Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Caliph's House

By Tahir Shah

Tahir Shah has a lot of good reasons for moving to Morocco. He wants to escape England and the rat race. He wants to recapture the magic of his own childhood vacations in Morocco. He wants to learn more about the grandfather that had died there years ago. He wants a house to renovate, one that will allow his delusions of grandeur to run wild.

Shah gets all of that and more when he buys a crumbling palace, Dar Khalifa (The Caliph’s House) in Casablanca. He also gets three guardians (they come with the house). He gets an architect with a zeal for destruction and little interest in renovation. He gets an assistant, Kamal, that he doesn’t trust and doesn’t particularly like, but needs desperately. But mostly, he gets Jinns. Lots of them. And it turns out that jinns, invisible and usually malign spirits, can cause a lot of problems. Whether you believe in them or not is irrelevant.

The resulting (nonfiction!) book, The Caliph’s House, is a delight, a thoroughly entertaining description of Shah’s first year in Morocco. The characters he meets are almost unbelievably eccentric, like those in a zany comedy movie but all the more interesting because they’re real. His adventures are often laugh-out-loud hilarious. His first night in his new home, Shah has his very first run-in with jinns…in the toilet. Kamal manages to obtain a refund from the useless architect by throwing a feast. Shah’s world map is condemned by the censorship police because Western Sahara isn’t in the same color as Morocco. I laughed so much that my husband forbade me to read in bed when he was trying to sleep.

Best of all, the whole time I was laughing, I was learning. This book was, for me, a fascinating glimpse into a culture very different from our own. Moroccans have rich superstitions and traditions that infuse every aspect of their lives. Shah skillfully illuminates facets of Arab culture that, in this era of post-9/11 paranoia, we seldom see or bother to consider. He doesn’t ignore the fanatics; they’re there, lurking in the fringes of his narrative, but they don’t seem to have much of an influence on daily Casablanca life. I, for one, didn’t miss them.

In spite of frustrations and challenges, Shah comes to love Morocco and its people, warts and all. He lives there to this day. Having read this book, a part of me (a very, very small part of me) longs to join him.

This book does have some objectionable words, but in the context in which they appeared, they were usually pretty darn funny. 5 stars.

1 comment:

Lula O said...

Unruly sprites in nonfiction?? Sounds perfect and funny to boot! I'm all for a good laugh in these giddy times. I'm in! And I like to travel through others vicariously, since I go no where..sigh.