Saturday, March 01, 2008

In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams by Tahir Shah

Category: Travel - Africa; Travel - Middle East; Travel - Adventure

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Publisher: Bantam

Pub Date: December 26, 2007

Price: $30.00

The book's alluring cover and beguiling title made it impossible not to pick up and for the most part I am glad I did.

Tahir Shah, son of Sufi poetry scholar and translator, Idries Shah, moved his young family from England for the sunshine and warmth of his childhood home, Morocco. "The Caliph's House" was Shah's first book written from his new home in Casablanca, Morocco and "In Arabian Nights" is the sequel.

"In Arabian Nights" continues the saga of the house called "Dar Khalifa", its guardians (servants) and its motley crew of visitors but it also involves Shah's search for the legendary story tellers of Morocco (
the Moroccans have a wonderful tradition of oral storytelling)and more importantly, his pursue of a time-honored Berber quest: to find the story in his heart. The quest for his heart's story takes him from the teeming streets of Tangier in the north, through the the ancient labyrinthine lanes and bazaars of Marrakech and Fez, to the solitary sands of the Sahara in the south.

The entrance to the 14th-century Bou Inania school and mosque, which like much of Fez is a place of legend and mystery.

The book is filled with an entourage of colorful characters ( including an exorcist, a blind-story teller and a Tuarag tribesman from the Sahara desert) and is packed to the brim with wondrous Arab tales and filled with the sights and sounds of Morocco which made me wish I could
summon my magic carpet and have it carry me away to this place.

Although "In Arabian Nights" is the successor to "The Caliph's House" it is very different in tone. I enjoyed seeing that there exists a corner of the world where the tradition of oral story telling is more popular than books. Also, Shah helps you realize that a story is so much more than entertainment. Here in the west we read because we want to be entertained and we want to be informed. There is no dearth of the printed word and as a result we are constantly speed reading through a book in order to get to the next one. In places where stories are passed on orally, people listen to the same story over and over and will move on to the next only after the story with its symbols and meanings is truly understood by the listener. Do we ever really "understand" the stories we read or do we just carry away a superficial message and then move on to the next book? In other words, are we being short-changed when we do not re-read a novel? Also, there is that question of committing stories to memory. Are there merits in doing that? These are just some of the questions Shah poses through the book making it a very thoughtful read.


Sanjay said...

Hey buddy.. good to see you back reading and posting! Your posts have been sorely missed. How have you been?

A truly wonderful post and I am sure to add this book to my TBR list.

I am curious about this concept of "story in his heart". Does he find it? How does he know that he found his story? Do you think this concept is a bit too touchy feely? And can one have more than one story?

Do modern day Moroccan's still believe this?

And this is not a knock against anyone, but a lot of expats who leave their adopted land and go back to their place of birth are often driven by an image of what they left behind which may or may not hold true once they return. Does Tahir Shah address this or did you get a sense of what he felt? Did he find what he was looking for? Or does he weave fact, fantasy and folklore in an closely knit fabric?

Interesting that tradition of oral story telling, while it has to be celebrated as a cultural practice and tradition, do you think it is also tied to a lower literacy rate?
Also the tradition by it's very nature is insular isn't it? For it only narrates certain stories. But one has the freedom on read any book no?

As for speed reading.. Does everyone speed read? Reading should be savored too no? The oral story telling tradition is from a time that was (I hate to use the term)"simpler" and it might seem a picture from rose tinted glasses for Tahir Shah perhaps?

I don't think one has to listen to something (or read) again to understand a story. That depends on the story. Is that how the stories in this book are? Committing stories to memory have their advantage I think in a cultural sense but nothing more I think

Just curious when you say The book's alluring cover and beguiling title made it impossible not to pick up and for the most part I am glad I did.
What was the part of this book that you did not like and was there a particular reason for that?

Thank you for this wonderful post, you have gotten me curious about this book, I loved the questions you posed and how you captured the essence of this book so well.

CG said...

I love to read your review but I am having difficulty with the colours of the text and background. Please make it more readable. Thanks.

Id it is said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Id it is said...

Good to hear from you Lotus!

