The story involves a shop owner and a time-travel mirror. The shop owner tells stories of customers going through the mirror.

The shop owner playfully demonstrates the power of the mirror to customers by putting his hand inside and doing things like poking himself. Then, he tells the story of someone who goes through the mirror and had a wonderful experience.

After that, the shop owner says that that very story, told to another customer, was enough to convince this other customer to go through the mirror. However, this second customer's experience ended up much worse. I think it involved problems with his partner, and I remember a scene in which one of the customers arrives at the block in which his partner lived, only to find they no longer lived there.

It was set in an Arab-like world, before electronics. It also involved traveling between cities.

I read this story between 2015-2020. It was part of a short story book. The author is American.

  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. Where and when did you read this? Is the part story about the customer losing his partner also related by the shop owner, or do we see it through the customer's eyes?
    – DavidW
    Sep 13 at 15:44
  • Thanks! I read it between 2015-2020 in an e-book. Thanks to your question, I remembered that the narrator is, in fact, a customer going in and listening to the shop owner. I changed the question to reflect that.
    – Gabriel
    Sep 13 at 15:56

1 Answer 1


I found it by searching. I remembered that Obama had recommended the text, so I searched "Obama recommended short story". That way, I found that the story is "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" in Ted Chiang's Exhalation.

Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a fabric merchant in medieval Baghdad, discovers a new shop in the marketplace. The shop owner invites Fuwaad into the back workshop to see a mysterious black stone arch which serves as a gateway into the future, which the shop owner has made by the use of alchemy. The shop owner tells him three stories of people who have traveled through the gate to meet their future selves. In the first tale, the rope-maker Hassan learns where to find a buried treasure that will make him wealthy. In the second tale, a man named Ajib steals money from his future self, leading to misfortune. In the third tale, Hassan's wife Raniya travels forward and backward in time to protect her husband and teach him how to be a good lover. When Fuwaad learns that the shop keeper has another gate in Cairo that will allow people to travel into the past, he attempts to travel backward to see his deceased wife. Although he arrives too late, he does receive a message telling him that she loved him.

  • 2
    That's great! Please make sure you come back in a couple of days and mark this answer as correct.
    – DavidW
    Sep 13 at 16:34
  • 1
    Out of interest, which keywords did you search? Adding this info to your answer could make it more useful to other people searching for stories.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 14 at 16:53
  • 1
    Thanks for the heads up. I marked the answer as correct. I also edited it so that the keywords I used to find the story would appear.
    – Gabriel
    Sep 16 at 2:11

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