Books for Troubled Times in Arab Countries
Book: The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah
Morocco? Troubled? Yes, even though the king has been voluntarily introducing reforms, just a few days ago, Moroccan students marched in a peaceful demonstration demanding more change. We may yet hear from Morocco during the Arab Spring (which is fast fading into the heat of summer). So let’s read about Morocco.
Periodically, I swear off ever again reading a book about someone who remodels a house in a foreign land. The smugly superior Brit or American dreams of an idyllic existence in France or Italy or Spain…buys a run down but promising hulk and struggles with the incompetent, quirky, amusing workmen who show up to do the remodeling. The author is language challenged, a romantic spirit, believes him/herself to be adventurous and broad minded, but gerts outsmarted times after time or spends too much on a project that takes too long and then blames it on the lazy, or superstitous or conniving natives.
Once again, I have broken my vow. After all, The Caliph’s House is set in a land that sounds like pure magic to me: Morocco. And the author, Tahir Shah comes highly recommended by a writer I admire, Judith Fein. Perhaps the author’s ancestor will be the saving grace, I tell myself. Shah is Afghan by birth, so surely he will deal with Moroccans as cousins and treat their religion and culture with sympathy. After all his web site talks about his many ancestors who wrote works meant to explain East to West and vice versa.
Alas, Tahir Shah is much more Brit than Afghan, and regards the Muslim religion with as much curiosity as anyone raised in a majority Christian country.
Much is made in this book of Djinns. The mischievous or malicious spirits apparently inhabit the long-empty house in droves. Shah wavers between skeptical disdain of the superstition that infects even people he considers to be too smart for such primitive beliefs and his mixture of fear and curiosity that suggest it might be wise after all to do an exorcism.
The Djinns provide a handy excuse for everything that goes wrong and for work that remains undone. They also provide a handy plot device for Shah. Because of the prevalence of the presence (or belief–take your pick) of Djinns, the author focuses on the unfortunate primitive superstitions of the workers instead of labeling those workers as incompetent.
The Caliph’s House is an enjoyable read, because Shah has a winning style and he explores many of the quirks of culture and glories of craft that he finds in Casablanca. On another level, though, the thought of pouring a small fortune into the rennovation of an extravagant mansion that stands on the edge of a slum, bothers me.
The taxi drove a little further, crossed an invisible boundary of some kind and entered a sprawling shantytown. There were donky carts, chickens, cattle wandering aimlessly about, and a herd of goats blocking the way. The afternoon muezzin, the call to prayer, was raining down from a modest white-washed mosque at the side of the rutted track. A group of boys were kicking a homemade soccer ball about in the dusty alleys that ran between the low cinder-block shacks roofed in rusting tin…At the far end of the shantytown, the taxi halted near a plain doorway set in a filthy stone wall.
He had arrived at his house. And what a house.
There were arched doorways with cedarwood doors, octagonal windows glazed with fragments of colored glass, mosaic friezes and stucco moldings, secluded courtyards, and so many rooms–saloons, studies, laundry rooms and kitchens, staff quarters, pantries, and at least a dozen bedrooms.
“Its walls were discolored with algae, its tiled floors were grimy and in need of repair. Alarming damp patches had taken hold on every surface, and a number of celings had caved in” …..etc., etc.
We get blow by blow descriptions of the destruction and rebuilding of walls, the cutting of tiles, the blooming of the garden, but we learn little about the slums surrounding the Caliph’s house, after the author’s first approach to his house, as if it is invisible. Except that the 3 main servants live there and their homes are frequently threatened by bulldozers. And oh, yeah, there are those recruiters for religious radicals who set up shop form time to time.
Obviously Shah is a magnetic writer, drawing us into his story by piling on details and appropriately ornate descriptions of the rococo decor of Morocco. We also gets tastes of the reality of this Muslim world, with its remnants of the French influence in Casablanca through a varied cast of characters.
But I swear, I’m not going to read any more remodeling books.
If you have always wanted to see Casablanca, don’t miss this video tour of Casablanca by Tahir Shah.
Have you been to Morocco? Marrakesh is the most popular place to visit right now. Where would you like to go? Marrakesh? Casablanca? Fes? Elsewhere?
The top photo is from Flickr and you can click on it to learn more about the photographer. I suggest a wonderful book blog, Biblio Junkie. Take a look at her review of The Caliph’s House. And please notice that I wrote a whole post about Casablanca without mentioning Humphrey Bogart! (whoops!)