Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah

# Category: Travel

# Format: Hardcover, 368 pages

# On Sale: January 31, 2006

# Related Links:

Author's website

Pictures of renovated Caliph's House or Dar Khalifa where Tahir Shah still lives.

Radio Interview with Author on WNYC

When writer and film maker,
Tahir Shah, became a father, he, like most parents, started looking to the future, and realizing that a life in organized and sanitized London would do nothing for his children's sense of adventure and simply promote cultural insularity, he decided to move his family to a place where he spent many an enjoyable day when he was a child - Casablanca! (Tahir's father was famed Sufi poet, Idries Shah, who drove his family from London to Casablanca every summer because the Atlas mountains reminded him of his home in Afghanistan, which was now inaccessible owing to the Taliban occupation)

Moving to and settling in Casablanca was no joke and even though they managed to get themselves a sprawling house which was once the palace of a former Caliph, it was in a terrible state of deterioration and urgently needed huge repairs in order to make it habitable again. Also, it was located right in the middle of a bidonville or a slum, but most troubling, it was reputed to be infested with Jinns who are attracted by empty houses (more on that later).

In those first few months everything that could go wrong, did and quite frankly, if I were Tahir Shah's wife Rachna, who had a 3-week old baby at the time of the move, I would have packed my bags and returned to London. In Morocco, house renovations rarely involve a signed contract, it's all via a verbal agreement thus resulting in a customer having very little hold on the contractor. The craftsmen would be prompt to start on a project, or several projects in the home, but they could take months finishing it.

"Why the hell can't they finish one damn thing before they move on?" I complained again and again.

Kamal would creep behind me, his head low. "It's the Moroccan way," he would reply. "We may not finish things, but we start them so well!"

"The Caliph's House" is primarily a first-person account of Shah's family's relocation to Morocco, but it is so much more. It's a journey into his ancestory, ethnicity and also a beautiful cultural peek into Casablanca, its people, customs, especially its society's close association with the supernatural, in particular, the Jinns.

"...They go by various names - Jinns, Genies, Jnun- and are believed by all to share the earth with us, living in animate objects. They are born, get marries, bear children, and die, just like us. Most of the time they are invisible to humans, but they can take almost any form they wish, most commonly appearing in the hours after dusk, disguised as cats, dogs or scorpions. Although there are some good jinns, most are wicked. Nothing gives them greater pleasure than injuring humans for the discomfort they imagine we cause them"

Tahir Shah, has done a great job of introducing Morocco to his readers and the account of the renovation of the house made for great reading although I do wonder if he went too far in uprooting his young children from their secure and stable London home and subjecting them the Caliph's House with its decay, the rat infestations, the bloody animal sacrifices meant to appease the jinns and the fetid shanty-town that surrounded the house. But then again, his kids have his genes and noting from his earlier books where he travels to King Solomon Mines in Ethiopia, the Upper Amazon in search of shrunken heads and meeting primitive tribes in Central India, nothing is 'too far' for Tahir Shah.

And then, he makes a good case for why Morocco was attractive to him. He says, Morocco was the first time in his life when he became completely alert. "...In the West, you can drift from day to day in the knowledge that society will protect you and your children. Any problems, and someone will pick you up and dust you off. But after five minutes on North African soil, I knew it was up to me to guard my family. No one else was watching them."

This rang true for me, too. When I lived in India I felt my wits were constantly sharpened because, I had to live by them 24/7. I am a lot more relaxed here in Canada. I feel in some ways my reflexes are so much slower here because I don't need them as much. That lack of safety I felt in Asia was an energizing force but also a huge concern, but is my adopted country cushioning me too much?

In closing, I really enjoyed the book. I feel like I have been given a private viewing into the lives of the people of Morocco. I have learned that while they are extremely superstitious, they are also a very proud nation, where family and honor come before anything else. You can tell that the author came to care deeply for the place and its people, every page in his 368-page book gives him away.


David D Jerald said...

