‘ work has been accepted by a number of publications, including Strange Horizons, Expanded Horizons, and Ruthless Peoples Magazine. She is a graduate of the 2007 Clarion Workshop in San Diego. One of her stories was made into a prize-winning short film.

Image: Romantic view of the old souk in Darnah, Libya, December 1981, photographer unknown.