"In places where stories are passed on orally, people listen to the same story over and over and will move on to the next only after the story with its symbols and meanings is truly understood by the listener." The oral tradition does owe itself to a variety of circumstances, one of which is the levels of literacy as Sanjay points out, but there is also a sombre connection that this tradition has, with oppression and deep set tragedy. There are many African American writers like Morrison, Angelou, and Jones who have brought this into the limelight. In fact just a couple of weeks ago I was reading this novel by Gayl Jones, CoRregidora, whose theme was contingent on the existence of the oral tradition that allowed for illiterate black mothers and grandmothers to pass on their stories of oppression and humiliation to their female progeny so that history would not forget the shameful chapter of slavery in the Americas.
I've read some short stories of Shah which did not impress me as much, but your write has surely put this book on my to read list.Thanks
Welcome back!

Nyssaneala said...

Welcome back!

Sai said...

Hey Lotus:

So good to see you posting! I absolutely loved this review. I love reading books written by expatriates about their own countries. Once you are out of that environment you can look objectively at it. Of course there are a lot of expats who have a romanticized view point of their mother country and are caught in a time warp.

Oral tradition is an essential part of African culture. There are stories and legends associated which get passed on from one generation to the other.

You know even in ancient India, all the mantras and knowledge was passed on from one generation to the other by narration from the "Guru" to the "shishya."

Lotus Reads said...

THanks Sanjay!

I really have missed being in blogger's land, but sometimes life gets in the way of what we enjoy.

Anyway, glad you enjoyed the review and thanks very much for your insights and comment.

You asked some great questions about the "story of the heart"...I would say this book is mostly about the search for the story, I don't recall him mentioning having found his story, perhaps that's for the next book? ;)

You asked if modern day Moroccans still believe in this tradition?

Well one of Shah's grievances is that this generation of Moroccans are so busy feasting on Egyptian soap operas and a time may come when they have no inclination to recite the stories of their culture. Thankfully that time hasn't arrived as yet.

From what I read Shah absolutely LOVES Morocco...he loves the squalor as much as he loves the old and the traditional so I think he is one happy expat. His wife Rachna, who is Indian, had a harder time adjusting but towards the end of the book, she was enjoying Moroccan life as well.

You make some great points about why story telling might be more prevalent in some places over others. Yes, it could well have to do with a lower literacy rate, but in the case of Morocco I do believe it is such an intrinsic part of the social and cultural fabric. Some part of this might also have to do with their religion. Islam lays great emphasis on committing passages of the Koran to memory. According to Islamic tradition, the Angel Gabriel recited the Holy Book to the prophet Muhammed over a period of about 20 years and he in turn recited it to his disciples. It was only at the battle of Yamahah when they feared the sacred text might me lost altogether that the Koran was written out for the first time. Today's Muslims continue to commit the Koran to memory.

I'm sure not everyone speed reads, but I think most book addicts will admit that it is a thrill for them to move on to the next's the thrill of reading something new and learning something different that drives us. Story-telling societies prefer the tried and tested, they place value not on new stories but stories that have been in circulation for hundreds of years.

What part of the book I didn't like?

Well, I must admit there was one story too many in this book and it sort of broke the narrative thread for me, but apart from what one quibble I enjoyed the read.

I hope i answered most of your questions...I do thank you for your interest in the book. Hope you get to read it soon.

Lotus Reads said...

@CG ~ Sorry the colors are making it hard to read. Did you want me to do away with the orange? Is that the rogue color, the one causing the problems?

Lotus Reads said...

@Id ~ Hello! How nice to see you here and thank you for the welcome back! You're so right, as I read the book I was reminded about the African slaves and how they had to pass on the story of their oppression through songs or the spoken word and what powerful stories those are! I was just wondering if we in the West don't do enough for the Spoken word? Books are wonderful because we have them for posterity, but story telling has its own merits, I think it helps us "see" a story better, but do we give it enough importance in our world today?

@Nyssaneala ~ Thank you so much! It's been such a long time. I'm longing to find out about your little one....will play catch-up at your blog soon.

Lotus Reads said...

