Another Remodeling Job

Books for Troubled Times in Arab Countries

CasablancaDestination: Morocco

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!)

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

24 thoughts on “Another Remodeling Job

  1. “…the thought of pouring a small fortune into the rennovation of an extravagant mansion that stands on the edge of a slum, bothers me.”

    That right there is enough to keep me away from this book. I’m tired of the excess and people living large when so many others are in need.

    1. I guess what struck me was that the slum outside the door was kind of the elephant in the room. He mentions it in a few cases, like when his servants homes are being demolished and they move into his compound, or when religious fanatics set up shop and start recruiting efforts, but otherwise, it doesn’t quite exist.

  2. I really don’t care for these books either. Both remodeling and traveling abroad is stressful enough for me without putting the two together! 🙂 I’ve always wanted to go to Istanbul. I had been recommended once on a business exchange trip with a civic organization once. I was recommended and had the trip in my hand. Unfortunately, it was during a time when I was suffering from the only major medical problem I’ve ever had in my life. The next year, I was too old – people over 40 couldn’t go. I’ve always wondered what I missed!

    1. Welcome, first time visitor (or at least first time commenter!) How sad that you couldn’t make it to Istanbul when you had that chance. Was that a Rotary group? They do some great exchanges! And have you tried to get to Istanbul on your own? If you’re curious, there are a couple of books on Istanbul covered here at A Traveler’s Library. Come back soon.

  3. I’d love to visit Morocco (but no remodeling for me). A friend of mine from Morocco once invited us for a traditional meal–it was absolutely delicious–and you didn’t use utensils.

  4. Some I have liked, some I have not. As a storyteller, I loved Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights. The remodelling-in-another-country book I really did enjoy was Lisa St Aubin De Teran’s A Valley in Italy.

    1. Portia:
      Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve heard of A Valley in Italy, so maybe I should give it a try. And I definitely would read more by Tahir Shah.

  5. I actually love these types of foreign remodel books – loved Under the Tuscan Sun (though, yes, I’ve only seen the movie and not read the book!). This sounds like a great read, and bonus points that it’s in Casablanca.

    1. Well, finally somebody who likes this kind of book. I knew there had to be someone out there, because they sell like hotcakes!

  6. Although the book sounds intriguing- I think I will leave it for another time 🙂 I’m trying to read two other books which you have recommended- I keep downloading books on my NOOK (for future reading) and some 1/2 read…3/4s read…I think I need to finish one fully before I download anymore! PLUS I had to read all the ones you sent me- which by the way- LOVED them all!

  7. My daughter taught for a year in Casablanca. She described the city as horribly polluted and spoiled all my romantic dreams about Morocco.

    1. In the beginning of the book, the author talks about how everyone bad mouths Casablanca, and I must say the video tour that I linked to was not very persuasive that it’s the place I’d like to go. Now Fez and Marrakesh–different story.

  8. Count me as an un-fan of expats remodeling houses in idyllic foreign settings. That being said, The Caliph’s House would make an interesting read before a trip to Morocco.

  9. We are about to undergo weeks of repair work caused by this winter’s ice storms…reading about someone else’s renovation gives me nightmares!

    1. Sorry to give you the willies, Sheryl. Actually reading what he went through would make yours feel like a piece of cake!!

  10. I’m generally not a fan of these either. I find remodeling stressful enough when I do it, I don’t want to read about and absorb someone else’s stress too!

  11. As an expat remodeling in another country, my head aches to even ponder this! Of course, I had no amusing natives to deal with, unless Mr Darling counts. Somehow, I doubt he’d be amused at being called an amusing native, except for his stint as a stand-up comedian back in the ’90s…

    No djinns here, btw, not even a taniwha, just the occasional cat or chicken.

  12. I just bought The Caliph’s House to get me in the Moroccan mood before our trip planned for next year! I always like to read non-travel-guide books to get me geared up. (And, yes, we watching the news closely too.) Thanks for your great posts…so enjoyable!

  13. I feel the same way about the books about ex-pat remodelers… actually, I feel the same way about Nancy Meyers movies too. Maybe it’s my lack of satisfaction with the nonexistent state of my home renovation projects?

    Anyway, I’d love to go to Morocco and see those friezes and tiles, but not take on a task like that.

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