Good morning lotus, This book sounds very interesting. I don't think I could pack up and go live in another country. I feel sort of safe here in my little circle. I'm not sure I could step out of it.

Lotus Reads said...

Dave, thanks for reading the review, hope it wasn't too long-winded! I know what you mean, not too many people relish leaving their comfort zone, but that is exactly what the author was seeking - the adventure of the unknown.

In some ways I did the reverse - I went from a life of crazy chaos, where every day was an adventure to one that is so organised, safe and predictable. I can't tell you which one is better, I think they both have their pros and cons.

I.oana said...

It was really nice browsing through your blog and reading your recent posts. I love life and I like learning as much as possible about it, even from others' experience. I am an artist and I would truly appreciate it if you gave me your opinion about my creatsions. Thank you

Cassiopeia Rises said...

Hi my dear friend. I am sorry I have not kept in touch. This book looks great. I would like to read it.
For some reason I could not post my poem on my blog, so I posted right on the comment page, There was no way I was going to read it aloud. I cried while I wrote it so there was no way I could read it. I hope you have time to read it. It means a great deal to me.
I will say goodbye to you tomorrow. For now have a great vacation. Love ya.............beloved

Anonymous said...

I was so pleased to read your review of "The Caliph's House". I have it on order at the library. I have even considered buying a copy. Books like this I tend to like to re-read.


lulu said...

thanks for your review on tahir shah's latest book. i had never heard of this authour but your compelling post had me wanting to read this story next. also, i'm planning a cooking holiday in morocco and i love to read books set in the country that i'm going to visit so this will be perfect. thanks!

Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Hi Lotus,
By the way, Shah is a well-recognised and your everyday popular writer in London.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, i.oana!

Thank you for stopping by at my blog - I have just returned from visiting yours. You do some beautiful work. I will defintely have to visit again. I absolutely LOVE those Romanian icons. My mom used to have one from Russia and as a child I was totally fascinated with it - I still am.

Hi, Beloved!

I will go check out your poem in a while. Thanks for letting me know.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sylvia!

Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yes, I am pretty sure this is a book you will enjoy. Like you, I love books that will transport me to another land and culture (without my having to leave the comfort of my armchair!) :)

Hi, Lulu!

A cooking holiday in Morocco sounds simply fantastic! I'm jealous, really I am. I think it will be a very memorable experience. Reading this book will definitely help you prepare for your trip. When do you leave?

Thanks so much for the visit!

Hi, Suse,

You're right, also, he comes from a family of Sufi poets and his sister is Saira Shah, you know the CNN journalist that made the ground breaking documentary on women in Afghanistan called, "Despatches: Beneath the Veil"? He's a really interesting person and I look forward to his next book.

Suzan Abrams, email: said...

I didn't know they were siblings, Lotus. I first got to know his work in London, because he shares the same literary agent with a friend of mine.
In fact, Saira Shah was feted all over the UK for this documentary. I was there at the time. What a clever family!

I.oana said...

Tank you! :) see you

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Suse!

I knew you would know Saira Shah or atleast know of her. True, they really are a well-read and well-connected family. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when they get together for a family meal. I am sure the conversation would be as delicious as the meal, if not more! ;)

Gaijin Mama said...

Sounds cool. There was also a lot of interesting superstitious stuff in Rosalind Brackenbury's novel THE HOUSE IN MOROCCO.

Unknown said...

What a cool topic to explore! I bet it is a very interesting book. Thanks for giving me all these good choices!

Lotus Reads said...

gaijin mama, welcome!

I took a look at "The House of Morocco" and remember seeing it in the bookstore a couple of times. The next time I'm there I'm going to take it off the shelf and skim through it. It sure sounds interesting. Thanks!

I do hope you will visit again, I would love to know what books are doing well in Japan. Is Haruki Murakami as big there as he is the west?

Hi, Angela!

Yes, it truly was a good read. A nice book for someone interested in the culture of North Africa, but particularly Morocco.

Booklogged said...