@Sai~ How are you? It's lovely to "meet" all my old friends again! :)

You make such a great point of how the Vedas were passed on from one generation to the other. As valuable as the printed word is, it has made us lazy. Why commit anything to memory if it can be found simply by turning the pages of a book or today, at the touch of a button on our keyboards? And yet, there is so much more power in being able to memorize something, especially when the words are packed with wisdom and healing.

A Reader from India said...

Lotus, so good to see a post from you! How are you?

The book title is intriguing and it sounds like a wonderful read.

Interesting question you have posed about oral storytelling - I feel that while listening to a story definitely has an impact on the audience, reading helps one understand the story better. Just my thoughts.

Reminds me of two storyteller protagonists - One is Nambi, the village storyteller in an R K Narayan folktale who finds out oneday that he is unable to tell more stories to the village every evening, and the other - Rasheed Khalifa, the Shah of Blah in Salman Rushdie's 'Haroun and the sea of stories' who literally drank from the ocean of stories to keep up his supply of tales.

I picked up 'Peony in Love' at a book fair today, had wanted to read it ever since I read your review of the book.

Hope to see more posts from you!

jenclair said...

I love the title! I'm also interested in the oral the oral tradition, but maybe I need to read The Caliph's House first. Thanks, Lotus, and good to see you back!

Sanjay said...

Thank you buddy, for your response.

I can see why Shah is lamenting the turn of Moroccans to soap opera from the spoken word. But would anyone entertain the thought that perhaps the spoken word will only survive as a cultural practice, preserved as a part of history and perhaps will never be widespread anymore with the changing times? Is that essentially such a bad thing? Is there time for the spoken word to exist in the form it did before today? Sorry if my idea sounds akin to blasphemy.

I am happy for Shah and his wife Rachna that they have embraced Morocco in its present state. Good for them.

Thank you very much for your explanation about how the Koran was passed down thru word of mouth before being written down, I never knew that. You are an amazing encyclopedia of the most eclectic things.

While I have no complaint with those that speed read, don't you think they are losing something in that process of rushing for the next book, that they perhaps don't spend enough time to ruminate on what they read? If true, don't you think that the practice of passing down the same stories over a period of hundreds of years is somewhat close minded if they are not adding new stories? After all wouldn't the culture grow richer if such a process was in play? Sorry I may be wrong as I am not the most culturally aware of people.

Thank you for telling me what you did not like about the book, yes too many stories can impede the narrative at times unless they are integral to the main theme.

Yes you answered all my questions, thank you for taking the time to do so. I learned something new today.

Lotus Reads said...

@ A Reader!

Hello and thank you for your wonderful comment and especially for reminding me of Nambi and Rasheed Khalifa, you've got me thinking about other storyteller protagonists and all I can come up with is the most obvious one...Scheherazade! I think storytelling protagonists deserves its own post! How have you been? I'm going to pop over soon...I can't wait to find out what you've been reading!

@Jenclair ~ Hello and thank you for the welcome back. Yes, I think it's a great idea to read "The Calpih's House" first, I just know you will love it!

AC said...

"I don't recall him mentioning having found his story, perhaps that's for the next book?"

I think he does. He finds it when the policeman tells him his story - he talks about being filled with warmth. The policeman's story is also his, isn't it?

I felt the book was also meditation on so many things - the art of travel in a modern age, our relationship to those around us - how we need them but also need our space. Yet when we have our space we realise how much we need them again. A yearning for the olden days when things were more "simple" - not just in the replacement of stories by Egyptian TV but also the shoes (every one uses rubber soles) the toys (children amused by cheap plastic), the travel etc. A need to find the "right place" but without knowing what we are looking for until we find it.

I also found it slightly ironic that I was reading the stories fast without really taking them in - the very thing that Tahir is making a point of.

And finally, he mentions Chatwin by name and I saw the book as a tribute to Chatwin.