Another book that I'm adding to my list. This one sounds wonderful. Of course, my library doesn't have it, so I'll be buying it. That quote so describes me--I'm really good at starting, but not so good at finishing. I am always so thrilled to come to your blog and see a new review.

Hey, have a superlative trip -- good in every way.

Lotus Reads said...

Booklogged, you always say the nicest things, thank you! I am so happy you found this review useful. I wonder why your library won't carry it though?

paris parfait said...

Fascinating! Can't wait to read this one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lotus! What a beautiful review... I am definitely going to look for this book. I also wanted to say that I really love your blog. I wandered over here from Dongurigal's one day and I've been hooked! Thanks for a great site. :-) Jazz

Lotus Reads said...

Welcome, welcome, Jasmine waterfall (just love how it sounds - reminds me of the beautiful tropics). Thank you for visiting my blog and for saying such nice things about it. I had a wonderful visit at your blog earlier this morning - your post about the London bombings last year was very moving. I will visit often.

a.c.t. said...

Sounds wonderful. I love travel writing and I've never read anything on Morocco before so I might give this a try.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm so glad that Shelley introduced me to your blog, (although I now see that my book wishlist will probably grow to out-of-control proportions!)

The Caliph's House sounds like a fantastic read, and I'm off to check whether any of my local (and not-so-local) libraries have a copy!

hellomelissa said...

oh, that cover (the first one) must have tempted you to read the pages within. it's positively sumptuous!

a friend of mine who lives (sometimes) in india feels SAFER there (not in the city, but the country) than she does in the states. she feels at odds here, and longs for the warm arms of asia. interesting.

Lotus Reads said...

a.c.t - I'd love to know what you think if you give this book a whirl. Thanks!

misstreebc - thanks so much for visiting! I hope so much you can find a library copy for yourself, however, you might have to suspend disbelief for short amounts of time through the book because, as you will find out, life in Morocco is so unlike anywhere else.

Hello, Melissa! Yes, it is interesting how your friend has had the total opposite reaction :) I guess so much would depend on which city of India she lived in and which city in the US she lives in now. I went from the big bad city of Bombay to a little city in Ontario - these two cities couldn't be more different. Oh, and yes, isn't the cover just delightful? You're right, it called out to me together with the title of the book and I couldn't resist.

Susan in Italy said...

Hi Lotus,

I'm so interested in this issue of feeling safe/having your wits about you. I feel that travel in general makes you have your wits about you more than home since you can no longer rely on familiar things. Its bad in the sense that its stressful but good as well since you really do sense more of what's around you. Did you feel the stress when you first arrived in Canada? I'm comfy in Italy now but in the beginning I was exhausted just by getting the bare minimum done in a day.

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Susan!

How lovely to have you back. Can't wait to read all about your trip to Paris. To answer your question, I have to honestly say that our move to Canada was a snap. I thought it would be hard finding my bearings but there were so many organizations set up to help immigrants find their way around and the people were/are so welcoming and friendly. Also, having been exposed to much of the west through Hollywood and TV sitcoms, etc. there was that feeling of familiairity, ya know? :)

But yes, you're right, travel can be stressful but usually the good kind stress!

Jessica said...

Great review - you've definitely prompted me to read this book. I'm going to put a library hold on it right now....

Anonymous said...

( the unbelivebale story) Tahir why don't you move to Afghanistan? You can help your country.
Armani from Japan

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, as now I knew more about Morocco and Casablanca. Now I can imagine Casablanca better, Modern Casablanca is just that – a throbbing, vibrant metropolis which bears much more in common with the cities of southern Europe than other African cities. Indeed, while Casablanca’s old medina is an astonishing and engaging place to walk around, it attracts far fewer tourists than those of other towns. However, tourism is becoming more and more important to Casablanca and parts of the medina are now being restored.

Anonymous said...

hi, thanks for posting these pictures, I have just finish Tahir Shah's book the Caliphs house and wanted to see the finished project, its absolutely stunning! I enjoyed every page of his book and hope his family and still happy there. haze xx