Anyway, a recommended read.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

this seems to be an interesting book..i think the art of story telling in inbuilt in the age old traditions of many cultures...we can also so that in india...our great sages passed on their knowledge orally...
i think each time we listen to a story again and again we grasp different pearls of wisdom. the ame story i heard as a chold will hold a different meaning once i grow up.
any ways .. its nice to see you again here..
how have you been?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Sanj

Now that we've been spoiled with a ton of books, storytelling, atleast the way the Moroccans know it, would probably generate very little interest. There is a "campfire-like" quality to's a communal,social activity which unfortunately may not suit our busy,insular lives today. Reading a book (a solitary activity) is probably more practical for many of us, no?

You make a good argument for reading more and diverse stories, but can we really do justice to most? I find it so hard to keep up with the printed word...I want to read them all and that makes it really hard to read at a leisurely pace. Guess we just have to be more discerning about what we read.

Lotus Reads said...

Welcome AC and thank you for your comment! You're right, this book touched on so many things that I wish I had the time to write a longer, more detailed review. And you're right about the policeman's story too...not sure how it didn't come to mind when Sanjay asked the question, I guess because there was one story too many which made my mind grow tired.

I guess one needs the luxury of time to really sit and savor stories. One of these days I am going to buy myself a copy of the "Arabian Nights" and read one a week..that way I hope to have atleast 7 days to reflect on each story.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Nanditha!

Thank you so much for visiting. I will stop by your home on the blogosphere shortly. Storytelling is such an art...I don't know too many people that can tell a good story. Remember when our grandmothers would make up stories so we could fall asleep? These days we read our kids "Bedtime Tales" from nicely bound books with beautiful illustrations. Nothing wrong with that ofcourse, but if they don't experience a story being told to them it's unlikely they will become good storytellers or even realize the value of oral storytelling.

You're right about how the same story will reveal different aspects of itself to us everytime we read it.

Anali said...

Hi Lotus! Good to see you back. You bring up a really good point when you talk about how much we really understand a book. There are some books that need to be re-read to appreciate the different layers of meaning.

Most of us don't have the time to do that and it is really a shame. Also as we change as people, if we re-read a book at different times in our lives, just based on new life experiences, we can appreciate a story on another level. If I read a book in high school at 15, it will be different than when I read the same book at 25, and then at 45, and so on.

mallugirl said...

Hi, I am new to ur blog and the fact that u review these wonderful and varied collection of books made me stop. I recently started reading books relating to the middle east and other cultures , out of curiosity of the shrouded world there.
As a force of habit, I was speed reading thru ur post too when i saw the content pertaining to "lack of savoring" and smiled.the west does that to us, i guess..makes us want to cover as much ground as possible in as short a time possible.

AC said...

[quote]Welcome AC and thank you for your comment! You're right, this book touched on so many things that I wish I had the time to write a longer, more detailed review. And you're right about the policeman's story too...not sure how it didn't come to mind when Sanjay asked the question, I guess because there was one story too many which made my mind grow tired.

Thank you. I know what you mean. I'd like to have seen a slightly different style for the stories - a change of font or a use of italics. A minor detail perhaps but it would have perhaps made you pause and reflect a bit.

Also, it occured to me last night that it is also about the relationship between the author and his reader - including Tahir himself who says he values his audience, replies to every email, but then cannot stand it when people intrude on his life.

Enjoying reading back through the reviews on the site - great reviews.

bethany said...

this book does look really interesting. I have been wondering about the original Arabian Nights book. Have you read that?

Anyway...I'm new! Check out my blog if you are curious:

Nanditha Prabhu said...

i had once written on story telling in my travel blog , titled "staying connected" ... there i had written on my kids listening to their grandma's stories via net... i found it amusing , but i know how much it is influencing them... even my 2 year old is good at making up stories:)

Neeku said...

Ah ! My ever green favorite :) I loved it ... and still love it !

The Pixy Princess said...

ah, I simply love books that excite the traveler in me!
Just finished "Midnight in the garden of good and evil" and it took all of my energy not to jump onto a 'plane to Savannah!

Sounds like a book for the "Must Read" list.

Ted said...

Good to see you posting! I miss your more frequent contributions.

Booklogged said...

Dear friend Lotus, it is so good to read your posts - your reviews are always so insightful. I love reading your gracious comments to others, too. Whenever I think, "Lotus" I also think, "Gracious."

Until this last year I have never re-read a book. There is much to be gained from rereading. I still feel like I miss much of the symbolism and meaning, though. The few times I've been in a discussion with a person who really 'knows' a book I realize how much I miss.

I know I am guilty of push myself through one book just to quickly pick up the next. It seems we are trying to increase the books on our list rather than our understanding of those books. One book I wish I could read and study with a teacher is The Poisonwood Bible.

Lotus Reads said...

@Anali ~ Hi! How are you? It's true, isn't it, a book can change depending on what perspective one approaches it from. I so agree with you about the time way around that is a book club or book discussions like that kind we have in 'bloggerland'. I find that the more readers I talk to, the more all-rounded my interpretation of the book becomes. Will visit you soon, I'm dying to know what you've been up to!

@Mallugirl ~ Welcome, welcome! Sorry it's taken me a while to acknowledge your comment, but I am really glad you wrote. Yes, our hectic, frenzied lives leave us so little time to ruminate over things we for re-reading, it's almost out of the question for many of us. I'd love to know what books you've been reading on the Middle East. I find that area very fascinating and I would be happy to get some book recommendations from you.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again AC! I really do appreciate you sharing your insights on this book with me. Yes, I, too think Shah's readers would have benefited had the stories been just slightly separated from the overall narrative.

Also, it occured to me last night that it is also about the relationship between the author and his reader - including Tahir himself who says he values his audience, replies to every email, but then cannot stand it when people intrude on his life.

What a great point! Also, I found a lot of this book had Tahir examining his status as a writer. It did tend to interrupt the narrative every now and again, but it didn't bother me to the extent that I found it annoying.

@Bethany ~ Great question. I haven't read the original translation, but I was brought up on the children's version of the Arabian Nights, so yes, the stories, most of them anyway, are quite familiar to me.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Bethany! I will come visiting soon, hope you have the coffee pot on! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Nanditha ~ You have a travel blog as well? I'd love to read that! Also, I think it's so cool that your mom tells your kids stories over the net, way to go!

@Neeku ~ Good to hear that!

@Pixy ~ I know exactly what you mean...these books create such a wanderlust. If you ever do make plans to visit Morocco, you will have to put 'The Caliph's House' and "In Arabian NIghts" on your "to read" list. Strictly speaking, they are not travel books, but they give you wonderful glimpses into life in Morocco. What are your travel plans for the summer? I don't suppose Savannah would be on your list, it would be much too hot in July-August, no?

Heather said...

Sounds interesting! Glad you're back.

CG said...

The orange is fine. It's the purple over the dark green. Am I the only one with this problem?

MotoRama said...

Hey Lotus,

"Story of the heart" reminds me of "song of the heart" concept from "Happy Feet"! Good to see u doing what you do best!Reviewing and saving loads of time for the rest of folks!I have tagged you in my blog! See if you got time for it!

Happy Reader said...

Interesting post!! Glad to have you back :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Ted ~ Thank you! I read two books in two weeks, I hope I can sustain that. Oct-Jan were very poor reading months for me.

@booklogged ~ Oh, I can't tell you how nice it is to "hear your voice" again, I have missed you! Thank you for the lovely things you say, you are the epitome of graciousness, truly you are. I have never read "The Poisonwood Bible", but I would so like to. I hear you about having someone to guide you through it, the symbolisms, teachings etc.. I'll let you into a secret...I am guilty of using Sparks Notes when I read a classic. I feel like it does help me gain a greater understanding of the work. Will visit you soon booklogged!

Lotus Reads said...

@Heather ~ Hey! How have you been? Thank you for the welcome back!

@CG ~ It must be a browser problem..are you using IE? It looks fine on my Mozilla Firefox.

@Motorama ~ Tks for the tag, not sure I'll be able to do it, I am not as frequent a blogger as I used to be, but I will definitely read your post. Many thanks for saying "hi"

@Happy Reader ~ Tks! :)

heather (errantdreams) said...

This sounds absolutely lovely! As usual you're adding to my wish list. ;)